Mercedes' glorious return to racing with the Sauber C9

The return of the Silver Arrows in 1989, for the first time in 34 years, resulted in domination that had echoes of the past – and Lewis Hamilton’s F1 success of today, says Gary Watkins

Sauber Mercedes C9

Getty

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It was a momentous decision. The Team Sauber Mercedes entries in the 1989 World Sports Car Championship would run as Silver Arrows, just like the W125 grand prix cars before World War II and the W196 Formula 1 racers afterwards. The ‘new’ livery for the Sauber-Mercedes C9 Group C design tipped its hat to the glorious past of a manufacturer returning to motor sport after a long hiatus. And it also paved the way for an equally bright future that comes right up to the present day with the line of championship-winning F1 hybrids.

Sauber C8

Mercedes oversaw a considerable test programme with the C8 and its own V8 (right) during 1985, running here at Hockenheim

Daimler AG

Yet the call to adopt the famous livery of the marque wasn’t made as the result of intense boardroom debate, extensive market research and never-ending focus groups. Rather it was the personal diktat of one of the highest authorities within Mercedes at the time – unsurprisingly after he’d had a few drinks inside him.

Mercedes had ended its official absence from motor sport in 1988, breaking a sabbatical that dated back to 1955 and the aftermath of the Le Mans 24 Hours disaster (see sidebar, below). It launched twin programmes: one with Sauber in the WSCC, then known as the World Sports-Prototype Championship, and also with the 190E 2.3-16 in the DTM touring car series in Germany. Only after some early successes – five wins in the WSPC, and six in the DTM – did the marque have the confidence to adopt the iconic racing livery that graced the C9’s famous forebears.

“Niefer banged his huge fist on the table and said we would race silver cars”

That confidence was buoyed by alcohol at the Mercedes end-of-season motor sport party in 1988. The late Werner Niefer, deputy chairman of the board of parent company Daimler-Benz, was sitting around a table with the Sauber hierarchy when he decreed that the Silver Arrows would make a return after a year of the team’s cars running in the colours of Daimler-Benz subsidiary AEG.

Sauber C8 1986

The Sauber C8 was the first with Mercedes power and paved the way for the C9. This is John Nielsen and Henri Pescarolo in 1986

Sutton

Max Welti, Sauber’s long-time team manager, takes up the story: “We were all drunk, pretty drunk actually. Niefer had these big hands and he banged his big fist down on the table and said that we were going to race silver cars. The beer glasses literally sprang up in the air. It was all done by him, Mr Niefer. It was his decision and his decision alone.”

The backstory to the return of the Silver Arrows had begun much nearer the start of the decade than its end. The Swiss Sauber team had forged a tentative link with Mercedes ahead of the 1982 season when it was developing its first car, the C6, for the new Group C fuel formula. Team boss Peter Sauber had approached the University of Stuttgart about using its wind tunnel. That wasn’t possible courtesy of the institution’s work with Porsche, but he was pointed in the direction of Mercedes by a helpful professor.

Sauber C9 Mercedes engine

Sauber’s team might have been a minnow of the sports car world at that time, but he had a receptive response from Mercedes, where a group of motor sport-minded road car engineers had already taken a close look at the Group C regs. This group, working on an unofficial basis, included Leo Ress. He would go on to design the monocoque of Sauber’s next Group C machine, the C7 of 1983, (while on gardening leave after his recruitment by BMW) and all of its subsequent prototype sports cars (as technical director of the team from 1985).

“We were just a group of dreamers,” says Ress, who also did the calculations for the suspension geometry of the C6 using the manufacturer’s computer power. “We always believed that a low-revving, big-volume turbo engine would be the most fuel-efficient. But it took three years from Peter Sauber’s first contact for Mercedes to be convinced.”

Sauber C9 steering wheel

The first Sauber powered by a Mercedes engine, the C8, broke cover in 1985. The turbocharged M117 powerplant had, officially at least, been developed by renowned Swiss tuner Heini Mader. The truth was slightly different, however: the new race engine was designed and built in-house at Mercedes.

