Get to know Beat Zehnder – the F1 ironman who has been with Sauber for all 500 Grands Prix
Last weekend in Turkey, Sauber – now racing under the Alfa Romeo banner – celebrated reaching a remarkable 500 Grands Prix. But only one team member has been there for all 500...
Beat Zehnder, Alfa Romeo’s Team Manager, had aspirations of working as a mechanic on ship diesel engines, not just for his love of mechanics but mainly – while he was young – because the job involved him travelling the world.
The Swiss were one of the biggest manufacturers of such engines but at the time Zehnder finished his education and started looking for work, the Swiss industry had realised it was much cheaper to build them elsewhere. So Zehnder picked up a copy of the local newspaper and scoured the job section, landing on an advert entitled – Peter Sauber International Motorsport.
Zehnder had no interest in racing but he liked the ‘International’ element of Sauber’s operation – and he had mechanic skills. So he applied and got himself an interview. It didn’t go well. “Peter said I was too young, I had no experience in racing and worst of all, I had no interest in the sport. I had walked into his beautiful workshop, with his beautiful racing cars, and I had no clue – and showed no interest – in any of it,” Zehnder tells me.
Three weeks later, Zehnder tried his luck again. “I called him and he hadn’t found anyone,” he says. “He needed mechanics so he hired me. He gave me a one-year contract and said ‘let’s try it’.“ Thirty-one years later, Zehnder is still there, having clocked up a remarkable 500 Grands Prix.
He has only missed one practice session – FP1 at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix – as he travelled back home after receiving a call that his father was ill. But when it became clear he was out of danger, Zehnder headed back to Monza in time for FP2. “He had acute pneumonia,” says Zehnder. “He was very close to not being around anymore. He fought and he’s still here today!”
After several years as a mechanic, Sauber promoted Zehnder to Team Manager, the role he still holds today, but he wasn’t too keen on it at first. “I said 'no way' when he asked,” says Zehnder with a smile. “I hadn’t booked, until 1994, a flight or hotel for myself. And all of a sudden, I would be required to be responsible for the whole team. He said 'you’ve got to do it'.
“I said, 'Give me 24 hours to think about it', and after 24 hours I said no. I said, 'Sorry, I’m a mechanic, I love being a mechanic.' Then he came with an alternative. To do both jobs! So I said, 'Okay, I will try.' And in 1994, for the second half of the season, I was for half of the day, from 7am-6pm, the chief mechanic. Then at night, I organised the team. So I had two jobs.”
Zehnder has worked for Sauber for almost 30 years, so knows Peter very well. What was the boss like? “Very Swiss,” says Zehnder with a laugh. “The name Sauber in English means clean. The company was always spotless, always so clean. Like F1 is these days, Peter was always like this. Everything had to be spot on. He was very precise. He was a good boss.
“He believed that if you wanted to achieve something, you had to go the extra mile. He was a role model and showed what is needed to be a racer. In the end, he was always very truthful. Probably for this sport, he was too honest. Whenever we were disqualified in F1, it was never by purpose, it was because we got something wrong. He felt ashamed, brutally ashamed.”
And it’s because of that honesty – and desire to be fair in the way he runs his business – that Zehnder thinks the team has managed to enjoy such longevity. Only Ferrari, McLaren and Williams have clocked up more Grands Prix.
“He was such a trusted person,” says Zehnder. “He didn’t have yachts and big mansions. All the money we did get from sponsors, and money we generated, was put back in the team. With his attitude, we were able to get sponsors like Petronas and Red Bull which are still around [in F1]. Without these partners, we would have been off the table for a long time.”
There were difficult times for Sauber, though, particularly when BMW pulled the plug and Sauber was forced to step in himself to save the outfit from closing. “That was his most difficult time – and for me as well,” said Zehnder. “We had an organisation of 470 employees in Switzerland, another 250 in Munich, and then from one day to another, BMW withdrew.
“In the end, it was Peter who bought the company back. He did it for the employees, as Sauber Motorsport was and still is his baby. But I think in hindsight he wouldn’t do it again. Because it was such a difficult time. We had to let go 180 people. This was so hard.
“From 2014, it was a disaster on the financial side, as the V6 engine was so much more expensive than the V8. And debts were piling up like crazy. For him, not being able to pay suppliers was hard. Paying wages on time, this was always one of the most important things. For two consecutive months, we couldn’t – because there was simply no money. For him, it was tough.”
Sauber and then Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn got a deal over the line with investment firm Longbow Finance, securing the team’s long-term future but marking the end of Peter Sauber’s shareholding in the team for the second time. However, the vibe of the team remains.
“It’s still the same team, like a family,” says Zehnder. “With Fred [Vasseur], we have a good Team Principal who is carrying on what Peter Sauber started.”