A meaty fist thumped the table, sending beer-laden glasses momentarily skyward, and it was decreed, there and then, that the Silver Arrows would return. For 1989, the Swiss Sauber team’s latest Group C contender would run in the emotive silver racing colors of Mercedes-Benz.
The fist belonged to the late Werner Niefer, chief executive officer of the German manufacturer at the time, and the occasion was the company’s motorsports party at the end of 1988. The snap decision, powered in part by schnapps and beer, set Sauber and Mercedes on course for almost complete domination of the World Sports-Prototype Championship (WSPC) over the following two seasons.
“We were all pretty drunk, actually,” recalls Max Welti, Sauber’s long-time team manager. “But Niefer said that we were going to race silver cars. It was his decision, and his decision alone.”
With the new livery came an increase in budget, which coincided with the arrival of a revised version of the big Mercedes V8 turbo engine that Sauber had been using since 1985. Everything was now in place for the team to put a virtual stranglehold on the WSPC. The Silver Arrows would be beaten just twice in 17 races over the next two years. With that domination came two pairs of drivers’ and teams’ titles, plus a 24 Hours of Le Mans victory in ’89.
Peter Sauber’s operation had come a long way since it forged its first links with Mercedes at the start of the decade. It had been looking for aerodynamic help in the design of its C6 Group C car for 1982 and was pointed in the direction of the Three-Pointed Star. A group of racing enthusiasts within Mercedes (a manufacturer that, brief forays into rallying aside, had steered clear of motorsports since the 1955 Le Mans disaster) had identified the suitability of its M117 V8 for the Group C fuel formula introduced that season. That’s how Sauber eventually ended up running a twin-turbo version of the 5-liter V8 in ’85.
“We were just a group of dreamers who believed that a low-revving, big-volume engine would be the most fuel-efficient way to go,” remembers Leo Ress, a young Mercedes road car engineer who’d help out on the suspension calculations for the C6 and later become Sauber’s full-time designer. “But it took three years from Peter Sauber’s first contact to convince Mercedes of the project.”
Swiss tuner Heine Mader assembled the first engines, but Welti describes this as a “smokescreen” to hide the true origins of the V8s. “Maybe Mader built up one or two engines, but no more,” he says. Ress suggests that the original plan was for Mader to undertake the project, but that everything was quickly taken in-house because Mercedes wanted to be in control of an engine that bore its name.
The Mercedes engine didn’t actually race for the first time until 1986. The first Sauber-Mercedes, the C8, was entered for Le Mans in ’85, but non-started after John Nielsen crashed on the Mulsanne Straight. That was it for the season.
With backing from Yves St. Laurent cologne brand Kouros, Sauber would be back for a partial WSPC campaign in ’86, which included a fortuitous win in a wet two-part race at the Nurburgring. The Kouros deal, which continued into ’87 with the introduction of the C8-derived C9 for another limited program, was brokered by former BMW Motorsport boss Jochen Neerpasch, then working for the IMG management group. He would go on to reprise his role with BMW at Mercedes during Sauber’s glory years in sports cars.
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