Audi in F1: A Milestone in the Legacy of the Sauber Formula One Team
Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Simran Kanthi
Audi recently announced their arrival into Formula One as a factory team, taking over the current Alfa Romeo team. The German manufacturer is set to compete in the pinnacle of motorsport from 2026 when the new regulations regarding power units come into effect. Audi will have their own engine powering the Formula One challenger.
Audi's takeover of the team completes the German trilogy, as the team has been in partnerships with BMW and Mercedes in the past. This represents another milestone in the legacy of the Peter Sauber-founded Sauber F1 Team, which has been through many ownership changes in the past. Sauber founded the team in 1970 and the name has gained popularity in the world of motorsport. By this point, you must already be curious to know about the legacy of Peter Sauber and his team's achievements in sports car racing and Formula One. Without further ado, let's move on to this topic.
Humble Beginnings and Breaking into Motorsport
Peter Sauber was born on 13 October 1943 in Zurich, Switzerland. After being trained as an electrician, he became a car salesman in Hinwil, Switzerland. This kindled his interest in cars and motorsport racing, and he competed in Hillclimb events in a Volkswagen Beetle he had purchased. This proved to be his entry into motorsport.
Sauber wasn't keen to continue his family business involved in making traffic lights. In 1970, Sauber built the C1 (racing car), wherein the C stood for Christiane, his wife's name. Powered by a 1-litre Ford Cosworth engine, it was built on a tubular frame. Sauber built the C1 in his parents' basement. The car competed in the Swiss Hillclimb Championship and was piloted by none other than Sauber himself. In the following years, however, Sauber hired drivers for further models of cars built by him. The range of the team did expand and being of the Group 6 sports car category, the team was eligible to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Sauber entered the C5 in 1977 and 1978, however, the car didn't make it to the end of the race in either event, despite leading its class. This was still something of an achievement for a team of its size and history.
In 1979, Sauber moved up a notch, producing Lola F2 chassis. Its drivers finished first, second, and fourth in the standings. The team was growing in stature and was slowly establishing its presence in motorsport.
Growing in motorsport, collaborating with Mercedes, and the Sauber C11
Growing in motorsport, collaborating with Mercedes, and the Sauber C11
The growth of Sauber in motorsport was recognisable during the early 1980s. The team shifted their focus towards endurance racing, once again, and on developing BMW M1 sports cars. The team even won in the 6 Hours of Nürburgring (then the Nürburgring 1000 km) in 1981.
Following a fresh injection of funds from BASF, a German chemicals company, Sauber returned to sports car racing. The Sauber C6 was the first car to be tested in a wind tunnel, and these tests helped the team build a strong relationship with Leo Ress, who would be instrumental in their F1 project later. In 1985, Mercedes and Sauber began their collaboration, with the former providing engines to power the Swiss team's cars in the World Sportscar Championship. The stint with Mercedes provided for some famous machinery, such as the C9 in 1987 and the C11 in 1990, which was the last Group C prototype built jointly by them. This was also the first time Mercedes-Benz put their name on the car, as opposed to Sauber having done so for previous models. The car won the constructors' and drivers' championships that season. The collaboration also gave a young German protégé Michael Schumacher a chance to showcase his skills in motor racing. While this partnership came to an end in 1991, it gave Sauber a strong footing in motorsport and the confidence to contemplate an entry into Formula One.
Sauber’s entry into Formula One
Sauber's journey in Formula One is a storied one, indeed; the team has seen multiple ownership changes during its 31-year journey as an F1 team to date.
However, it was in 1991 that Peter Sauber considered launching an F1 team. Harvey Postlethwaite joined the team as a designer, and a factory was constructed at Hinwil with funding coming from Mercedes. The Sauber F1 Team entered as a standalone team, though, as Mercedes decided against being directly involved with the team in F1. The team used Ilmor engines rebadged as Sauber engines, with JJ Lehto and former Sauber sportscar driver Karl Wendlinger driving for the team in 1993. The team's car was distinctly coloured, with a mix of dark blue, light blue, white, and a touch of yellow easily identifiable to the viewers. The team lost out on signing a deal with Mercedes, as the latter had signed one with McLaren from 1995. The Sauber Team then received funding from Malaysian oil company Petronas, with significant sponsorship coming in the form of the energy drink company Red Bull. The team ran on Cosworth engines for both seasons, finishing only seventh with 11 points in 1996 to their name.
Collaboration with Ferrari
Sauber's ties with Ferrari go all the way back to 1997. Apart from being a breeding ground for Ferrari Academy drivers and young F1 drivers, Sauber even used Ferrari engines for a vast chunk of their time in the sport. Following their low points haul from 1996, Sauber announced their move to using engines designed by Ferrari from 1997 to 2005, and gearboxes by Sauber Petronas Engineering (set up solely to build engines nearly identical to those of Ferrari for the team). The team licensed any part which could legally be licensed between the teams and even recruited engineers from Ferrari.
