Simon Arron talks to Peter Sauber, who will celebrate his 40th anniversary as a motorsport constructor this weekend.
Sauber: a labour of love that drives me cuckoo
This weekend you'll be celebrating your 40th anniversary as a motorsport constructor - an odd career choice in Switzerland, given that circuit racing is banned. What made you do it? I met a like-minded enthusiast when I was contesting amateur races in a VW Beetle and together we developed a project to build Le Mans-style sports-prototypes. If we'd looked into the economic wisdom of doing such a thing in Switzerland, there's no way it would have made sense. Luckily, the sensible approach doesn't always win the day.
Was it possible to earn a living? Building and selling the cars wasn't economically viable; we built just 13 sports cars between 1970 and 1978. But we were able to make money by running them for wealthy clients. Were there moments when you were tempted to give up? Lots! The first 10 years were especially difficult, because we lacked financial and human resources. There were many occasions when we worked late into the night. Things were particularly gruelling at the Le Mans 24 Hours. With all the preparations you barely slept for a week. If you then had to watch the cars drop out halfway through the race, it would finish you off physically and mentally. More than once I called my wife from Le Mans and said, 'That's it, I've had enough'.
That idea never lasted long ? No. I was always determined not to concede defeat in the face of an almost insurmountable challenge. Your relationship with Mercedes-Benz gradually turned things around? Yes, it began in 1984 and was a very delicate matter at first. Motorsport was still a taboo subject for Mercedes back then [the company had withdrawn from racing after the 1955 Le Mans disaster, in which more than 80 people died], but a dedicated group of the company's engineers helped us out in their free time until we became the official Mercedes-Benz works team in 1988. The following year we won the World Sports Car Championship and Le Mans, so we repaid their faith.
You brought Mercedes back into motorsport and provided BMW with the platform to line up as a works team in F1. Are you proud of what you've achieved? Definitely. And I'm also proud that I did it from Switzerland. After selling your company to BMW in 2006, you bought it back at the end of last year. How do you hope the future will work out? I'd like to lead the team back into a secure position and establish it at a good level from a racing perspective. If I can manage that, then it will be a case of mission accomplished.