Welti describes the Mader story as a “smokescreen” to hide the true origins of the V8s, put about by a manufacturer who still wasn’t officially involved in motor sport. “Maybe Mader built up one or two engines, but no more,” he says. Ress suggests that the original plan was for Mader to undertake the project, but recalls everything being quickly taken in-house because Mercedes wanted to be in control of an engine that bore its badges.

Sauber Mercedes C9 Le Mans

The official team photo, with number 63 going on to win at La Sarthe

Daimler AG

The Mercedes engine wouldn’t make its maiden race start until 1986, however. The C8 non-started on its one appearance of the previous year at Le Mans when John Nielsen, who would win the race with Jaguar in 1990, crashed on the Mulsanne Straight. It didn’t reappear that season.

“Le Mans in 1988 was a disaster, with a high-speed blowout”

Sauber undertook a partial world championship season, which included a fortuitous victory in a two-part wet race at the Nürburgring in ’86 with backing from the Yves St Laurent aftershave brand Kouros. A deal that stretched through the 1987 season had been brokered by former BMW Motorsport boss Jochen Neerpasch, then working for Mark McCormack’s IMG management group. The German would be brought in by Mercedes to head up its return to racing, a decision which was taken in early January 1988.

Sauber Le Mans 1989 start

Kenny Acheson, Mauro Baldi, Gianfranco Brancatelli lead early on at Le Mans in 1989

Daimler AG

The Swiss operation now became Team Sauber Mercedes and with the AEG sponsorship undertook a first full-season campaign in the Group C ranks. It did win the WSPC opener at Jerez with a lone C9 shared by Jean-Louis Schlesser, Mauro Baldi and Jochen Mass, but the truth was that the team wasn’t ready to take on reigning champion Jaguar.

The Mercedes decision to put its full weight behind Sauber hadn’t been taken until January 12, yet the Jerez WSPC opener was on March 6. The programme remained a one-car effort until Silverstone in early May, the final race before Le Mans. The first factory assault by Mercedes at the Circuit de la Sarthe since ’55 turned out to be disaster: Klaus Niedzwiedz suffered a high-speed blow-out on the Mulsanne Straight during qualifying; tyre supplier Michelin couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen again, and Mercedes took the inevitable decision to withdraw from the race.

Sauber Le Mans finish

By Le Mans, Sauber had a new engineer running the race operations of the team. Dave Price joined from the Richard Lloyd Racing Porsche squad after being approached by Welti in the pitlane during the Silverstone 1000Km meeting in early May. He recalls arriving at an outfit that had yet to organise itself in a way befitting of a full factory team.

“It was very small when I first went there,” remembers Price. “Leo was doing everything; he was the designer and was engineering both cars. And as we know, designers don’t make very good race engineers! They probably had no more than 12 people in total, including Peter and Max.”

Price helped knock the team into shape, while Ress was freed up to devote more time to car development. After a major suspension test with shocks supplier Bilstein after the Le Mans debacle, Sauber’s season came alive. Team Sauber Mercedes ran a pair of cars in each of the six races post-Le Mans and ended up winning four of them. Schlesser and Baldi took second and third in the points respectively behind Jaguar’s Martin Brundle.

Sauber Mercedes C9 finish winners

The battle-scarred C9s return to the pits after their glorious Le Mans victory in 1989

Daimler AG

That momentum carried into 1989 with a further upgrade of the C9, which was now powered by a four-valve version of the Mercedes engine known as the M119. Only once would one of the Silver Arrows fail to win over the course of the eight championship rounds in ’89, when hot temperatures at Dijon killed its Michelin tyres and the Joest Porsche team took a surprise victory. Sauber also claimed the big prize at Le Mans, finishing one-two in a race that wasn’t part of the WSPC that season.

The arrival of the new engine was an important factor in the domination of Team Sauber Mercedes, but perhaps not the defining one that some history books relate.

