In the last two decades, motor racing fans have grown up with the name Sauber being part of the Formula One family. From their first appearance in 1993 at the South African Grand Prix to the present, they have competed in over 400 Grand Prix. But what about before? Before the hustle and bustle of the F1 circus?
They didn’t just appear on the scene out of nowhere with a V10 Sauber badged Ilmor engine bolted into their C12 chassis and backing from Mercedes-Benz. No they most certainly did not. They brought with them a wealth of racing experience.
Sauber had a past life, one which existed since the 1970s. It was a life of a different kind, but just as thrilling. I’m going to take you back in time, before 1993.
Before Formula One, Sauber raced Sportscars. Before Formula One, Sauber won the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Peter Sauber began building sportscars in the 1970s. He would in the next decade go on to run turbo-charged Mercedes V8 engines as Sauber became the official Mercedes-Benz factory team.
In his parents basement, Peter Sauber built the C1. It was made of a tubular frame and powered by a Ford Cosworth engine. He drove it in the 1970 Hillclimb championships, but it was Friedrich Hurzeler who drove the same model to victory in 1974.
Sauber had, in 1973, built three C3 spec chassis for their customers. This was designed by Guy Boisson and competed predominantly in the Swiss Sportscar Championship. In 1975 Boisson was joined by Edy Wiss and together they created the first aluminium chassis. This was called the C4 and only one was ever produced.
The Sauber C5 was next and it carried a two litre BMW engine. Driven by Herbert Miller the car won the 1976 Interserie Championship. It was in the following two years that the C5 would see action at the greatest race in the world. Sauber entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 1977 driven by Swiss pair Eugen Strahl and Peter Bernhard the car led its class before retiring. The following year they returned with the same two drivers being joined by Marc Surer who would go on to make 82 Grand Prix starts in Formula One. Unfortunately they succumbed again to the gruelling race and had to retire the car.
The focus changed for the team and Sauber began to build chassis for Lola Formula Two cars. Their three drivers finished first, second and fourth in 1979. One driver would become a team manager and later team principal for the A1GP Team Switzerland, Max Welti.
Together with Welti, Peter Sauber developed the M1 Sportscars and in 1981 they would see the car win the 1000km Nurburgring driven by Hans-Joachim Stuck and Nelson Piquet. The team were still involved at Le Mans that year. They entered their BMW M1 as Wurth-Lubrifilm Team Sauber. The car driven by Dieter Quester, Marc Surer and David Deacon would sadly face the same fate as their previous attempts and not finish.
Sauber would return to sportscar racing in 1982 with the C6. It was the first car to be tested in a wind tunnel and they had teamed up in sponsorship with BASF. It was during these tests that Peter Sauber built a friendship with Leo Ress who would become an important part of their journey into Formula One.
The team once again returned to the legendary French race in 1982 as supplying the chassis for the BASF Cassetten Team GS Sport using a Ford Cosworth, four litre, V8 engine inside its Sauber SHS C6. Both cars did not finish and so it was onto 1983.
As a team again in their own right, the Sauber Team Switzerland pitted their C7 with BMW M88, three and a half litre engine up against the dominant Porsche’s. This task was given to Diego Montoya, Tony Garcia and Albert Naon. The team finished 9th overall, a remarkable achievement given the performance of the Porsche cars in the day.
It was in 1985 that Sauber teamed up with Mercedes-Benz.
The team won the 1989 World Sportscar Championship with a Mercedes-Benz M119, five litre turbo V8 engine. Their drivers who made this winning transition were Jean-Louis Schlesser, Jochen Mass, Mauro Baldi and Kenny Acheson. In their cars they won every race but the Dijon-Prenois race.
1989 would also offer the greatest of all victories. After trying for a decade, Peter Sauber’s Mercedes-Benz “Silver Arrows” would conquer the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The C9 would finish first and second with the #63 car driven by Jochen Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens finishing five laps in front of its sister car the #61 driven by Mauro Baldi, Kenny Acheson and Gianfranco Brancatelli. The third Sauber C9 of Jean-Louis Schlesser, Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Alain Cudini would also finish fifth.
Sauber had achieved something that for the last decade had eluded them. They were now written in history as winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The success would not stop there and in 1990 they retained their title in the World Sportscar Championship but this time they were joined by two, young stars. Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher. Wendlinger would win at Spa and Schumacher in Mexico. Michael Schumacher would also finish second at Dijon-Prenois and the Nurburgring. Two stars were born. They returned in 1991 but this was not a championship winning season but they still managed wins in the C1 class with Schumacher and Wendlinger at Autopolis.
Whether your journey started when Sauber were in Formula One or if you remember the heady days of sportscar racing, it is with a warm smile and glint in the eye that we can look back and say thank you.
Through their highs and lows, their smiles and tears there is one thing they will not be taking away from Sauber’s history and that is they are winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Thank you to Peter Sauber for sharing his dream with us. Thank you for sharing the “C” models which have bore the letter of your wife Christiane throughout the years. Thank you for giving us Sauber.
Thank you for the memories.