Nigel Roebuck

Reflections
– Button’s patience finally rewarded in Melbourne
– Bernie-and-Max react against FOTA uprising
– Honda misses out as Brawn works his magic

The weekend was summed up in a quiet moment before the drivers went on the podium. Ross Brawn embraced his drivers, Button and Barrichello, and then Rubens looked at his boss: “What a car…” he said.

What a car, indeed. Designed very early, debuted very late, for the reasons we know. As Brawn GP headed off to Melbourne, the team had tested only seven days, and as Ross said after the race: “Obviously we were a bit concerned about reliability – we hadn’t done a race distance until today…”

You’d have to say that there was an element of luck in the team’s one-two, for Barrichello had a somewhat chaotic race (which proved beyond doubt that Brawn builds not only a quick, but also a strong motor car), and perhaps, as Mario Theissen suggested, Kubica might have stolen the victory, had he not had a coming-together with Vettel in the late laps. Robert was, after all, on the harder Bridgestones, and coming on increasingly strong, while the leader’s soft compound tyres were graining.

Jenson, though, had led from the start, and always looked to have things handled. Afterwards he said it hadn’t been as easy as it might have looked – problems with getting heat into his second set of tyres, visibility problems in the low, early evening sun – but fundamentally this was a race he dominated.

Afterwards people with long memories were remembering Reims in 1954, when Mercedes-Benz returned to Grand Prix racing after 15 years away, and Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling finished first and second. The magnitude of what Brawn GP has accomplished in the last few weeks cannot possibly be over-exaggerated, and Melbourne started the 2009 Grand Prix season in glorious fashion.

What happened on the track was a perfect antidote to a deal of poor publicity for the sport in the build-up to the new season. There had been the efforts of the FIA and FOM to destabilise the unity of FOTA, arguments about unpaid monies, disagreements about diffusers, and on and on, but when the cars actually got moving we all remembered again why we love Grand Prix racing.

As we have seen before, Melbourne does not necessarily provide an accurate form guide for the rest of the season, but when you studied the grid you might have thought you were reading it upside down. Towards the front you found such as Brawn (née Honda), Williams, Toyota and Red Bull, in the middle Ferrari, towards the rear McLaren.

Twelve months ago, lest anyone forget, Lewis Hamilton completely dominated in Australia, but this season he finds himself – for the first time in his Formula 1 career – looking down the wrong end of the telescope, and actually driving an uncompetitive car. Making good use of the KERS system on his car, Hamilton finished well, but, with an in-season testing ban in force this year, McLaren has chosen a bad time to come up with a poor car. The team’s unrivalled simulation technologies will certainly need to earn their keep.

Ferrari, while not there, was at least thereabouts, and although neither Massa nor Räikkönen finished, they showed enough to feel reasonably confident about the season as a whole.

It has been said endlessly that these days it’s all about the car, that even a great driver is relatively helpless if he doesn’t have absolutely competitive machinery. In Australia Alonso, the most complete of all, was never a serious factor, indicating that Renault, like McLaren, apparently has much to do.

How satisfying, though, for Button and Barrichello, after years in the Honda wilderness, suddenly to be where their talents warrant: at the sharp end.

Patrick Head has always maintained that Sepang, the second race on the schedule, gives a truer indication of where everyone is than Melbourne, and maybe, within a week of my writing this, everything will look a little different. But the signs are that there have been shifts, temporary or not, in the status quo, and it was a fine thing, for example, to see signs of a Williams renaissance. Perhaps, as we have seen before, the team’s competitiveness will fade over the season as others progress, but Rosberg was fastest in all the practice sessions, and his pass of Räikkönen in the race was sublime.

Nico qualified ahead of both Ferraris, but on the run down to the first turn KERS took both Massa and Räikkönen past him, and many have suggested that this is where the controversial system will provide its greatest single advantage: away from the grid. As the season evolves, it may prove increasingly crucial for competitiveness, but in Melbourne that was questionable. The Brawns seemed to manage without it.

