He’s been the driving force behind the most remarkable zero-to-hero tale in F1 history. Here he takes us through a momentous year
By Nigel Roebuck
At Interlagos it was typical of Ross Brawn that, in the immediate aftermath of clinching both the World Championships, he should remember those in his team made unavoidably redundant in the economic wasteland of last winter. As everyone hailed Jenson Button’s triumph, Brawn thanked all who had made it possible, not least those no longer on the payroll.
There was a break in his voice, and you couldn’t be surprised: 10 months earlier it had looked unlikely that Ross – or anyone else who had worked for Honda – would even participate in the 2009 season, let alone win eight Grands Prix and march off with the titles. “This is very special,” he said. “Very special…”
In the same place, three years earlier, Michael Schumacher had taken part in his last Grand Prix, and it could also have been that way for Brawn who had concluded that, after 10 seasons of working at Ferrari, he needed a break.
“Taking a sabbatical,” he says, “had several purposes, one of which was to put a full stop at the end of my Ferrari career. While I wasn’t certain of that, there was a feeling that it had been a wonderful period in my life, but that going back might be like re-visiting an old girlfriend – might be a disappointment!
“I’d have felt terribly awkward moving directly from Ferrari to another team, and I also wanted to reflect on what I would do next. My wife and I had travelled a lot, but we hadn’t seen much – that’s the terrible paradox of Formula 1, isn’t it? – so we decided to travel the world, and look at things from a different perspective.”
Thus the Brawns embarked on a year of which to dream, and Ross allows that his passion for angling had an influence on their schedule: “There were various types of fishing I’d never had the time to do, and I thought that if I didn’t do it now – in my early fifties – I might not be fit enough when I next got a break.”
Over the winter the Brawns were in Argentina, and there followed a spell in New Zealand, a country new to him. “An absolutely gorgeous place,” he says, “and the people are lovely. One place we stayed in was a sort of bed-and-breakfast, but in a big barn. The owners weren’t there, but they said, ‘Don’t worry – the doors’ll be open, just let yourselves in…’”
I wondered how widely recognised Brawn had been in the course of his world tour. “Not that widely,” he shrugs. “It was never a nuisance – in fact, occasionally it was a help. In Buenos Aires they’re big Ferrari fans, so there were times in restaurants when it helped to get a table, and so on.
“I had a funny experience in New Zealand. The Australian Grand Prix was on, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to come to terms with not being at a race. We were in a place called Arthur’s Pass, a nature reserve, and the culture was that there was no radio, no TV – you were there to be in among nature.
“My daughter was with us at the time, and she found a local pub where the race was being shown, and it turned out that the landlord was a big racing fan. When he saw me he said, ‘I’d have been less shocked if Elvis Presley had walked through the door!’
“Watching a race, and not being involved, was a surreal experience – and of course Ferrari won. I had terribly mixed emotions, and it took a while for them to subside. Wherever we were, I usually watched the races, but we were in Martha’s Vineyard at the time of the Canadian Grand Prix, and amazingly – particularly as it was a North American race – we couldn’t see it anywhere. It was on pay-per-view, and none of the local bars were showing it…”
If he kept an eye on F1, Brawn nevertheless put his sabbatical to good use. “For about six months I managed to turn my mind off, but then I did a talk for the MIA, and a chap there talked about my having a role in the British entry for the America’s Cup. That started me thinking about what I was going to do.”
Brawn had promised Jean Todt that if he decided on a return to F1 he would talk to him first, and in August went off to Maranello. “We had some nice suppers in Jean’s garden, and I met with Luca [di Montezemolo] a few times. It was all very friendly, but somehow it didn’t gel…
“The thing was, Stefano [Domenicali] had been a great servant to Ferrari, and – quite rightly – they wanted to give him an opportunity. I didn’t want to stand in his way, so what was being discussed was how we might share the role. Stefano’s a great friend of mine, but I didn’t see that as a workable solution, and I think we all reached a point of thinking, ‘We’ve had the discussion, and it hasn’t crystallised, so it’s better to part as friends and do our own thing’.”
