The stories F1’s bigwigs would rather you didn’t know…
Translated literally from German to English, the word ‘sauber’ means ‘clean’. Thus the increasingly muddy situation surrounding Peter Sauber’s team is poignant, especially to those who know and respect the man voted 2005 Swiss of the Year, an accolade previously bestowed upon such as Roger Federer and the founder of an Aids hospice.
Ten years ago, the team’s future looked bright. BMW had acquired an 80 per cent stake in the team, with options to ramp up their shareholding. Expansion of headcount and facilities duly transformed Sauber into a race-winning top-three operation by 2008.
But by the end of 2009 BMW had given in their notice, lining up a consortium as the buyer. The frontman of that consortium turned out to be Russell King, so Peter intervened – preferring to re-take control of the team despite having planned his retirement. He banked on involvement from former sponsor Petronas, whom he had brought into F1.
Mercedes, who purchased the Brawn team at the same time, poached Petronas. This was not the end of Sauber’s struggles, either: no grid slot existed after BMW failed to confirm an entry, while the global economy went into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover. The 2010 car was hurriedly converted to take Ferrari power, and Sauber prevailed upon peer teams to permit a late entry – eventually made possible only by Toyota’s sudden exit.
So the Sauber of today is a totally different entity to what went before, with only the team title and address remaining unchanged. Vast corridors constructed to accommodate armies of BMW personnel stand empty, while the massive windtunnel – once F1’s best, and still right up there – is used mainly by third parties owing to F1’s increasingly restrictive regulations. Meanwhile, Albert, F1’s first CFD supercomputer, loafs in a corner.
In real terms, Sauber should be viewed as the ‘fourth’ of the three new teams to hit the 2010 grid, of which number only Manor survive – albeit in a very different form to their original entry. If anything, Sauber suffered a later start, compromised by uncertainty over entry and engines. That they scored points in 2010 attests to the determination of Peter and his long-time deputy, Monisha Kaltenborn, whom he promoted to team boss in 2011.
Despite this catalogue of setbacks, by the end of 2012 Sauber trailed mighty Mercedes by just 16 points, to hold a solid sixth place and, on the surface, all once again looked bright.
This was, though, an illusion, for earlier in 2012 the grandee teams had secured a favourable ongoing commercial settlement with Formula One Management, leaving
Felipe Nasr at Barcelona in March: a month when the Sauber payroll had to be paid in instalments Sauber and the other independents with the take-it-or-leave-it scraps. From then on, these independents could not hope to take on the likes of Ferrari, Mclaren, Red Bull and Mercedes on equal terms.
To illustrate the disadvantage, last year Sauber earned $54m in FOM revenues for eighth in the constructors’ championship; Mclaren took home $82m for ninth. While others cut their cloth accordingly, Force India being a prime example, Sauber could not, in the main owing to the eye-watering overheads incurred by their facility. Imagine what they could have done with an extra $30m.
Concurrently the Swiss franc hardened: despite being pegged artificially low, it remained frightfully expensive. The result was that income from sponsors and FOM, earned in F1’s universal currency, US dollars, was worth 30 per cent less before it hit the bank.
Simultaneously Sauber’s costs rose due to F1’s switch to hybrid engines and the allied rule changes. Switzerland tightened its immigration laws, complicating staff recruitment. The calendar expanded as budgets reduced; F1’s TV ratings plummeted, impacting on commercial appeal; and controversies surrounding the sport alienated big-buck spenders.
These issues affected all teams, but Sauber, located in conservative Switzerland, were hit harder than most – forcing them to enter into marginal deals, first with a Russian entity, then signing four drivers for two cockpits.
Clearly they need strong investment, but who would stump up for an operation not even in the EU, in a country with no domestic motor industry, particularly when so much uncertainty surrounds F1? Throw in a pending EU investigation over the regulation of the sport and their future appears far from rosy.
So it was no surprise to learn that Sauber’s February payroll was paid in instalments; ditto March and April – but paid they were. Nor was it surprising that Kaltenborn was not present in Bahrain or China, busying herself elsewhere trying to secure the team’s future. Given the circumstances, the only surprise is that they have survived this long. Indeed, of 2010’s four ‘newbies’, only Sauber survive under original ownership – a clean achievement for sure.
“Last year Sauber earned $54m for finishing eighth; Mclaren took home $82m for ninth”
Are Sauber F1’s unluckiest team?