Features - Interview
FEBRUARY 1, 1996
BY JOE SAWARD
Well-educated and cosmopolitan, Welti trained in business management before buying a dancing school in Zurich. He dabbled with choreography but his great passion was always motor racing and he spent four years racing in local sports-prototype events. He was Swiss Champion in 1980.
It was inevitable that he would meet Peter Sauber, another local racer who went on to become a racing car constructor. When Welti decided to stop racing himself, Sauber offered him a job and Max became Sauber's first motor sports manager, playing an important role in convincing Mercedes-Benz to enter sportscar racing with Sauber back in 1984 and convincing the German giant to invest more and more. In 1986 Mike Thackwell and Henri Pescarolo gave the Sauber-Mercedes team its first win at the Nurburgring 1000kms and, two years later - with backing from the German electrical giant AEG, an offshoot of Mercedes-Benz - Sauber battled Jaguar for the World Sportscar title. In 1989 Mercedes finally agreed to return to racing officially and the Saubers were painted silver. Jean-Louis Schlesser won the Drivers' World title and the team dominated the Constructors' title, winning seven of the eight races - and scoring a 1-2 victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours with the Jochen Mass/Manuel Reuter/Stanley Dickens Sauber leading home Mauro Baldi/Kenny Acheson/Gianfranco Brancatelli.
The following year Schlesser and Baldi shared the Drivers' title while Mass was partnered by the three men from the Mercedes Junior Team who are today making headlines in F1: Michael Schumacher, Karl Wendlinger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. The team won the Constructors' title for a second time.
By then sportscar racing was going into a decline and when Welti was offered the job of being F1 Project Manager for Porsche Motorsport, in a new relationship with the Footwork team, he could hardly refuse.
Welti fought against Porsche's technical arrogance, but as a new boy at the Porsche Competitions Department he was ignored. The Porsche V12 F1 engine was a disaster and the company was forced to quit F1. Welti stayed on as Competitions Manager, hoping to convince the Porsche management to try F1 again with different engineers but in 1994 he gave up, quit Porsche and, after talks with several F1 teams - notably Marlboro McLaren Mercedes - he returned to Sauber as the team's Senior Vice President.
"My job," he explains, " is to look after all the operational activities of the team. I am responsible for all technical matters: development, research, the car build programme, recruiting, organizing at the factory and at the race tracks, coordinating the people and the activities. And the strategy. There is an awful lot to do.
"While I am doing all this Peter Sauber is looking after the whole package of financing and the marketing. He has the final control of all the finances."
All things considered, however, Welti reckons that Sauber has the potential to do great things in the future.
"Building a good F1 team is just like building up a business," he says. "Identical in fact. If you do not treat it as such and take a less serious approach to the work you will never be successful. It is pure business and a very tough business at that. It's not tough because it is complicated - although it is - the toughest thing is that everything happens so quickly and because there is a lot of money involved. All the time you are competing against a lot of very competitive people with sharp brains."
Welti chose to join Sauber rather than taking up other options which were available at the time. Why was that?
"I believe in the potential of the team - and I always have. When I looked at the team everything was messy but after a close look and lots of talking to the people involved I was of the firm belief that there was a great future. Peter has built up something remarkable. It is not unique - other teams are doing better than we are - but Sauber has done it in Switzerland where these things are not easy. It is expensive and complicated because of the work permits and things like that but he has done it. Switzerland may have banned motor racing in 1955 after the Le Mans disaster but they are now very proud to have a pretty decent racing team working in Switzerland and that it is still being built up. Like most F1 teams these days Sauber is very international. We have lot of different nationalities working together: German, French, English, Italian, even Australians."
The team does not, however, have backing from any of the big Swiss companies such as Nestle, Asea Brown Boveri, Zurich Insurance, Swiss Re, Ciba-Geigy or Sandoz.
"Well it is not because we haven't contacted them!" says Welti. "It is not easy. Switzerland is a very small country and you have to find a company which is interested in doing worldwide marketing. There are not a lot of companies for whom it makes sense to do F1 even if there are some big companies with an awful lot of money. They could do it but what you need is somebody in charge who is in favour of using F1 as a marketing tool and that reduces the possibilities again. But we are always looking. We are in discussion with other people to become business partners. It is too early to give any details but it is our firm belief that if you can find someone willing to use F1 as a marketing tool, sure you have to spend a lot of money but normally - if you are willing to create the necessary framework - you get a lot back. We aim to have the closest possible partnerships with the fewest number of partners because the fewer the partners, the closer the relationship. We do not want to end up with hundreds of little $100,000 sponsors but finding a good partner is not easy to achieve. We are lloking for one more good partner. At the moment the financing comes from Red Bull and Petronas. Ford is our engine partner, which represents a big investment of money on their part. This year we have done 17 races and will have completed 25 test sessions as well. We have also had to change a lot of things on the technical side making new parts, often in a hurry, and this also needs a lot money. It all has to be paid for and thank God we are able to pay. Peter Sauber is very Swiss in this respect. He is very careful with the books."
Sauber's technical investment this year has been substantial because the original car was not very successful. Can we expect to see more changes in the technical staff in the months ahead?
"I think we certainly have to aim for a good bunch of people who are able to do an F1-like job," says Welti. "A lot of the people we have are quite experienced in F1, but there are others who do not have much. Having said that, this is Sauber's third season in F1 and so people are beginning to get F1 experience. As always we are looking around for other people so that we can improve and go in the direction we want. We are now doing the chassis inhouse at our base at Hinwil. We are associated with another company which is close to our factory. They are called Paucoplast and we've been working with them for 20 years. We are also working with David Price in England. This year, however, the chassis is designed, calculated, laid out, surfaced, drilled and all the rest in-house. DPS is making wings and other components. Our composite department is actually largely made up of Englishmen because they are the guys with the kind of experience that we need to have."
It has not escaped Sauber's notice that of all the car manufacturers involved in F1 racing the Ford Motor Company is the biggest, being the second largest car-maker in the world behind General Motors. One must ask the question why with such a powerful company behind them Sauber is not winning races.
"At the end of the season we will know exactly where we are. We planned to be in the top six in the World Championship this year and we could end up there. With a little luck and good work we could be fifth - which would be nice. Fourth is possible but that may be asking a bit too much. You have to take into account who we are fighting with. At the beginning of the relationship we were very honest with Ford. We did not pretend that we had more capability than was the case. We have improved and we are still able to develop ourself. Ford accepted and, in fact, told us that because of the change in the rules at the end of last year they were not in the position to win the World Championship. The plan they put together was looking to the future and our policy fitted in well with that. I think this is why our two companies came together. OK, Ford needed a chassis partner and Sauber needed an engine but they also needed someone who fitted into their future plans - and we needed the same.
"Next year we would love to be in a position to finish races in the points without having to rely on our reliability and good fortune. That depends on the package we are able to put together for next year. How much can we improve? Will the 1996 car be at the front of the grid or not? Will Ford be able to improve with the new engine? Can we give Heinz-Harald Frentzen a car with which to show his potential? So far his development has been tremendous. He improves every weekend and so do we. There is a good relationship between us but we must prove a lot of he is to stay with us - just as he has to prove a lot if he wants to step up to winning races and World Championships. I do not doubt that he can move up. I believe we can move up as well, but whether we can hold on to him is something that we will not know for six months. We shall see then. We are in this game to win races but it is very early for us to think about such success. The other teams are doing such terrific jobs. And don't forget that there are some teams at the moment which are not doing very good jobs but which, I believe, will do much better. They are working hard; they have good budgets and good drivers.
"Formula 1 is not easy you know!"