The Red Bull-Sauber sponsorship showed the first sign of crumbling in 2001 when Sauber recruited a relatively young Kimi Räikkönen over Enrique Bernoldi (whom Red Bull wanted to place in the Sauber seat). The team sold most of their stake to Credit Suisse, a Swiss investment banking company. Apart from Räikkönen, the team also signed future Ferrari driver Felipe Massa in 2002 and again in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, the Swiss team also invested in a state-of-the-art wind tunnel and a high-performance supercomputer to help improve the aerodynamics of their cars. And while their ties with Ferrari too began to weaken, a certain German manufacturer showed interest in purchasing ownership of the team.
BMW Sauber (2006-09)
Sauber's growth attracted BMW Motorsport to purchase ownership of the team. The German giant bought out the stake owned by Credit Suisse, with Peter Sauber retaining 20% ownership in the company. The team was named BMW-Sauber, using BMW engines throughout its tenure in Formula One. Jacques Villeneuve and Nick Heidfeld were the first drivers for the team, although third driver Robert Kubica was announced as Villeneuve's replacement mid-season, bringing an end to Villeneuve's F1 career.
The navy blue and white cars were a common sight towards the front of the field, with Kubica and Heidfeld picking up podium finishes regularly during their three-and-a-half seasons as teammates. A year after his huge crash in 2007, Kubica took his first and only win in the sport at the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix, with Heidfeld rounding out a 1-2 finish for the team. This was the highest moment for the team, and it was as good as it got. BMW Sauber could never mount a challenge for the championship, as they switched the allocation of funds towards developing for the upcoming regulation changes in 2009. This hampered Kubica's championship battle, who was leading the standings following his win in Canada.
However, 2009 could be termed as a disappointment for the team. While Heidfeld claimed a podium finish in the second round of the season, the rain-shortened race in Malaysia, points were hard to come by. Despite introducing a new diffuser midway through the season, the team only scored 36 points, holding off Williams by 1.5 points, for sixth in the standings. Having been impacted by the financial crisis of 2008, and lack of relevance of technical regulations to its road cars, BMW decided to part ways with Sauber at the end of the 2009 season.
Sauber F1 Team(2010-17)
BMW sold all their stake in the company to Peter Sauber, and the team returned to being an independent competitor powered by Ferrari power units. Although there was no involvement from BMW, the team still competed under the name BMW Sauber for 2010, as they hadn't applied for a name change.
Notable drivers such as Pedro de la Rosa, Kamui Kobayashi, Sergio Perez, and Nico Hülkenberg piloted cars under the Sauber name from 2010 to 2013, with the highlight being three podiums in Perez's sophomore season in the sport, and Kobayashi's sole podium at his home race in Japan. Hülkenberg took multiple points scores during his single season at Sauber in 2013. Sauber finished eighth in 2015, ahead of McLaren and Marussia, with Felipe Nasr scoring 27 points and Marcus Ericsson nine points in the season.
In mid-2016, Swiss company Longbow Finance SA purchased Peter Sauber's and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn's shares in the company. The team had been experiencing financial difficulties up to the point of its purchase. This ended Peter Sauber's tenure in motorsport, and Monisha Kaltenborn stepped down the following year, resulting in Fred Vasseur becoming the team principal. The team continued under the Sauber name in 2017, with Pascal Wehrlein and Ericsson driving for them.
Alfa Romeo Sauber (2018-2023)
After a failed bid to move to Honda powertrains in 2017, the team announced a five-year deal to continue using Ferrari engines. The team signed a multi-year technical and commercial partnership with Alfa Romeo in 2018. The team signed Charles Leclerc, the reigning Formula 2 champion, in 2018. The team scored 48 points, earning a respectable eighth place in the standings.
In 2019, the team was rebranded to 'Alfa Romeo Racing'. Räikkönen returned to the team he first drove in F1, with Leclerc going to Ferrari. Alfa Romeo scored 57 points maintaining their eighth place in the standings from the previous year. Points were much harder to come by for the next two years due to an uncompetitive Ferrari powertrain hurting the team's straight-line speed. The team switched focus early in 2021 to the upcoming regulation changes for 2022. In 2022, the team went for an all-new lineup in Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu, following Räikkönen's retirement from the sport and ending the contract with Antonio Giovinazzi. The team has continued with the 'C' nomenclature for its cars, with the 2022 challenger called 'C42'.
The partnership with Alfa Romeo is set to end after the 2023 season, with the team set to run under the Sauber name until 2025.
Audi (2026 onwards)
Audi announced their takeover of the Sauber outfit from 2026 and is set to compete as a works team in Formula One. The arrival of Audi is set to coincide with the new engine regulations coming into play, which sees the MGU-H being ditched in favour of simpler, more efficient engines. The arrival of Audi is set to be a big move for the Swiss outfit, with the possibility of the team competing with the top teams of the sport in a few years from the German giant's arrival.