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Sauber celebrates 400th Grand Prix in Austin at USGP

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AUSTIN, Texas – The 1993 South African Grand Prix stands out for many reasons.

It’s the final Formula 1 race to date held in Africa. It marked the debuts of Michael Andretti and Rubens Barrichello, among others. Alain Prost began his first season with Williams, and Ayrton Senna began his last with McLaren.

Meanwhile in an all-black, almost stealth-like chassis, the first Sauber Formula 1 chassis made its race debut – the C12 (with unbadged Mercedes-Benz engines) driven by Karl Wendlinger and JJ Lehto. Lehto qualified sixth and finished fifth, scoring points on the team’s debut.

Some 22 seasons later, and through a separate team iteration as BMW Sauber for four seasons from 2006 to 2009, Sauber makes its 400th Grand Prix start this weekend with drivers Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson.

An overachieving underdog, if you will, the team started by Peter Sauber entered F1 after a successful sports car stint and has been perennial top midfielder ever since, with some various heights achieved in odd years as well as the occasional year of a dip in form.

Current team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, who has been a member of Sauber’s management board since 2001 and succeeded Sauber as team principal fully before 2013 to become F1’s first ever female team principal, reflected on the achievements the team has accomplished.

“There’s a lot of memories, actually,” Kaltenborn told MotorSportsTalk on Thursday. “I’ve not been around for all 400… I’m not that old, yet!

“But I remember the Constructor’s Championship fourth position (in 2001)… it was a great achievement for a team like ours’. It wasn’t easy. You had no kind of restrictions on testing and development, so to achieve that was a great achievement.

“The double victory with BMW Sauber was a very nice moment (2008 Canadian Grand Prix, Robert Kubica leading Nick Heidfeld).

“Then the podiums we had in 2012. For me personally, the one in Japan (Kamui Kobayashi finished third on home soil) was a very touching one. Or when we completed our wind tunnel for that matter (in Hinwil), it was a big project for us.”

It seems easy to forget now, but this time last year, Sauber was in the midst of the worst season in its 22-year Grand Prix history.

Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez survived the season but the team failed to score a single point. Sutil’s best shot – aided by a Q3 appearance this race last year – came unglued on the opening lap following contact with past Sauber driver, Sergio Perez.

“It’s much better (now), but it didn’t take a lot to feel much better without any points!” Kaltenborn said. “So we’re very happy about that.

“It was a very frustrating year. Things weren’t in our hands. The discrepancies in the powertrain existed, and the championship is so powertrain-dominated. So it was important to keep the focus and not lose it, and get too frustrated. So yeah, it’s not too bad.”

Nasr and Ericsson have combined to score 34 points and sit eighth in the Constructor’s Championship, ahead of McLaren Honda.

Sauber is currently in the news for a complaint both it and Force India lodged against the EU, which charges that the sport’s rule-making and revenue-sharing mechanisms are unlawful, unfair and harmful. Veteran Formula 1 reporter Dieter Rencken had several questions on that topic to Kaltenborn on Thursday.

Outside of the political issues though, Sauber used its pre-race advance to check in with some of its past drivers, who offered memories (full link here, via official F1 website). Here’s a sampling of those:

Heinz-Harald Frentzen (DE, 1994-1996/2002-2003, 64 GPs, 42 points):

“As a longstanding Sauber driver I was part of many highlights. My nicest memory was definitely finishing third at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza in 1995 – behind Johnny (Herbert) and Mika (Hakkinen). For the Sauber F1 Team, as well as for me, it was the first podium in Formula 1. We celebrated this landmark as if it was a victory. I remember this quite well: There were not only tears of joy, but also a lot of champagne flowing. That was very emotional – a superb moment, which can’t be forgotten. It is a pity I cannot be on-site during the 400th race in Austin, but I wish the team good luck!”

Nick Heidfeld (DE, 2001-2003/2006-2009/2010, 125 GPs, 194 points):

“It was a relief to get the first podium in 2001 at the wet race in Sao Paulo, which was then followed by a beer shower afterwards. In the same year, together with Kimi (Raikkonen), we finished P4 in the constructors’ championship, which was a fantastic team success. For me the 2007 season with BMW-Sauber was exceptional. We were on the way to the top and the car suited my driving style well. I extracted the full potential from it and took every opportunity that came up for a top three result. My highlight was one manoeuvre during the Bahrain Grand Prix when I managed to overtake Fernando’s (Alonso) car on the outside, we were wheel to wheel, right on the ragged edge. I have to admit that I watch this moment once in a while, and I am proud that I drove this BMW-Sauber car. As the driver who has competed in the most Grands Prix for Sauber, I am pleased that the team is celebrating its 400th GP.”

Robert Kubica (PL, 2006-2009, 57 GPs, 137 points):

“I have great memories from my time at Sauber. One of the most important is surely my first ever podium in Formula One, which I celebrated in Monza 2006 together with BMW-Sauber. I finished in P3 at my third race as a Formula One driver, after being promoted by the team from a reserve to race driver. I believe that this third place was an important achievement for my future career. It also showed the potential of the car at that time. My victory at the Canadian Grand Prix two years later in 2008 is definetely a moment to remember forever, not only for myself but also for the team. I wish everyone at Sauber all the best.”

Kamui Kobayashi (JP, 2010-2012, 58 GPs, 122 points):

“My Sauber moment was in 2012 when I achieved my first podium ever at my home race in Suzuka. This is one of the greatest memories in my life. Finishing in P3 and standing on the podium in front of my fans was amazing. After the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima in 2011, it was a very difficult time for us. I cannot say that in one word, but this podium was a very special moment for me as well as for my fans.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500