Lunch with... Ross Brawn

Simon Taylor learns about life inside the Ferrari team, and why their engineering supremo cannot turn away from Formula 1 for long Photography: James Mitchell

Among the avalanche of tributes to Michael Schumacher on his retirement at the end of last season were several that named him the greatest racing driver of all time. I have to say that I find greatest-ever titles in motor racing pretty meaningless. Every element of the sport – cars, circuits and technology, to say nothing of levels of reward and acceptable behaviour – goes on changing down the years, so that all-time comparisons become pointless. Therefore, trying to impose some sort of absolute pecking order on the likes of Jim Clark, Tazio Nuvolari, Ayrton Senna and Stirling Moss is like comparing plum jam with tomato soup.

But there can be no argument that Schumacher, during his own era, was indeed the greatest. He won his first F1 victory at Spa in 1992, and his 91st in Shanghai 14 years later. And all through this incredible career runs a consistent thread, for on the pit wall to cheer his first win for Benetton and his last for Ferrari was the same tall, bespectacled figure. Ross Brawn has been an essential ingredient in almost every Schumacher success, and in many ways the architect of every one of his seven world titles.

Ferrari’s first season in modern F1 without Schumacher will also be its first without Brawn. After 10 years with the team, Ross is having a year away from motor racing altogether. He still has a house in Italy, but we meet in the picturesque Oxfordshire village where he’s had a home for many years. We lunch at his local, the Cherry Tree, where he is evidently a well-liked regular, and where the pub food includes excellent pork and leek sausage and mash.

“It’s a strange experience for me, after nearly 30 years in motor racing, not to be part of the new season. But a lot of things came together which helped me decide to take a year out and indulge myself a little, recharge the batteries. Ferrari has been the most enjoyable period of my career. They’re a lovely bunch of people. But after 10 years of doing the same thing, I need a new challenge. Whether I get it from Ferrari or elsewhere we’ll have to see. The agreement with Luca [de Montezemolo] and Jean [Todt] is that we’ll stay in touch, and in July or August we’ll reach a decision. Taking a sabbatical gives me a way to leave the company gently if I choose, but also gives me the option to return. I’m open about which route I take – it could be a different job with the same team, or the same job with a different team – but I’ll discuss the situation with Ferrari first. If things are running well there and there’s no window for me, I’ll look to see what other openings there might be.

“So yes, it could be with another team that needs to progress. A period of progression can be very exciting, whereas a period of consolidation – which is what we’ve had towards the end of my time with Ferrari – is, I think, less stimulating. It’s not complacency, because there was never any of that at Ferrari. It’s more an unwillingness to make radical change. When you’re down near the back of the grid you take risks, because you’ve still got to prove yourself. Taking risks gets more difficult when you’re winning, because you don’t want to spoil things that are working well.”

Was Schumacher’s departure a factor in Ross’ timing? “No. I decided what I wanted to do a long time ago, before the issue of Michael or Kimi (Raikkonen) came up. I saw it as my job to structure my succession, and develop the technical organisation to carry on without me. That’s been going on for the last 18 months. I really started to reach my decision after we won the 2004 championship almost at a canter (that year Ferrari won 15 out of 18 rounds). Strangely enough 2005 and 2006, much tougher years when we didn’t win the championship, gave me more stimulus. From a technical point of view we get our rewards in lots of different ways. But championships are what we’re after, obviously. We’re very happy with lots of things from 2006, but we didn’t win the championship. Renault did a better job.”

Ross is clearly an utterly competitive person, just as much a racer as his star driver. “It’s black and white: either you’re winning or you’re not. It’s a horrible feeling when you’re not. There are various stages of not winning: it might be because a driver makes a mistake. You can cope with that. It’s frustrating, but you can come back from the race thinking we did what we should have done, and it just didn’t work out. You get situations like at Spa in 1998 [Schumacher was leading the race by over half a minute when he ran into the back of Coulthard], races that are in the bag and you lose them for some stupid reason, and you get angry, but you don’t feel frustration for yourself.

