Fifty years of Sauber Motorsport history isn’t the work of a single moment. It’s a tale of perseverance, of team work, of late nights and early mornings. It is a story built by thousands of people who, at some stage in this last half century, have contributed to create something magic.
It is, mostly, a story of and by people: most of them working in the shadows, putting long hours at HQ, in the back of a garage or in the motorhome, away from the limelight. Others – the team principals, the decision-makers – becoming household names, being the faces people would recognise and associate with the team.
Over the last fifty years, none more so than the drivers has represented the Sauber Motorsport team in the collective imagination. The men (and a few women), clad in their race suits, faces hidden by helmets and enclosed in their cockpits: and yet, so known, admired, loved, their faces recognisable, their names unforgettable.
From the beginnings, in hillclimbs and sportscars, to the heady years of Formula One, many drivers have sat at the wheel of Sauber cars designed and built in Hinwil: some did so just once, others for years; 29 of them competed in an F1 Grand Prix in one. Each of these drivers has written a page – some a chapter – in the team’s proud history. Today, in it’s 50th year, Sauber honour’s that legacy and reflect’s on it’s heritage.
We take a look back to 15 drivers who, with their work, have contributed to making Sauber Motorsport what it is today. This selection is not about success, wins or podiums: it is meant to shine a light on drivers who, one way or another, came to represent an era for the team; drivers who set a marker in the history of this plucky team from Switzerland; or who went on to do great things later in their career, holding Sauber dear within their hearts for all the good times spent together.
Many drivers have graced the Sauber Motorsport cars in the last fifty years; many more will do so in the coming decades. All shared the passion that drives them on.
Over a career spanning nearly five decades, the Frenchman won in single-seaters, sportscars and in cross-country rallies, cementing his reputation as one of motorsport’s most versatile drivers. Remembered within Formula One circles for his unfortunate clash with Ayrton Senna at the 1988 Italian Grand Prix, Schlesser joined Sauber in the same year as part of its World Sportscar Championship squad, winning the title the following season and doubling up in 1990. A switch to off-road racing saw him start building his own dune buggies, and success in the Dakar Rally came in 1999 and 2000.
A veteran of 114 Formula One GPs and winner of the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, Mass enjoyed a long and successful career in sportscars on both sides of the Atlantic, claiming accolades such as the 12h of Sebring in 1987. The German, who would go on to commentate Formula One for broadcaster RTL, finished runner-up in the World Sportscar Championship twice – both times to his Sauber team-mates – but his most prestigious success for the team remains the 1989 24h of Le Mans, which he won in partnership with Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens.
The Italian driver joined Sauber after a Formula One career that included a stint as an Alfa Romeo driver. His move to the Swiss team coincided with its hugely successful years in the World Sportscar Championship. Baldi finished second in the 24h of Le Mans in 1989 (he’ll win the race in 1994) before claiming the world title in 1990, ex aequo with team-mate Jean-Louis Schlesser. He left the team at the end of the season, and he went on to win the 24h of Daytona and the 12h of Sebring as late as 1998.
A name that to many fans evokes Formula One itself; a man that needs no introduction. Before becoming legend in motorsport’s flagship series, winning a yet-unmatched seven World Championship titles, Schumacher was part of a dream-team of young Mercedes drivers, competing for Sauber in 1990 and 1991. Alongside Karl Wendlinger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen – both of whom later made their debut in F1 with Sauber – he competed in the World Sportscar Championship, winning a race in each season. Of course, a first appearance in Spa-Francorchamps for Jordan in Formula One heralded the career we all know – but it was in a Sauber sportscar that Schumacher first competed on the world stage.
Karl Wendlinger embodied the team’s transition from sportscars to Formula One. A member of the junior group of talents competing for Sauber in 1990 and 1991, he achieved a best result of fifth in the World Sportscar Championship before making the jump to Formula One at the end of the 1991 season, with Leyton House. When Sauber joined Formula One, he was one of the drivers – alongside Finn JJ Lehto – to take the wheel during the team’s debut race. Seven points and 12th in the drivers’ championship were a good return for the Austrian. Retained by the team in 1994, he finished fourth in that year’s tragic San Marino GP, before missing out on the rest of the season following a crash during qualifying for the following race in Monaco. A return to the team in 1995 was not successful and prompted a return to sportscar racing – but Karl Wendlinger remains firmly in Sauber Motorsport lore.
Another star-in-the-making from the youth intake of 1990, Heinz-Harald Frentzen would go on to compete for the team in various championships and several instances. A podium in the World Sportscar Championship in 1990 was followed by an adventure in F3000, but Sauber came calling again in 1994, the start of a long career in Formula One. Frentzen scored the team’s first ever podium, at the 1995 Italian Grand Prix – a date that will live forever in the history of Sauber Motorsport. A solid 1996 season was rewarded with a move to Williams, where Frentzen would score his first F1 win; a championship challenge with Jordan in 1999 heralded three more wins, establishing the German as one of the front-runners in one of the topsy-turviest campaigns in recent times. A return to Sauber for one race, replacing the suspended Felipe Massa in the 2002 USA Grand Prix, resulted in Frentzen being hired by the team once more for 2003, his final year in the sport.