As I write this, an hour or so after the finish of the Australian Grand Prix, a great season, new rules and all seems to be in prospect, not least because the old order – at least for a time – appears to have changed. Yes, Ferrari and, we assume, McLaren will come back, because they are Ferrari and McLaren, but they face a greater threat than for a very long time.

Think of it: the Brawns finished one-two, but if Vettel and Kubica, absolute racers both, had not laid claim to the same piece of asphalt at the same moment, drivers from Red Bull and BMW would have joined Button on the podium. The Toyotas, both of which started from the pitlane, made a great impression, and Williams has obviously a strong basis on which to build.

Formula 1 is looking closer, front to back, than it has for a great many years, and perhaps finally Button will have the opportunity to realise all that latent talent. For the last two years Jenson, while bearing it bravely, has inevitably tired of being asked questions about how well Lewis was doing. For now, at least, he and Ross are the men in the pound seats, and right well they deserve it.

*****

"FOTA is the best thing to happen in years in Formula 1,” said Flavio Briatore when I interviewed him recently, “because if we’re not together, we’re very weak.

“Remember the old days when you had the FOCA teams and the ‘grandee’ teams? You’re only going to improve your business if you’re all on the same side – if you create competition, everybody tries to take advantage.

“In F1 what do we have? We have the FIA, we have the commercial rights holder, and we have the teams. The FIA is one person, right? The commercial rights holder is one person. The teams, though… that’s 10 or 12 different people, all talking – and all trying to do the best deal possible for themselves. It wasn’t working any more, so we decided to try to unify, to have one representative to speak for everybody.

“We should take this opportunity to make F1 right,” Briatore concluded, “because the moment the economy starts to recover we might start to lose the unified feeling again…”

As I write this, the weekend before Melbourne, there is no sign of the economy’s starting to recover – ha! – but still the unity of FOTA is under attack, thanks to a grenade rolled into their midst by Messrs Mosley and Ecclestone, Max-and-Bernie, the double act which has ruled F1 since Job was a lad.

On the morning of March 5, however, all that lay in the future, and as I stumbled out of bed at 4.15 I must say I momentarily questioned the wisdom of going to Geneva for FOTA’s inaugural press conference. When all was said and done, the salient quotes would be on the websites by mid-afternoon, would they not?

Well, yes, they would, but that much is true of anything that happens in today’s world, and on that basis only Internet journalists would ever go anywhere. This particular event was something different, and from the moment my invitation arrived I was strongly inclined to attend, to get an impression of FOTA, of all these disparate souls now apparently united.

To the Batiment des Forces Motrices, then, on a drizzly morning, and as we stood around, drinking coffee, before the conference started, conversation was dominated by news that the erstwhile Honda team had indeed survived, and would be known henceforth as Brawn GP. There had been speculation that Nick Fry might not be involved, but in the event it was he who represented the team at the conference, Ross himself being back at the factory for the formal ‘handing over of the keys’.

We took our seats, and in they trooped, the team principals, genial to a man. Luca di Montezemolo, the president of FOTA, then began his address, and this was Luca at his most patrician, most statesmanlike.

Also his most politically correct. Throughout his speech he emphasised – as had Briatore – that F1 was a triangle, with the FIA (Max Mosley) at one corner, FOM (Bernie Ecclestone) at another, FOTA at the third. It was imperative, di Montezemolo said, that the three sides worked together in taking Formula 1 forward to new and greater heights.

I like Luca, and have always enjoyed his company, but as the minutes passed I began to ponder again my decision to schlep to Switzerland. This was clearly not a day for bombshell announcements.

After a while di Montezemolo handed over to the Working Groups within FOTA. Mario Theissen presented the technical vision of the future, after which Briatore dealt with the commercial aspects, and Martin Whitmarsh the sporting stuff. There were plenty of sensible plans to do with reducing costs, improving the spectacle, and so on, but the only instant ‘news story’ was a proposal that the World Championship scoring system be amended to 12-9-7-5-4-3-2-1. Most thought that preferable to what we have at the moment, but still putting too little premium on winning.

Finally di Montezemolo came back to the microphone, and in the course of his closing remarks invited Ron Dennis to say a few words. It was all very good-humoured, and if the intention had been to demonstrate harmony among the teams, it worked.