“But then you get races when you should have won and you didn’t because you haven’t done a good enough job, either yourself or someone in the team. If I get it wrong it goes deep, it hurts like hell. It takes me a couple of days to recover from one of those. Outwardly I have to show that we’re going to sort this out, we’re going to fix everything, but my wife Jean knows not to touch on the subject for a couple of days. It takes me time to come to terms with it. The problem is solved by the need to get ready for the next race, the constant rota of races which drives us all along.

“The peculiar phenomenon in Formula 1 is that we all have different cars, different engines, different drivers, different personnel, and yet the front-runners end up within a tenth of a second of each other. If all of us were working in isolation on a project to those parameters, there’s no way we’d come out so close. It’s impossible. The reason why we end up like that is because we’re driving each other. The catalyst is when you’re not fast enough, and when you are fast enough there isn’t the same stimulus. You can say you’re still putting in the same commitment, making the same effort to go faster. But somehow you aren’t. When you’re quicker you’re not prepared to take as many risks. When you’re behind you’re pushing the boundaries harder in all the areas. The teams that are behind, provided they’ve got the resources, will always catch up. That’s why the teams that are slower make more progress than the teams that are quicker.”

By the mid-1990s Ferrari had become a team that was slower. A Ferrari driver hadn’t been World Champion since the late 1970s: Williams and McLaren, and then Benetton, ruled the F1 roost. The young Michael Schumacher had joined Benetton late in 1991 just as Ross arrived, returning to F1 after designing Jaguar’s all-conquering XJR-14 sports car. Schumacher was a winner by 1992, and in 1994 and 1995 he won back-to-back titles. But then he quit.

“Michael going to Ferrari was a snub. It was the team’s fault that he left. I was totally focused on Benetton. We were a team, Michael, Rory (Byrne, the chassis designer) and me. Then one day Flavio (Briatore) walked in and said, ‘Michael’s going to Ferrari.’ We’d just won two World Championships, we were the strongest team, and Michael was leaving. It was quite difficult for me to come to terms with it. I talked to Michael about it later: there were some problems between him and Flavio, some things which Flavio had done. To be honest, it’s the same with Fernando Alonso now – it’s illogical for him to have left Renault, but he’s left. So why?

“Then I had my own problems with Benetton. At the end of 1995 I’d agreed to stay, on condition that I got total responsibility over the whole engineering side. Flavio agreed to that, but ultimately he didn’t implement it. F1 is pretty incestuous, and Michael got to hear I wasn’t happy. At the same time, he wasn’t happy with the technical structure at Ferrari either. Just before Monaco in 1996 I got a call from Willi Weber, asking if I’d like a chat. That’s how it started.”

So the initial approach to join Ferrari actually came from their driver’s manager. Is that a measure of the power that Schumacher was already wielding at Maranello?

“Well, at Benetton Michael was only a driver: a top-class driver, a winner, but not as deeply integrated into the team as he became at Ferrari, because he’d come into a team that already had a structure. When he arrived at Ferrari the team was at sea, they were looking for some reference points, and Michael was a very good reference point.

“But in the middle and later stages of the Ferrari renaissance Michael always worked through me and Jean, the two senior people. He respected the structure we had. His influence never had a divisive effect, because it came through the proper channels. He’d sit with me or Jean or Rory and give his point of view. He always had a good contribution to make, but he never got stroppy if we didn’t choose the path he proposed.

“At Ferrari everybody knew they had the opportunity to contribute to the conclusions we were trying to reach. Take tyre choice for a race: that was always very complicated. I’d chair a committee where all the different elements would present their views. The test team would set out their data, so would the race team, the vehicle dynamics guys, the tyre specialists, we’d have Rory there too. Then I’d decide which was the strongest argument for which tyre choice. And the great thing was that everyone then supported that decision, even if it wasn’t their proposal, because they knew they’d been part of the process. Michael always knew that his opinion had been properly heard and properly considered, and if it hadn’t been adopted he knew there was a good reason. He’s an intelligent guy. It was never: ‘I’m Michael Schumacher, I want this’. That was never in his vocabulary. That’s how he became a much more integrated, intrinsic part of the team than he had been at Benetton.”