There was also a feeling that it was time to come home. Through the Ferrari years Jean Brawn had been able to live in Italy, while often visiting her daughters in England when her husband was away at a race.
“That worked well,” says Ross, “but by now both the girls were married, and if grandchildren came along – which they have now – Jean would naturally want to spend more time in the UK. We left Italy at a time when we still loved everything, but bought a house on the coast in Tuscany – in fact we went there this summer, during the break.”
In 2004 Brawn had signed a two-year extension to his Ferrari contract, at the time informing di Montezemolo and Todt that probably this would be the last. The belief was that Schumacher, too, would quit at the end of ’06, but Ross is adamant this played no part in his thinking.
Ah, but did his decision in any way influence Michael? “Don’t know, Nigel – it may have been a factor, but I hope not, because he needed to do it for himself.”
Through his sabbatical Brawn had occasional calls from Nick Fry, and ultimately they had a meeting. “I’d decided I wanted to have another go, so I outlined to Nick what I was looking for, in terms of a new challenge. After one trip to Japan, to meet the Honda executives, the deal was done.
“For me it was the perfect opportunity to have an influence, because Honda was the sleeping giant, the company with huge resources – but grossly underachieving. Over the years I’d had a great relationship with Bridgestone, so the Japanese ways of doing things weren’t new to me. It all looked like a good fit.”
Brawn arrived too late, however, to have much influence on the 2008 car, which proved to be yet another dog, Rubens Barrichello scoring 11 points, Button only three.
“We all know,” says Ross, “that aerodynamics form the fundamental platform of a modern F1 car, but Loïc Bigois and others hadn’t been here long, and hadn’t had the opportunity to put the best package together. No one had a vision of what sort of car they wanted to create.
“The other thing was that Honda believed they had the best engine in F1, and it had to be made clear to them that they didn’t! The chassis wasn’t great – and the engine wasn’t great. Those were the facts.”
After the Ferrari years, Brawn conceded that it had been something of a culture shock to go racing with an uncompetitive package. “A bit galling, yes! It reminded me of my time with Arrows in the late ’80s. Otherwise I’d been fortunate: for 10 or 15 years, I don’t think the team I’d been with had finished lower than third in the championship, so yes, it was a shock.”
There were other aspects, too. Five years ago, I reminded him, Brawn had told me it was not going to be easy, after working with Schumacher, to go racing with another driver.
“Mmm! There’s really no way round that, is there? When you’ve worked with someone who’s a seven-time World Champion… people like that come along very rarely, and that’s a fact.
“In some ways it was a bit traumatic in ’08 – but it wasn’t as if we were thinking, ‘God, this is awful; what are we going to do?’ I think what I was able to bring to the whole thing was a reference point for people, and a decision on our approach. Before that, in Japan they had one idea, and the guys here had another. There was tremendous potential, but it was uncoordinated. Still, I could see how it could be much better in ’09, and that energised us and kept us going.”
Then came the earthquake: in December it was announced that the Honda Motor Company was withdrawing from F1, with immediate effect. Everyone in the team, not least Brawn, was poleaxed.
“Given the economic crisis, Nick and I had already looked at how we could achieve our aims with a lower budget. We were due to meet with the board in Japan, but then a phone call came, asking for a meeting at Heathrow – and not to tell anyone. That rang alarm bells, but we said, ‘Well, let’s go with the reduced budget prepared, in case that’s what they’ve got in mind’. As it turned out, it was a matter of, ‘Sorry chaps, but we’re out…’ Terminal.”
Through 2008 Honda had spent prodigiously in preparation for ’09. As Brawn pointed out, all the investment, in terms of wind tunnel time and so on, had been made. “But I think they were so traumatised by the severity of the economic downturn that they… reacted. They were needing to take draconian measures with the company, and didn’t feel that having a high-profile F1 team tacked on the side was the right thing.
“Had we been winning races, it might have been different – but we weren’t. I’d said that next year was going to be different, but they’d heard it all before. It was like Perfect Storm, in that it all came together at the wrong time. The instruction to Nick and me was, ‘Shut the doors and turn the lights off’.”
