BMW’s shock decision to withdraw from Formula 1 at the end of this season has left Peter Sauber fighting to secure a future for the team he founded, and which he thought was in safe hands when he sold it in the summer of 2005.
The announcement came at a time when doubts were being expressed about the future of both Toyota and Renault, and if anything BMW appeared to be among the most committed of the five F1 manufacturers.
The timing of the decision was forced by the necessity for BMW to sign the new Concorde Agreement, which just a few days later was finally completed and signed by the 12 other teams entered for 2010 (see page 14).
As with Honda, the BMW board looked at the numbers and decided a red line through the F1 project would save a lot of cash, as well as send out a message that the company was no longer prepared to dedicate resources to an activity which some might regard as frivolous.
Honda and BMW both pulled out in the wake of a disastrous performance on the track. While there is an argument that a lack of results damages the brand, and thus makes the expense of competing in F1 even less justified, their respective managements appear to have made knee-jerk decisions and failed to appreciate the maxim that involvement in F1 is over the long haul.
Unlike Toyota, whose withdrawal would inevitably signal the end of a team which was created in-house and on a site owned by the company, in theory Sauber appears to have a good chance of surviving in private hands.
But while BMW has given much more notice of its intentions – the news came on July 29 rather than December 5 as with Honda – the Concorde Agreement has massively complicated the efforts of Peter Sauber to rescue the team.
When he sold up, Sauber retained a 20 per cent shareholding, but while he has regularly attended races and acted as an advisor he has had little direct involvement. In the wake of the announcement he found himself dragged out of retirement and into the eye of a storm.
While Ross Brawn had all winter to try to save Honda, the Concorde deadline meant that Sauber had just a few days to put together a rescue package. When he failed to do so, the FIA indicated that the 13th spot would in effect be out to tender, and Sauber would thus join other teams rejected in June’s 2010 bidding process as a potential candidate.
Sauber has made it clear that he is deeply frustrated by BMW’s efforts to help the team survive, which appear to have been rather less generous than Honda’s.
If anything, the timing works against Sauber. In December last year most of the R&D work on the 2009 Honda had been completed and fully funded by the manufacturer, and Brawn was able to take over a project that he knew was going to be competitive. In contrast BMW had only just started on its 2010 contender, and inevitably that work has lost momentum.
The operation has been massively scaled up since BMW took over, and should it survive, that process will have to be reversed. In addition the gearbox and electronic departments would have to return from Munich.
Peter Sauber has always retained a close interest in Le Mans, and a return to sports car racing – if he can find manufacturer support – could be one possible scenario.