What about the role of Michael’s team-mates at Ferrari – Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa – and controversial races like the 2002 Austrian GP, when Barrichello reluctantly obeyed an order to move aside and allow Schumacher to win?

“The only contractual advantage Michael ever had over his team-mate was that he had first call on the spare car, and because of rule changes the spare car has not been an issue in recent years. But we would always take a decision in a race that we felt was best for Ferrari. Those decisions tended to favour Michael, because he was in the best position to win the championship – but it was never a case of Michael is the No 1 driver, so he has to get this or that.

“We had some difficult times with Rubens, who gave Michael quite a hard time competitively during his six seasons with us. If Rubens had been 20 points ahead of Michael in the championship, it would have been logical for all the strategy decisions to favour him. But it never occurred.

“That race in Austria caused a furore. But you have to remember that at that stage in the championship Michael had 44 points to Rubens’ six points, and of course we wanted to maximise Michael’s chances of the title. Championships have been lost in the past by a single point. We asked Rubens several laps before the end to concede position, but he wouldn’t until the last few hundred metres. These things are all discussed beforehand in the calm of the motorhome, so Rubens knew the score.

“But he’s a passionate guy, he was leading the race, and I can understand how he felt. Three races later (by which time Schumacher’s championship was almost, but not quite, clinched) we let Rubens lead Michael home in Germany.”

Today, Formula 1 races are all about strategy – thinking through every permutation of weather, tyres, fuel and safety-car, and second-guessing other teams’ plans too. Ross Brawn is the acknowledged master of this multi-layered game of poker, and his intellectual approach has helped Ferrari to win five Drivers’ Championships and five Constructors’ Championships in ten years. We’re all familiar with the mid-race TV close-ups of Brawn talking on the radio to Schumacher and, we assume, dictating race strategy on the hoof as a race pans out. But Ross maintains that most of it is envisaged beforehand.

“More and more situations are covered by the computer models and simulations that we work up. We plan for almost every eventuality, because I want to avoid having to make a major decision on the pit wall. I hate those situations when you’ve suddenly got to pull something out of thin air. If possible, everything’s got to be thought through, and every circumstance pre-conceived.

“In the pre-race briefing at Magny-Cours in 2004 Luca Baldisseri, who works on our strategies, said, ‘Look, I’ve got this idea about four pitstops, and it doesn’t actually look stupid. It’s no faster than three, but it could actually work.’ So we looked at how it could be introduced into the race.

“Early in the race we had the fastest car, but we were stuck behind Alonso, and we couldn’t use our advantage. On the pit wall I said to Luca, ‘Sod it, I’m not going to let him stay stuck like this. Let’s do something exciting.’ Michael is the guy to make these things work, because he spends time with you and understands what you’re on about. So I said to him on the radio, ‘Michael, we’re getting bored here. We’re going to have a go at something.’ He knew it was a long shot, but the race came to us and we had the reward.”

Magny Cours has a short pitlane, and its approach bypasses the tight final corner, so pit stops are less costly than at most circuits. Michael’s four stops separated him from Alonso, on a lighter fuel load. When Ross demanded a string of qualifying-speed laps to build up enough cushion for the extra stop, Michael delivered. Alonso was beaten by 8.3 seconds.

During a race, what would Ross talk about to Michael? “The systems are quite good now, but they’re not 100 per cent. That’s why you still see pit boards because – assuming the driver reads them – they are the only 100 per cent system available. The main thing Michael wanted to know was how the race around him was developing, because he was in a little cocoon so he couldn’t see the whole environment. Lots of times we’d be giving him targets, telling him how he needed to drive, whether he could consolidate his position or whether he had to push. And we’d talk about what the car was doing and what he, and we, could do to improve it. He was always very active in his discussion with his engineer during a race, and he would do a lot of work with the car because we had lots of adjustable controls that he could play with, plus things we could adjust when he came in, like tyre pressures or wing angle. He could talk to his vehicle engineer, his race engineer and me, and I would be listening in to all of it on both cars.”