Brawn and Fry asked for time to reflect on the situation, suggesting that perhaps they could find a way to continue. “The Honda guys were surprised,” says Ross, “because I don’t believe they thought we would, or could. And, in fact, we didn’t know!
“After Christmas we decided firmly to try and keep it alive for at least another year, and see if we could find a solution. That meant taking on the responsibility of the company of course, but the costs that Honda would have faced in shutting it down enabled us to carry on.”
From the outset, Brawn says, Honda behaved entirely honourably, providing a budget for the team to go on working, to pay the wages and such redundancy payments – far above what was statutory – as were necessary.
“At various stages we had to go to Honda, and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to sign this contract or that – can you let us do it? If you don’t, it’s finished’. One of those contracts, obviously, was with Mercedes, and to Honda’s credit they always agreed. I was disappointed by the decision to stop, but everything they did thereafter was in the interests of keeping the team alive, when it might have suited them simply to walk away.”
It must surely have been tempting, even if only briefly, for Ross to do the same, but he says not. Yes, he could have taken his redundancy money, but there was a workforce of 750 to consider: “There were times when you thought, ‘This isn’t going to happen’, but you couldn’t not fight. If in the end it didn’t work, at least I’d given it a go – I couldn’t have faced myself if I’d just walked away. All the senior management felt the same.
“The staff were fantastic. We kept them informed, and made it clear that if the company survived it wasn’t going to be the size it had been – they knew that, but they still worked like hell.
“We’re now down to about 450. There were some who left anyway, and we then asked for volunteers, after which we had to make 130-140 people redundant…”
That must surely have been the worst aspect of the whole situation, I said. Ross nods. “It wasn’t great – especially after the effort everyone had put in. It was a black period, but people were as understanding as they could be. Almost all said they’d come back if an opportunity arose, and when we later took on contract staff to help with the next car, some were people we’d had to make redundant earlier.”
When the Brawn BGP 001 took to the track, it was at once startlingly quick. After a shakedown at Silverstone, it was taken to Barcelona, where Button and Barrichello began setting times beyond the opposition.
Initially Brawn didn’t know what to make of it. “It sounds a bit glib, but we… were expecting the lap times we achieved – the surprise was that other people weren’t there. It wasn’t as though we got on the track and thought, ‘Goodness me, that’s fast – why is it?’ Unless we’d cocked up somewhere, it was where we expected to be. You have to remember, too, that we had the Mercedes engine – one of the best, if not the best, in F1.
“It was just a function of the new regulations, I think. We’d devoted virtually all of 2008 to the car, and we were three or four months ahead of a lot of the opposition. Mind you, it was a tremendous thrill – I remember Jenson coming back after his first run in Barcelona and saying, ‘Oh, the car’s pretty good’, and ‘Shove’ [Andrew Shovlin, his engineer] said, ‘Well, the time’s pretty good, too!’”
Brawn’s voice is quiet, his demeanour gentle, but anyone will tell you that beneath there lies a fiercely competitive man, every bit a match for one such as Schumacher.
In the spring came the controversy of the ‘double diffusers’. After Melbourne, where Button and Barrichello finished one-two, there were protests, but the diffusers were declared legal, whereupon seven of the 10 teams set about a redesign of the rear end of their cars.
“We thought we’d interpreted the rule cleverly,” says Brawn, “but we didn’t see it as any great breakthrough. I wasn’t surprised that Williams and Toyota had gone the same way as us – I was amazed that the rest hadn’t…”
Button, as we know, would win six of the first seven races, a period Brawn describes as, “Surreal – to be honest, we kept pinching ourselves!
“Actually, although we as a team have certainly had a lot of pressure this year, for me personally it had changed – it wasn’t a fraction of what I’d felt at Ferrari.”
Not even with your name above the door?
“No, and for several reasons. Let’s use the running of the car as an example: getting it running, getting to the first race was a huge bonus in itself – you were just so relieved that performance was almost secondary.
“At Ferrari, everything was structured to that moment the car got on track – if it wasn’t immediately quicker than what you already had, it was a failure. The pressure at Ferrari is born of the media, the tifosi, the history – if you make one wrong move you’re castigated in the press, and that creates a pressure, believe me.
