Under Scrutiny - Sauber-Mercedes

Bow is Drawn for Silver Arrows

Five new Group C cars, model Mercedes C11, will be built at Peter Sauber's headquarters in Hinwil, Zurich in the coming weeks in preparation for a serious programme to retain the World Sports-Prototype Championship. In October, when the flag falls in Mexico, they'll all be museum pieces superceded by the 3½-litre Mercedes C291. There's a new Mercedes racing transmission for the C11, something else that has a seven month shelf life, but the Stuttgart company is sparing nothing in its bid to stay in the lead.

We visited Sauber's modern facility in Wildbachstrasse, Hinwil mid-February, finding an interval between their testing at Jerez and at the Ricard circuit. The mechanics were busy repairing damage to the rear of the first production C11, crashed by Jochen Mass when something "let go" at the back.

"Thank goodness the monocoque wasn't damaged; there's plenty of work here without throwing the tub away," remarked team manager Max Welti, offering up a prayer. "We hope that five chassis will be enough for the season. We'll build four cars and have enough parts to make the fifth if necessary."

Only a few years ago Sauber was building one or two cars a year, purely as a hobby, in workshop space behind his mainstay business selling Jaguars, Rovers, Land Rovers and Subarus. Kunzler & Sauber is very much in business, and close by is another large building signwritten Sauber & Gisin.

Peter Sauber was trained as an electrician and would by now have been running the family business of making electrical components, such as traffic lights for most of Switzerland's intersections; they still bear the Sauber name, but. Peter has no financial stake, nor even a spiritual one. There's no passion involved in making traffic signs.

It's the building in between these two that commands our attention. Opened in the summer of 1988 it's very modern, and has the solus name on the door: Sauber AG. There's only one small drawback, since even in 18 months the team has outgrown the facility and now yet another one is being built. Scheduled to be ready late in 1991, the next Sauber AG premises will cover 6,500 square metres (four times the size of the present headquarters) and will also house the design department headed by Leo Ress, now situated in another building across the road.

Different people have different impressions of Sauber. In the past I have used the allegory of Peter Sauber buying a nice puppy in 1984, when he designed the C8 Group C car with a Mercedes V8 engine. Now the puppy has grown into a dog that's far bigger than its master, since Peter Sauber is, contractually, appointed to design and operate the Mercedes World Championship cars.

There was a sudden, almost violent acceleration in January 1988 when Mercedes' new board of management officially came off the wall and entered motor racing. The M117, 5-litre V8 engines no longer came out of a back door at Untertürkheim, and the level of technical assistance increased sharply. In Stuttgart, Dr Hermann Hiereth was appointed to oversee powertrain development and Mercedes' own engineers attended to the cars' Achilles heel, the Hewland VGC gearbox, so effectively that there hasn't been a terminal breakage in race conditions in two seasons.

In 1987 Peter Sauber employed a dozen people on the racing side, with many more coming in on a part time basis at weekends; most were former employees, still imbued with a fantastic sense of loyalty that Sauber inspires. At the beginning of 1988, a year when Sauber-Mercedes came close to capturing the World Championships, 20 people were employed at Hinwil, and two years later the number has risen to 50. There are, though, about 100 more at Mercedes' Untertürkheim factory working for the race programme, some on the C11 hardware and others concentrating on the new C291.

Does this growth make Sauber happy? It certainly isn't a hobby any more, rather the deadly serious business of upholding Mercedes' prestige on the world's racing circuits. Peter Sauber gives a sad smile, responding to the allegory: "Well, I've grown too. I would worry if I didn't think I could do the job, but I have every confidence that the team I have here can fulfil Mercedes' expectations."

Next door to Peter Sauber's office is another for Jochen Neerpasch, Mercedes' competitions director. He spends three days a week in Stuttgart supervising the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) preparations and three days at Hinwil, living part-time in a Zurich apartment. There are 11 DTM races in the season and 10 WS-PC rounds, filling every weekend between April and October, and Neerpasch will be at all of them, so the six-day-week schedule applies only to the winter months.

Who is the boss, though? Team manager Max Welti answers the question without hesitation: "Peter is. Everything to do with the team is Peter's responsibility. Matters of policy are decided by Mercedes."