Few drivers have inspired and entertained Formula One fans as much as Kimi Räikkönen. His debut for Sauber in 2001 turned heads: here was a rookie, with less than 30 single-seater races under his belt, scoring points in his first race; being heralded as a world champion of the future; and, by the end of the season, securing a big move to front-runners McLaren. But what made Kimi special was not just his incredible skill behind the wheel: it was the unflappable, steely Nordic mentality, his determination and his unique attitude to motorsport. He was, and remains, a driver whose focus is on racing, his great passion. The anticipated world championship title duly arrived, in 2007, his first year with Ferrari, alongside 21 victories, the latest in 2018. In 2019, Räikkönen, now one of the most experienced drivers on the grid, returned to the team that gave him his debut: a team where he had left friends and colleagues who were as keen to see him back as were the million of fans the Iceman gathered around the world. That story continues…
Looking back at Sauber Motorsport’s Formula One statistics, the name of Nick Heidfeld strikes a powerful figure. With 125 races for the team, he is the longest-serving driver to compete for the Swiss outfit and his 9 podiums put him at the top of the team’s tally alongside team-mate Robert Kubica. Heidfeld competed for the team from 2001 to 2003, before returning in 2006 at the beginning of the partnership with BMW and contributing to the creation of the team’s most successful period. He was one half of the driver line-up in that famous 2008 Canadian Grand Prix, where the team scored a 1-2 – Sauber’s finest moment so far. Following the end of his Formula One career, in 2011, he switched to endurance racing and Formula E, winning the 24h of Le Mans in 2014.
A young Felipe Massa made his debut with Sauber in 2003, a year where the Brazilian showed glimpses of the talent that would make him so nearly a world champion five years later. A fifth place at the Spanish Grand Prix was the highlight of his debut season, before Massa spent a year on extensive testing duties with then-engine supplier Ferrari. Returning to Sauber in 2004, a much more rounded and consistent driver, he paired experienced team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella and produced some eye-catching performances, such as fourth place in Belgium. A strong 2005 season alongside Jacques Villeneuve earned Massa a call-up to Ferrari, where he would score wins and finish only one point away from the title in 2008. Injury in 2009 could not stop the affable Brazilian, who would go on racing at the top level of motorsport until 2017, another long career launched by Sauber Motorsport.
Jacques Villeneuve joined Sauber with a Formula One title already under his belt – the first driver to do so. The 1997 champion joined in 2005, partnering Felipe Massa, and was retained for 2006 when the team joined forces with BMW. Three finishes in the points in his first season for the team were followed by four top-eight results in 2006, but Villeneuve and the team parted company halfway through the season; the Canadian was replaced by Robert Kubica. Nevertheless, Villeneuve’s experience at Sauber was the harbinger of the team’s impressive rise in the standings that would follow…
One of the most gifted drivers to ever grace not just the team, but the sport in general, Robert Kubica made an impression from day one. Drafted in to replace the injured Jacques Villeneuve at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2006, the Pole immediately scored – only for his race result to be voided by a technical infringement. Nevertheless, it took Kubica just three races to finish on the podium, in Monza. Over the following three seasons, he would establish himself as one of the fastest drivers on the grid, claiming nine podiums with the team, including a famous win at the 2008 Canadian Grand Prix. Kubica would finish fourth in the championship in that season, after being in contention for the title until the closing stages of the year. He would depart the team at the end of the 2009 season, claiming further podiums the following season with Renault. A lengthy absence from the sport, following a rallying accident in early 2011, ended in 2018 when Kubica was announced as Williams reserve driver, followed one year later by a season as race driver. In 2020, the Pole was finally reunited with the team that gave him his Formula One debut and halcyon years in the sport.
Sebastian Vettel only had one start for Sauber – the 2007 United States Grand Prix, in which he deputised for the injured Robert Kubica. And still, his appearance was full of significance – the latest in a long series of talented drivers making their debut in a car built in Hinwil. Already in that first race, Vettel showed talent and maturity that belied his age, finishing in the points. The following season, the German would claim his first race for Toro Rosso and three years later, in 2010, he would win the first of four consecutive world championships for Red Bull, writing his name in the history books.
Few drivers can claim to be as clinical as Sergio Perez when the opportunity for a podium presents itself. The Mexican, who debuted for Sauber at the 2011 Australian Grand Prix, finishing in the points (although a post-race disqualification saw that result nullified), has made a career for himself as one of the midfield’s most effective performers, with eight podiums to his name. Perez’s most impressive year with the team was 2012, when he made the most of his C31 to claim three podiums in Malaysia, Canada and Italy, nearly winning in Sepang. These performances earned him a call-up to McLaren, before Perez went on to lead the Force India team, burnishing his image as a quick and reliable driver.
Talent is evident when you first spot it, and this was the case with Charles Leclerc. A dominant season in F2 was followed by his debut with Sauber in 2018, a year when he measured himself with the best drivers in the world and came out with his reputation enhanced and a call-up to Ferrari for 2019. From his first points in Baku to the pure magic delivered in a wet qualifying session in Brazil, the Monegasque driver produced a brilliant debut season, finishing in the points in ten occasions. His Sauber experience may have only been one year, but as he already demonstrated in his first year in red, winning two races, a lot more lies in store for the former Hinwil graduate.
The latest in a long line of talents to grace the Sauber team, Antonio Giovinazzi is the first Italian to compete in Formula One since 2011. The likeable Italian, a runner-up in an incredibly competitive GP2 season in 2016, made his debut for the Hinwil team in 2017, deputising for the injured Pascal Wehrlein in Australia and China, before being appointed reserve at Ferrari. In 2019, he made his first full-season in Formula One, scoring his maiden points in Austria and claiming a best result of fifth in the Brazilian Grand Prix. It has been an upwards trajectory for Giovinazzi, who gained confidence and pace with every race – not easy after two years without racing. 2020 will mark another important year for the Italian, who will want to build on his experience to become one more Sauber success story.