“Here, on the other hand, the pressure is internal – it’s our desire to do well, not someone looking over us all the time, giving us a bollocking if we don’t. I feel the need, the passion, to do well – but not the tension that’s there at Ferrari. Of course that was all the greater working with Michael because, to the outside world, if he didn’t win there was something wrong!”
As the year wore on Brawn GP’s early advantage was inevitably eroded, and the only victories in the second half of the season were the pair scored by Barrichello, in the 17th year of his F1 career.
“Even in some of the early Grands Prix,” says Ross, “we didn’t have the fastest car, but we had very good races, and I think at that time some teams – even though they had good cars – weren’t racing very well. It reminded me of occasions when Michael won races when he wasn’t the best guy there – just because everyone thought he was! We certainly had a very good car, but everything was running for us.
“As a team, we’ve still got to improve in some areas, and obviously I’m part of that. It’s great to recover from a bad Friday with a good Saturday – but why was Friday bad in the first place? That’s where we have to become stronger. I wouldn’t have wanted the dip in performance at mid-season, but in a way it enabled us to strengthen the team in the long run. I was always convinced we’d come through it, and we did.
“Thrashing through the problems, and working out how to deal with them, is crucial to being stronger in the future: now, when we meet these setbacks, we’ll know we can come through them, because we’ve done it before. That’s what the team – including the drivers – needed to learn: you will have these knockbacks in a championship year…
“The thing is, this team had never really competed for a championship – I mean, Jenson hadn’t fought for one for 10 years, either! Through all that time he’d do the best job he could, but if it didn’t work there was always the next race. This was different: this was relentless pressure for the whole season.”
Certainly that pressure appeared to tell on Button, and for quite a while. Sublimely confident in the first half of the year, he subsequently became tentative, most obviously in qualifying. While continuing to race well, Jenson was giving himself too much to do on Sunday afternoons, and he was fortunate that none of his title rivals – Barrichello, Vettel, Webber – put together a consistent string of high finishes.
“At first,” says Brawn, “the big thing was that we’d survived, and Jenson felt the same as everyone else. He was driving beautifully, and I think he felt, ‘Aren’t I a lucky boy? I’ve got this great new car to play with, and if we win, we win – and if we don’t, well, I’m still here, and I didn’t think I was going to be…’
“Then you move into a different feeling of, ‘I’m leading the championship, and everyone expects me to win, and I’d better not do anything wrong’ – and he had to learn to deal with that. In many ways, fighting for a title from behind is easier: when you’re trying to maintain a lead you mustn’t make mistakes – it’s the guys below who can have a go, because they’ve got less to lose.
“We were lucky in the drivers we had. As you saw occasionally, Rubens has an emotional side to him – which can be frustrating! – but he remains very quick, very committed, and he works hard with his engineer.”
Now, Brawn can look back on an almost miraculous year, but he acknowledges that it would have been near impossible for his team to survive without FOTA, formed only a few months before the crisis.
“There’s a much stronger camaraderie among the teams than there used to be – a spirit of cooperation built out of adversity, of dealing with difficulties with the FIA. FOTA, as a body, was crucial to our survival.
“What evolved from this camaraderie was very important, too, in that we got the Concorde Agreement signed, so the monies owing to this team have been paid, and that gives us our future. Once it was signed, the commercial side accelerated, too. We’re OK for 2010, and we’re obviously building for the future beyond that.”
Last, I asked about Honda’s response to the success of a car originally conceived to wear the company’s badge. The board’s decision to quit F1, after all, had been by no means unanimous.
“The messages,” smiles Ross, “have been very generous, I must say. All the senior management wrote to me, and their words were to the effect that, ‘We’re so proud that what we wanted to put in place has happened…’
“As you say, there were those who thought they should stop, and those who didn’t. Obviously it was upsetting for the engineers: they’d genuinely had a part in the success, and they were disappointed they couldn’t share it, but… it’s history now, isn’t it? And in light of everything that’s happened I just think, ‘What a lucky man I am…’”
Perhaps so, in some measure, but there’s a little more to it than that, as Jenson Button can tell you. Michael Schumacher, too.