This leads us to another delicate matter, which was settled by Jochen Neerpasch very positively. The names of Ron Dennis and McLaren Racing have been linked with Mercedes very frequently in the past 18 months, and some people in Formula 1 believe that it's only a matter of time before some formal arrangement is announced.

It's not been a secret that Dennis is a friend of Dr Wolfgang Peter, the head of Mercedes' passenger car development team, and that the Englishman pays periodic visits to Untertürkheim. "It's true that rumours start every time Mr Dennis visits us," Neerpasch agrees. The rumours gathered force when McLaren designer Steve Nichols went to Spa with the Sauber team in September 1988, but Neerpasch insists that the weekend was no more than Nichols admitted. "He is interested in sports car racing, we were talking to him. He decided to stay in Formula 1."

Let's try the direct questions. Has there been any technical co-operation between Mercedes and McLaren? "No." Is there likely to be any co-operation in the future, say with the new 3½-litre car? "Again, no. We have the expertise here. We have confidence in Leo Ress. The C11 is a good car as you will soon see, and he is very busy working on the C291."

The two parties, Mercedes and Sauber, are not only locked together quite firmly, but the evidence of future developments indicates that this really is a long term relationship, at least through 1992 which is as far as Mercedes has committed itself to sports car racing. Beyond that is the possibility, only hinted at recently, that Mercedes could reassess the appeal of Formula 1, but even that might be within Sauber's capabilities. As for the notion that Mercedes might bring the team to Stuttgart, the idea is derided by a Mercedes executive: "We couldn't run the team from the factory...for one thing the unions wouldn't let us. When Porsche ran the team from Weissach the employees had to clock off, then come back by the side door to work in the evenings."

This is not just a marriage of convenience. Everything points to a strong alliance lasting a minimum of three more seasons, which is longer than most Formula 1 team owners could count on for their agreements with engine manufacturers, sponsors and so on. Largely these people live by their instincts, and Peter Sauber's shy demeanour hides a keen competitiveness which couldn't be satisfied by traffic signals.

C11 Ready for Suzuka

The Sauber C9 which won last year's World Championship was an old design, dating back to the BMW powered C7 which finished ninth at Le Mans in 1983. The following year the same monocoque, made of sheet aluminium, was revised to accept the Mercedes V8, 5-litre engine which, if anyone asked, was tuned by Heini Mader. Engine failures were frequent but few people knew about the C8, and no questions were asked until it appeared in qualifying for Le Mans in June 1985.

There, as the whole world knows, John Nielsen had a frightening flight at the end of the Mulsanne straight when the car left the ground, looped in the air and landed wheels-down again 200 metres down the road, still travelling at 150 mph. We didn't really expect to see that car again, but Peter Sauber was able to attract sponsorship from Kouros — introduced and arranged by Jochen Neerpasch, then a director of Mark McCormack's IMG company in Munich — and undertook a limited, but extremely well-managed programme in 1986 culminating in a deserved victory at the ADAC Nürburg 1,000 Kms race.

The C9 followed in 1987, basically to the same design but with a front radiator and running on Michelin tyres, and the debut at Silverstone in May gave the works Porsche team quite a surprise as Mike Thackwell missed pole position by a tenth of a second. The Yves Saint Laurent Kouros sponsorship was valid only for five European races though and at the last one, at Spa in September, it ran out.

Professor Niefer's star was in the ascendant at Mercedes, fortunately, and in January 1988 Sauber was given the full support of the Stuttgart company. The rest of the story is recent history as the Sauber-Mercedes team narrowly missed two World Championships in 1988, but fairly destroyed the opposition last year.

To some extent Mercedes' opposition self-destructed in 1989; Tom Walkinshaw's Silk Cut Jaguars will certainly be harder to beat, while Porsche, Nissan and Toyota believe they can win races this season. This is why Mercedes and Sauber have gone full ahead with a massive programme of development even though it's valid only for one year.

At the heart is the Mercedes M.119 V8 engine, with four camshafts and 32 valves, managed by the latest Bosch Motronic 1.8 system. Physically the engine looks quite different, and rivals don't need any reminding that there has not been a single retirement through engine failure in the past two seasons. Even the Hewland VGC transmission, beefed up by Mercedes with help from the English firm, Staffs Gears, has been reliable (the transmission problem afflicting the Baldi/Acheson/ Brancatelli car at Le Mans last year was well publicised, but the second place earned was more to the point!).

