Beat Zehnder (54) has been working for Sauber as a Formula 1 team manager for 26 years. But the Zurich native has never experienced a year like this with an existence-threatening crisis and an immense amount of work for ghost races.
Mandatory masks, no fans, a bunch of corona tests, locked up in a hotel and slow Sauber cars on the track: is Formula 1 still fun for you?
Beat Zehnder: You can complain for a long time. But above all it was important that Formula 1 could set an example. Including Formula 2, Formula 3 and the Porsche Supercup, there are several thousand people on site. But so far there hasn’t been a single case of Corona, everything is running smoothly. You can be proud that we even managed to get it up and running.
Now all that remains is for the Sauber cars to perform …
We realized early this year that our overall package did not meet our expectations. We now have to work better than the competition. Our performance so far, especially in Budapest, is unacceptable.
Kimi Räikkönen started from last place in Hungary for the first time in his career. Will Formula One put him off like this?
Kimi is a racer. He works just as hard as always. Of course, he has no pleasure in starting last. But nobody on the team does. We all want to improve as quickly as possible.
Is it the weak Ferrari engine?
It’s the whole package. What we don’t quite understand yet is the difference between qualifying and the race. We can’t get the car ready for one lap, but in the fastest race laps in Hungary Giovinazzi is eleventh and Kimi twelfth. We are capable of setting good midfield times even on old tyres. It was similar in Spielberg. We are intensively analysing why this is the case.
Because 2021 will also be driven with the 2020 cars, the next season threatens to go downhill as well, with the C39.
We have to stay positive. Of course we’re aware that there may be two difficult years now. But some development is possible. You have a certain number of tokens (a kind of voucher, i.e. editor) available for the different technical areas. You use them when you want to change something. The wind tunnel hours have also been greatly reduced. But I’m very happy that all teams have agreed to postpone the introduction of the new car generation until 2022.
Because there is no other area of a team where more savings are possible. Fortunately, even the big racing teams have realized how badly the Corona crisis is hitting us all financially. We are losing a lot of revenue. The GP promoters don’t earn anything without spectators, so we get less too. In addition, television and sponsors also want to talk about reductions because the season only started in July.
Is the crisis threatening Sauber’s existence?
The owner (the investment company Longbow Finance, the editor) signalled very early on that he wants to manage the crisis together with us. This was important and gave the staff a lot of assurance that their jobs were not threatened.
Otherwise there would have been redundancies?
One should have been more worried, but that is the same in countless SMBs in other sports and many other sectors of the economy.
The Federal Council put together a million-euro rescue package for professional sport. Is Sauber making use of it?
Among us only the two drivers are professional sportsmen and one of them lives abroad… (laughs). We are an SMB with around 500 employees, and we have gradually applied for short-time work for all companies in the Sauber Group. That was an extreme financial relief. We were on short-time work from the end of March to 25 May and have been gradually ramping up again since then.
Then the new racing calendar appeared and you had more work than ever before.
The administrative workload is insanely high. There are many regulations, not only from F1 and the FIA. But also from the respective national health authorities.
How big is the fear that a forgotten detail could have a major impact?
It’s always present with so many lists and forms. And every new piece of information brings with it a rat tail of changes. If you forget something, it may result in being refused entry to the country or banned from the race track.
An example, please!
At the first race in Spielberg, some of our people were at the track on Wednesday, on Thursday they were suddenly banned. It was said that they had not been tested. It then took me a few hours to prove the opposite. But I understand that there can be problems when information about thousands of people is merged and Excel lists are sometimes typed in manually.
You had to replan the many trips for the whole team. Did you have to pay a fortune for the cancellations and postponements of hotels and flights?
The cancellation fees amount to a few thousand francs.
That little? No wonder BLICK Formula 1 legend Roger Benoit would like to award you the Nobel Prize in Logistics.
(laughs) That’s my life, I’ve been doing this job for 25 years. Over time, you get to know a few tricks. Without decades of relationships with hotels and airlines, where we have large order volumes, that’s obviously not possible. But since 2002 I have had pandemics as force majeure in my hotel contracts anyway.
You also organize the corona testing in the team. How often is the testing done?
On Wednesday and Sunday. I have set up Wednesday to have enough time for follow-up tests. Because about 5% end up in the lab without a conclusive result, neither negative nor positive. The effort is massive. But it is worth it. Because we can race.
In addition to the many tests, there is also the strict life in the bubble.
That is a huge challenge. To work for three weeks in a row and only travel back and forth between the hotel and the track was something we had never done before. Against the cabin fever, we organized a day in Spielberg with activities like karting, badminton or Segway tours. All in small groups, who are also otherwise together.
What if someone gets infected with Covid-19 though?
Sooner or later we will have a positive case in Formula 1. Not among us, I hope. This is pure probability calculation, because we have contacts, especially at the airports, where we have made a mask mandatory for us. We now fly with our own charter planes. This costs more money, but we want to minimize the contacts to the outside world.
But now the mechanics and engineers were at home for a week. Were they subject to a curfew?
I cannot and will not control everything like in a school camp. It would be negligent if someone didn’t play by the rules and therefore tested positive. But I have full confidence in our people, we have sensitized strongly for the topic.