So being an F1 driver today demands, as well as everything else, high intelligence? “Yes. That’s the new era of race drivers. Michael was the first to make that step, and he made the step because he had the ability to do it. It’s being able to drive the car on the limit and still have some spare brain capacity to do other things at the same time. As things evolve, the successful drivers will not just be quick. More and more they’ll be the ones who can combine that range of skills – really understanding a race, and how to work to get the best from a car. I get the impression that Alonso is in that category.

“Whenever Michael had a new team-mate, he always made them raise their game. They saw the way he worked and learned to follow it. Rubens made great progress when he joined Ferrari, and Massa has too: commitment, approach, fitness. You don’t go back to the hotel at six o’clock on Saturday, you stay there with the engineer who’s trying to improve the situation.”

But Michael did on occasion make mistakes – the aforementioned collision lapping Coulthard at Spa, for example, or his extraordinary behaviour in qualifying at Monaco in 2006. Did he apologise when something was his fault? “The culture in F1 is that you don’t apologise for something you’ve done. If a mechanic cocks up or a wheel stop goes wrong, or if the driver hits the wall, or I make a wrong call in a race, everyone knows you’ve got it wrong and that’s enough. It’s not done to go around the crew and say sorry. If Michael made a mistake he’d be very angry, very frustrated. And he’d come back for the next race very quiet, very determined, not jovial, not having a laugh with the guys like he normally did, but totally focused on the race because he wanted to redress the balance. He didn’t say anything, but you knew he was thinking, ‘I’ll make it up to you now.’”

Ross’ father worked for Firestone, and he was taken to races from a young age. “I raced karts when I was very young, but I was never much good. There’s nothing worse than having the spirit without the faculties to achieve it. Then my father got me involved in slot-car racing, which was quite big in the ‘60s and ’70s, and I raced them all over Europe, won some championships. It was a technical art developing those cars. They weighed three or four ounces and would do 60 or 70mph, so the aerodynamics were quite significant.

“I did a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, and then I saw an advertisement in the local paper for a job at Williams. I did a year there as a machinist, but the team was so small that when they discovered I could do other things I did a bit of everything. Frank was having some difficulties and sold out to Walter Wolf, so I left and worked for a season as an F3 mechanic. Then Frank called to say he was back on his feet with Patrick, and was forming a new team. That was in the old carpet warehouse at Didcot. When I joined Frank Williams Grand Prix Engineering there were 11 staff, including me. Today Ferrari’s F1 operation is 1000 people.

“I’d been interested in model aircraft, so I understood a bit about aerodynamics. So when Williams started a wind-tunnel programme I got involved almost by default. I found it fascinating. I had a lot of help from Dr John Harvey at Imperial College, who spend more time than he should have done in their wind tunnel showing me how things worked. I’m still in touch with John. He finds us the occasional third-year student he thinks we should take a look at, and every couple of years we take an Imperial College student into Ferrari.

“The Williams years were very formative. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but no-one else did either, so we produced a competitive car. After seven years at Williams I went to the Carl Haas Force team. It wasn’t a successful project, but it did stretch me; I did the aerodynamics and bodywork. When they folded I went to Arrows for 1987. This was another step into the unknown, because suddenly I was responsible for the whole car. In 1988 we were equal fourth in the Constructors’ Championship with Derek Warwick and Eddie Cheever.

“Then Tom Walkinshaw asked me to join the Jaguar sports car programme. We did the first sports car of its generation to use full F1 technology, because some of the engineers I drew into the project had been involved in F1, and our thinking was F1. We looked at the rules and, unlike F1 where you can’t be very aggressive technically, there was this formula which had some constraints but was basically incredibly open. It was a playground for us, and we won the World Sports Car Championship in 1991.

“The XJR-14 was the last time I designed a complete racing car because, when I moved back into F1 with Benetton, Rory Byrne took a large part of that responsibility. In the early days at Benetton Rory would do the basic concept and I would help him, but as the team expanded he was happy with that role and I moved more into the engineering and racing side.

