The Brawn GP story is a modern F1 fairytale, but Ross & Co are still seeking their happy ever after
By Adam Cooper
It was about an hour after the end of the Australian Grand Prix that Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello were finally able to break free of their media commitments and return to the Brawn GP garage. Darkness already enveloped the track as the pair strode along the pitlane, to where a small but noisy crowd of team members awaited them. It was hard to forget that for much of the winter these guys didn’t know if they would still have a job after March.
As The Who blasted away at a free concert on the other side of the pit straight Rubens jumped straight into the mob like a bodysurfing punk rocker. Meanwhile Jenson’s dad John stepped in front of the crowd, posing for the photographers with a glass of red in his hand and a huge smile on his face. It was a little while before team bosses Ross Brawn and Nick Fry appeared for the improvised celebration, joined by that consummate PR man Richard Branson, who had announced his involvement with the squad just the day before.
As if on cue, the strains of Pete Townshend’s Who Are You? echoed across Albert Park. It was a question that this group of people had just answered to the world at large. Brawn GP had arrived…
The former Honda team finished first and second in the opening race of the season, just 23 days after its salvation under a new name was confirmed. A week later Button won again in Malaysia. He rode his luck to some degree after a bad start, but the stopwatch told the story. When he got into clean air just before his stop Jenson set a best lap that was a full second faster than that of Brawn’s nearest challenger.
This really is developing into one of the most amazing stories that the sport has ever seen. Even those at the heart of it still can’t believe that it has played out in the way it has.
“It’s slightly surreal,” admits Ross Brawn. “It’s my name, but [the team] had to be called something. I still feel awkward about it, to be honest. It wasn’t the master plan; it just evolved the way it did. It hasn’t sunk in. Whenever anyone refers to it as a Brawn, I think – what are they talking about? And then I suddenly realise. So it is a bit weird. It was very much a team effort to put [Brawn GP] together with the management group we had and the staff. I don’t think of it as my team, it’s our team!
“It’s mildly embarrassing in some ways to have my name on the car, but I do have, I guess, a certain profile in F1. It was helpful from the commercial side, and the team had to be called something. So that’s where that came from. But we’ve had massive ups and downs in the last four or five months, and days when I went home wondering whether it would ever happen.
“We went through some very difficult periods, and I think the unity of the team and the group at what was Honda and is now Brawn GP is what carried it through. Certainly, I couldn’t have done it by myself.”
“Everyone has stuck together,” confirms Fry. “Everyone at the top level, the middle level, the people who put the car together. Everyone has looked out for each other, supported each other. The days when I felt down in the dumps Ross was pulling things along, and the other way round, it was exactly the same. That’s happened right the way though the organisation.
“Rubens and Jenson didn’t know if they had a car to drive, but they worked for three months on their fitness. You need real determination to keep working through a long winter.”
Much has happened since December 5, when Brawn and Fry were in Tokyo for what they thought was a routine meeting with Honda’s top brass. They knew that the company’s financial situation had become difficult, and they were prepared to trim running costs. Instead they were told, ‘We’re done with F1’. Their first task was to tell the employees the bad news. Button was waiting at a baggage carousel at Gatwick Airport when his manager phoned.
“It was a really tough situation,” he recalls.
“I headed to the factory the next day and saw all the guys. I was very emotional because I thought that could be the end of my serious career in F1 with a competitive team. Off the back of two poor seasons, where was I going to go from there?”
Brawn and Fry and their fellow directors set about finding a way to keep the organisation afloat. Honda took away its engines and KERS energy recovery system with unseemly haste, but the team still had its ready-to-run RA109 design. Fortunately, both Ferrari and Mercedes volunteered to help out if needed.
The engineering staff, led by deputy technical director Jörg Zander, began to assess the pros and cons of each option.
Meanwhile a string of potential purchasers were vetted by Brackley on Honda’s behalf. And when none apparently proved suitable, the management team decided that they could take it on themselves, without outside investment. It could be argued that this spurning of outside offers represented a clash of interests, but at least survival was ensured. The details have not been made public, but it’s assumed that Honda simply handed over the team to
Brawn, Fry and their three fellow directors, along with a dowry that is said to be worth $100 million.
Ross explains how the deal unfolded: “I don’t think we ever managed to find the right combination of potential purchasers that suited Honda and that the management team were confident with. And Honda very much wanted it to carry on in a proper form, and they wanted it to be successful. And the idea developed.
“Before Christmas we’d had quite a lot of discussions with different interested parties, none of which completely fitted with Honda’s objectives. So it started to evolve after Christmas, and we ended up where we are today.”
While Fry focused on the business side, Brawn ensured that his crew kept developing what was to become the BGP001. The car proved sensationally fast from its first shakedown test at Silverstone in March, and there are sound reasons why.
Last year all the teams had to carefully balance development of their then-current cars with preparations for 2009 and the massive package of rules changes. Allocating R&D resources was particularly hard for the likes of Ferrari and McLaren, who were embroiled in a championship battle. But Honda gave up on improving the hopeless RA108 at an unusually early stage in order to concentrate on ’09. It was a brave decision, but it allowed the team to go back to basics and get a much better handle on the new aerodynamic requirements than some of its rivals. That led to its pursuit of the controversial double-diffuser route, although even critics admit there is much more to the car than one headline-grabbing item.
The early start also allowed the revamped design team – some were headhunted by Brawn, others arrived just before him – to properly gel. Until December the work was conducted with massive funding and support from Honda’s R&D facilities in Japan.
