JANUARY 8, 1996

What now for Sauber?

THE decision by Ford to join forces with Stewart Grand Prix in 1997 is a disappointment for Peter Sauber.

THE decision by Ford to join forces with Stewart Grand Prix in 1997 is a disappointment for Peter Sauber. The Swiss had been hoping to extend his relationship with Ford beyond the two-year contract covering the 1995 and 1996 seasons.

The Sauber team is confident that this year's C15 chassis will be very competitive in the hands of Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Johnny Herbert and may even be able to win races.

But the Ford decision means that the team will now have to find a new manufacturer for 1997 and start a new relationship. The team's partners red Bull and Petronas do not seem to be unduly worried, Petronas last week announcing that it is extending its Sauber involvement, begun in 1995.

The new deal will run from 1996 to 2000 and will feature a much higher profile campaign by the Malaysian national oil company. Sauber and Petronas are also planning an economic collaboration - to be called Sauber Engineering - to commercialize the technology it has available thanks to the F1 program.

One of the major reasons for Sauber losing Ford is that the team is located in Switzerland, away from motor racing's heartland in England. This makes life more difficult for the team and suggests that Sauber might be more successful if it was involved with a German manufacturer. Sauber previously enjoyed close links and considerable success with Mercedes-Benz.

It is likely therefore that Sauber's main thrust will be to do a deal with either BMW, Porsche or Audi. BMW is keen to enter F1 but is being linked with Williams, although there have been suggestions that the Munich manufacturer might even build its own F1 car, using the McLaren Cars factory it recently took over in Woking.

Porsche is a much more likely target for Sauber. The company has a secret V10 F1 engine on the test beds at Weissach in Germany. This has been designed by a young team of engineers completely different to that which produced the disastrous Porsche V12 engine in 1990. The company has a tradition of racing and enjoyed enormous success in the early 1980s, supplying its TAG-badged turbo engines to McLaren. Commercially, F1 would be useful to help Porsche sell cars and, as the company recently turned in its first profit for many years, it may be considering an F1 program again. Having said that Porsche last week announced a major new commitment to sportscar racing in association with the oil company Mobil.

Porsche, however, appears to be Sauber's best bet as Sauber vice-president Max Welti was Project Manager of the Porsche F1 program in the early 1990s and then stayed on as Competitions Manager, hoping to convince the Porsche management to try F1 again. He quit Porsche in 1994.

Audi - part of Europe's largest car-maker the Volkswagen Audi Group - has been looking at F1 for some time as it would like to be seen beating companies such as Mercedes-Benz and Renault on the race tracks. Audi grew out of the old AutoUnion company, a major player in pre-war motor racing, but has stayed out of Grand Prix racing because of the high costs involved. There was, however, a flurry of rumors in 1994 that Audi was considering an F1 program and there is no doubt that the Ingoldstadt company has looked very seriously at a program.