The M.119 engine, which gives around 720 bhp when working to the fuel consumption, is developed and prepared at Untertürkheim by Willi Muller and Gert Witthalm, under the direction of Dr Hiereth. Engines are separated from the transmissions after each outing and returned to Stuttgart, while the gearboxes are rebuilt at Hinwil.

Leo Ress,who joined Sauber from BMW ten years ago to work on an M1 development, designed the C11 composite chassis from scratch and the first one was built last autumn by the local company Nobrac (carbon spelled backwards). The C10 numbering was passed over, incidentally, since it's difficult to pronounce in German. The Swiss carbon chassis is the "muletto" still in use, but for various reasons the English built DPS composite monocoque is the one that is now used in the definitive C11 sports car. It is torsionally stiffer, and better in some areas. All Sauber's bodywork is made locally by a firm called Paucoplast, and an increasing amount of finishing work is handled by local companies.

Dave Price himself will not be working with the Mercedes team this year. Neerpasch confirms that he wanted the Englishman to stay on as a race engineer, but wanted a greater commitment from him; Price had wide interests at home including the composites company, catering and management, and decided to call it a day with Mercedes.

In his place Mercedes has appointed Walter Naher, for 20 years a Porsche engineer at Weissach, who was a familiar figure with the "BEST" (Bell/Stuck) 962C in their World Championship winning years. Naher is officially the team's technical manager, responsible for preparation and car management at the circuits.

The C11 "Silver Arrow" looks rather different from its predecessor, and like the Jaguar has lower bodywork that hugs the essential components like foot-boxes, wheels and radiators. The front bodywork is lower, even though the scuttle had to be raised slightly between the "muletto" and the first production car, and the composite crash cell is completely new. The design objective was to have more downforce with a smaller frontal area and that has been achieved. Also the C11 is much stiffer than the C9 and is lighter, so that further ballast can be placed strategically to bring the weight up to 900 kg (or 905 kg, to be safe).

Another design objective was to get more air circulating through the cockpit, something that will be very necessary for the drivers if this year's races are as hot as last year's. Air entries and exits are improved, and Neerpasch volunteers that power-assisted steering is something that has been considered, though not for early application.

Brakes, from Brembo, are the same as before but the uprights are new and the suspensions are changed; the front suspension design is similar with transverse, inboard coil spring/dampers and pushrod operation but at the rear a similar transverse system is seen, replacing the neat longitudinal damper layout. The new Mercedes 5-speed transmission has been designed by Sigurd Heinmuller, a former Porsche transmission specialist, and has been very satisfactory in the early trials.

World Champion Jean-Louis Schlesser will share his C11 with his closest rival, Mauro Baldi, at Suzuka re-forming a partnership that was successful in the Spanish races early in 1988. Neerpasch confirms that the two will take turns to qualify and set the car up, which should save any arguments. Mass and his young co-drivers will have their new C11 at Monza, or at Silverstone at the latest. On no occasion will the youngsters share a drive, even if or when a third car is run. "The whole idea is for the youngsters to learn from Jochen," Neerpasch insists. "He is the elder statesman, they will learn from him. If they were to drive together there would be pressure, to see who was faster, and we must avoid that."

Neerpasch talks of a graph, where older drivers slow down but rely on their experience for good lap times and the ability to run to the correct consumption, while younger men are naturally faster but tend to be wild on occasions. "At the moment we believe that all three protégés have the potential to be in our new car, the C291, next season, but first we have to give them the necessary experience."

While pointedly avoiding any comparisons, Neerpasch says that the drivers find the C9 easier to drive on Goodyear's tyres and are comfortable on American rubber in the C11. The change to Goodyear, as he said at the end-of-season conference in Stuttgart, was prompted by the need to have a wider range of technical back-up available for the 3½-litre formula, and it isn't going to do any harm to the team's competitiveness in 1990.

The year ahead is one of transition for all the established teams, but it's the culmination of the economy-based Group C formula which started in 1982. The baton has passed from Porsche to Jaguar, and now to Mercedes, and all three European manufacturers are bracing themselves for the latest challenge from Nissan and Toyota. It is vital for the European defenders to keep the initiative, to hold the moral advantage as long as possible. As Mercedes indicates, no effort and virtually no expense will be spared. MLC