Le Mans 1989 winners

Winners of Le Mans 1989, Stanley Dickens, Jochen Mass and Manuel Reuter

Daimler AG

“The engine was definitely more efficient and more power always helps, but at the first test it was actually slower,” explains Ress. “We were a bit surprised and then we saw that we were slower in the corners. That was because the centre of gravity had gone up with the extra weight at the top of the engine. Mercedes undertook a big development programme to come back to the original centre of gravity.”

The reorganisation of the team that took place through ’88 and into ’89 was just as important, he reckons. “Everything was less rushed and we were properly organised,” continues Ress. “We had more time to focus on car development, the aerodynamics and car set-up. In 1988, we had been struggling just to get to the races.”

Sauber C11 Schumacher

While he won with the C11, Michael Schumacher did test the C9, here making the brakes glow

Daimler AG

Price has a similar viewpoint: “I went there at just the right time; you make some small improvements and you’re a f**king hero. It was a piece of cake, really. We used to go to the races expecting to win. It’s great to have that mentality in the team.”

Team Sauber Mercedes ended up taking just about all the silverware in 1989. Schlesser claimed the WSPC title ahead of team-mates Mass and Baldi in second and third positions. The Le Mans victory went the way of Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens in a third C9 entered for the big one in France, with the car shared by Baldi, Kenny Acheson and Gianfranco Brancatelli in second.

It wasn’t the first time that the Silver Arrows had dominated at or near the pinnacle of world motor sport. Nor would it be the last. They would maintain their superiority in 1990 on the arrival of a new Group C car — the Mercedes, not Sauber, C11 — that together with its predecessor won seven of the eight WSPC rounds that year.

Today’s Mercedes F1 team has carried on the run nicely, with six drivers’ and constructors’ doubles since 2014. But it undoubtedly owes something to a drunken conversation more than 30 years ago.


Le Mans 55

The pits at Le Mans in 1955 became a sombre place after Levegh’s SLR flew into the crowd

LAT

The long shadow of Le Mans 1955

Mercedes’ three-decade sabbatical was understandable, even if it couldn’t entirely be blamed for the French tragedy, says Damien Smith

On October 16, 1955, Stirling Moss and Peter Collins led a Mercedes-Benz 1-2-4 at the Targa Florio to clinch the manufacturers’ world championship and complete a dominant season in the wheel tracks of Juan Manuel Fangio’s F1 title. Little did anyone know it would be 34 years before a Silver Arrow would again grace the track, when a Sauber-Mercedes C9 carried the famous colours to victory at a World Sports-Prototype Championship round at Suzuka on April 9 1989.

The silencing of racing engines for more than three decades has always been blamed on the Le Mans disaster of that tragic 1955 season, when Pierre Levegh’s 300 SLR was launched off the back of Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey and into the crowd opposite the pits, killing more than 80 and injuring almost 100 more. But Mercedes has always claimed its decision to withdraw was down to more practical reasons. Fritz Nallinger, board member responsible for engineering, said at a ceremony honouring its racing drivers on October 22, 1955: “The development of our product makes it appear advisable to put these highly skilled people to work now, without overtaxing them, solely in an area which is the most interesting to our customers, namely production car engineering.” It’s even claimed the decision pre-dated Le Mans.

Le Mans 1955 Mercedes

Levegh and John Fitch’s 300 SLR

LAT

Whatever the backstory, consider the context of the disaster: it was just 10 years after the second war of the century in which Germany had wrought devastation on France. It also sparked a backlash against motor sport that led to the cancellation of four grands prix that season and a long-lasting ban on racing in Switzerland. A withdrawal was entirely reasonable in such circumstances.

Le Mans 1955 cast a long, dark shadow, even though poor Levegh was blameless for an accident that was triggered by Mike Hawthorn – in a Jaguar. Undeserved ‘shame’ kept Mercedes away and explains why clandestine measures were taken as 1980s engineers went racing on the quiet. In truth, the Silver Arrows’ return was long overdue.