“In sports car racing, strategy was a key part of things, but in F1 it was only just getting started then. When I returned to F1 I was amazed how poorly some of the teams used the pit stops to work for them strategically. In 1994 we were often able to beat Williams through simple strategic moves. The fuel rigs were much slower then. We knew we could stay with them carrying 10 more kilos of fuel, and we’d stop at the same time as them but we’d have more fuel left so we could put less in. So our pit stop would be a couple of seconds quicker than theirs and we’d come out in front. All sorts of accusations went flying around, and our fuel cells were stripped three or four times that season. But the calculations were quite simple. It was just something we were more familiar with, because of sports car racing.

“Clever moves can lead to protests, and I got a bit of a reputation, unfortunately. The one I feel aggrieved about was Imola 1994, the traction control issue. The rest you can argue were all about interpretation of regulations and so on, but in 1994 we were simply accused of cheating. The FIA had our ECUs [electronic control units] examined by an outside firm, who found some redundant features that referred back to 1993. All the race data from Imola was available, and it showed no sign of traction control or launch control being used. The menu didn’t have those options on it, so although they still existed in the software they could not be activated. All the FIA said was, ‘We agree it wasn’t being used, but it was there.’

“It was all ensnared in the huge political row going on between Max Mosley and Flavio and Tom, who’d written a letter to the FIA saying Max wasn’t fit to be president. Then Flavio said to Rory and me, ‘We’re going to concede this one, because all Max is going to do is take away our points from Imola.’ And I said, ‘If you do that deal I will walk out the door, and so will Rory, because we haven’t done anything wrong. You won’t have a technical director or a chief designer.’ So he had to go back to Max and say, ‘We’ll fight the case, because my guys won’t accept a deal.’

“That was the tragedy of traction control: it was like drugs in athletics. Whichever team did well, there was always the innuendo that they had some system that couldn’t be detected. All a team principal had to do was have a quiet word in a journalist’s ear: ‘We hear they’ve got traction control…’ Yet when they made traction control legal and everybody started using it again, the same teams were winning, the same teams were losing. So either everybody had it before, or nobody had it before.

“The more open a formula is, the more stimulating it is technically. I believe that budgetary constraint on Formula 1 has to come from commercial viability, and nothing else. We’ve frozen the engines, we’ve got a control tyre, so Ferrari’s approach is going to be how to divert those funds that have been saved into other technologies to get a performance advantage. It won’t necessarily reduce the overall spend. That’s why everyone is building two wind tunnels. When the only variable left is aerodynamics, all the money will be ploughed into that.”

Ross believes that F1 can enhance its relevance to the outside world by accelerating technological initiatives for the greater economic and ecological good. “The pressures of F1 mean that things get developed very quickly, but I don’t think regenerative braking will wash – I can see it working in town traffic, but it won’t help much in a motorway cruise situation. My proposal for F1 is an efficiency formula, where the only constraint is the fuel flow rate. You can use any engine you like, because if the fuel is constrained you’ll eke out every ounce of energy. So clever use of energy will win races. We’d probably go for a very small turbocharged engine.”

The day after our lunch, Ross and Jean are off to Argentina on a fishing trip. Fishing is a passion for Ross, along with gardening and classic cars. He has a pair of Jaguars, an AC Ace, a 300SL and three beautiful Ferraris: a 275GTB, a Daytona and his “company car”, a 430. “But I couldn’t turn my back on motor racing and just go fishing and play with my cars. My life needs the stimulus of F1, its energy, its motivation, its structure.

“While I’m away from racing I’m going to miss the adrenalin. During the last couple of races in 2006 I was fitted up with a heart monitor, because Ferrari has a physio who likes to monitor these things. He started with the drivers and then moved on to the rest of the team. In Japan, when Michael was leading, we were in a strong position, and my pulse was 120. The very moment his engine failed – the moment we effectively lost the championship – it dropped to 90. You could plot the exact second it happened from the trace of my pulse. When they say your heart sinks, that’s exactly what happens.”

So Ross will recharge his batteries this year: catch fish, do the garden, drive his classic cars. But that won’t make his pulse race. The lure of Formula 1, which has ensnared him for three decades, remains. Wearing a red uniform or not, Ross Brawn will be back.