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?

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