“They’re good people and we knew the team had made a fantastic investment in the last year,” says Fry. “Last season was very tough. It’s easy to say ‘we’re going to give up a season to work on the following year’, but when you know you’re coming to the circuit only able to be at the back of the grid, that’s really hard. We worked through that. I’m a little bit disappointed for the Honda guys that worked all last year on this car, and now it’s a Mercedes.”
Brawn and his men knew that the RA109 was going to be something special, which made Honda’s decision to back out all the more frustrating. But then the team had some good fortune. It soon emerged that the Mercedes engine was a near-perfect replacement for the Honda – it could drop into that gaping hole between the chassis and gearbox with a minimum of disruption to the original design, although inevitably there were some drawbacks.
“There are a few,” says Brawn, “but to be honest fewer than we would have made if we had fitted a Ferrari engine. And I have to say both Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren have been very supportive in the process. It became clear around Christmas time that the Ferrari was much more of a challenge to fit in the car, so we went the Mercedes route.”
The lack of KERS availability also allowed the team to finish the car without the inherent compromises that other teams have faced while trying to package the complex new systems.
“Mechanically and aerodynamically the car is strong,” says Button. “Mercedes have done a great job with the engine. It’s good to have that lump in the back, and it’s also good that we’ve been able to work so closely with them and produce a [strong] package.”
No one will admit it, but it’s believed that in every area of performance – power, cooling efficiency and fuel economy – the team is better off with the Mercedes. Nevertheless it’s tempting to wonder how good the RA109 might have been given a winter without the sort of turmoil the team faced.
“The biggest disappointment for everyone would not have been being unemployed and the team closing, it would be not knowing how quick this car was,” admits Fry. “Everyone would have spent the rest of their lives thinking, ‘Well, actually that could have been the car that won races.’ We would not have known. Any advantages we’ve got out of the Mercedes engine are probably counteracted in other areas. I think we would have done equally well if we had carried on [as Honda].”
“Honda had involvement in last year’s work,” says Button, who understandably is a little less generous. “You can’t take that away from them. And obviously they had to pull out at the end of last year, which they did for their own reasons. Yeah, I’ve had a great career with Honda, and I’d say thank you to them, and obviously goodbye for now. We’re happy with what we have – I’m just not sure what they are thinking at this moment in time…”
Brawn himself has given little thought to what might have been: “We’re focused on the future rather than worrying too much about the past. You’ve got to learn lessons from what you’ve done, but those events are behind us now. We’re now thinking about the next car, we’re thinking about 2010, when we can hopefully maintain a competitive position for the future with a team which regrettably has had to be downsized, but which is a much more efficient, tightly focused unit because of that. So we won’t look back, only forward.”
He’s right to do that, because despite the current euphoria, the future is far from clear. Honda’s dowry has gone some way to paying for this season, but at some stage those funds will run out. On the plus side, Branson’s involvement is expected to be clarified at the Spanish Grand Prix. Whether Virgin takes an actual shareholding and/or guarantees funding – on the basis that Branson ‘sub-lets’ space on the car in an attempt to make it pay – remains to be seen.
Even with his backing, things are still going to be tight. After Australia the team confirmed plans to lay off some 270 staff, but it remains a large team trying to be a lean and mean one, and the Brackley facility is way too big for what is now required. The management has at least ensured that where possible job cuts are in departments that don’t directly affect performance.
“As a private team we can’t sustain the same number of people,” says Fry. “The technical rules have changed dramatically and F1 teams don’t need to be 700 people any more. This is a formula that has got to work on lower money and a smaller number of people. I feel desperately sorry for those people who have worked hard for the team [and have been made redundant].”
“I don’t want to comment on the commercial arrangements with Honda,” says Brawn. “Obviously we’re here and we have to build now for the medium- and long-term. It’s not easy. But the costs of F1 are under much tighter control and constraints, so I think that’s a positive sign for the future. We’re a team that tends to be very efficient in the way that we use our funding, perhaps coming from a lower cost base than some of the major teams.
“I don’t think we need the massive budgets that existed one or two years ago. But it is tough. Results will be crucial to us achieving that. Fortunately, the guys have done a fantastic job with the car and we have two highly-motivated drivers, so we’ve got a golden opportunity.”
In his 10th season in Formula 1 Button finally has the chance to deliver on the promise that propelled him into a Williams seat in 2000, while Barrichello is showing that, as he approaches his 37th birthday, he can still get the job done.
“People understand what we’ve been through the last few months,” says Button. “And I think we’ve got a lot of support out there. We’re the people’s team, hopefully.”
It’s not going to get any easier, however, and this could be the only chance. The team doesn’t have the luxury of taking a year out to prepare for next season, funds are limited and Honda’s R&D support is no longer there. Nevertheless everyone else is still chasing the BGP001, and the established front-runners are some way behind.
“We’ve got some good upgrades to the car coming along,” says Fry. “But Ferrari, McLaren, Toyota and BMW are going to be relentless in tracking us down. We’re realistic, we’re going to enjoy it day by day. We’ve got an advantage at the moment, but that won’t stay for long. But we’re in this to win. Ross and I didn’t work hard to save the team to be at the back of the grid.”
Brawn himself has an extraordinary record, playing a huge part in every one of the seven World Championships that Michael Schumacher won with Benetton and Ferrari. So can his team really start thinking about the ultimate prize?
“Championships are an accumulation of race wins, so if you want to win a championship you’ve got to start winning races,” he says. “When I joined Honda it was our ambition to win races, and now the team’s changed, that ambition hasn’t changed. Given the situation we’ve been through over the winter, it would just be a fantastic tribute to the staff we have.”