As one remembered the ferocity of the antagonism between Ferrari and McLaren during the infamous ‘Spygate’ affair, it was difficult to believe how much had changed in a year. Had Jean Todt still been at the helm of Ferrari, one could not have imagined such a thing – indeed, one wondered if the formation of FOTA would have been feasible at all. As it was, Dennis sat alongside Stefano Domenicali, and symbolically that was not insignificant.

It must be said that after the conference we were left with a certain feeling of anti-climax, but the more one thought about it, playing back the tape of what had been said, the more one detected evidence of steel beneath the silk. Yes, di Montezemolo had said it was sure that all parties would sign a new Concorde Agreement, taking us to the end of 2012 – but then what? The teams would be looking for a significantly bigger slice of the financial cake, that’s what.

“We need to get back to where F1 is a business, and not an expensive hobby,” Briatore had said to me. “Basically what we need is enough money from Bernie to break even – this makes sense. Then, any money from sponsorship is profit to invest in the company. We must be able to survive on the money we’re producing – like a producer depends on the money from his movies.”

The di Montezemolo who spoke in Geneva was not the man who lost his rag on the subject of money from FOM in the Monza paddock, nor he who last June, in the wake of the News of the World affair, proposed that Mosley should step down as FIA president ‘for reasons of credibility’. No, this was Luca striving to appear reasonable, conciliatory, and very well he did it.

Three months earlier, though, following the FOTA meeting in Monaco, di Montezemolo had been moved to suggest that the era of domination over F1 by Max-and-Bernie was now at an end, and I was perhaps not alone in wondering if that were wise. It may have been the wish of many for some little time, but actually to give it public voice… tricky cove in F1, saying what you think, as many have discovered over the years.

Significantly, too, Luca’s concluding comment in December was this: “What’s certain is that the time for ‘divide and conquer’ to rule in F1 is over”.

His remarks provoked an immediate, furious, response from Ecclestone, who for the first time admitted what everyone had known for years – that Ferrari received a great deal more money from FOM than any other team.

Bernie referred back to the time when the GPWC (née the GPMA – Grand Prix Manufacturers Association) was active, when there seemed for a while the possibility that the teams, greatly encouraged by the manufacturers, would give the finger to Bernie-and-Max, and form a breakaway championship of their own.

I remember that time well – indeed vividly recall one team principal’s devout hope that the GPWC’s aspirations would be realised. “Anything,” he murmured, “to get away from those ****s…”

A touch ungracious, you might think, for those ****s – or one of them, anyway – had over the years made a great many F1 people inordinately rich. Now, though, there was a clear perception that this **** had too much influence over that ****, and as a consequence the teams – the people who actually provided the motor race, after all – were being taken for a ride.

In the end, though, the threatened insurrection fell apart, as Ecclestone reminded us. “Ferrari,” he raged, “were the only team that broke rank with the other manufacturers – and why?” He went on to reveal 80 million reasons why. “We ‘bought’ Ferrari’s loyalty,” he said. “We ‘bought’ them, so they wouldn’t go with the others…”

Well, yes, that was the case – and maybe even di Montezemolo might concede that this was not his shining moment. Then Williams, an independent team promised little by the manufacturer-dominated GPWC, also went on board with Bernie, and any talk of a breakaway championship was dead in the water.

So where are we now? The tone at the Geneva conference was, as I say, conciliatory. “We’ve suggested a lot of things, to do with the technical, commercial and sporting regulations,” a FOTA man said, “and we hope they’ll be well received by the World Council. We’re not saying we want to make the rules, but we’re the people who have to work with them, and we do want our voice to be heard.”

They can hardly be blamed for that – and I suppose, when you think about it, as long as they remain unified they do have a certain ability to vote with their feet. “To take a hypothetical situation,” someone said, “refuelling, thank God, is finally banned for 2010 – but supposing it wasn’t being banned. The teams could go off to Oz for the first race, and simply not take the refuelling stuff with them, couldn’t they? I mean, presumably everyone would still want a race…”

The impression left by the day in Geneva was of a group keen to work with the two other corners of the triangle, the FIA and FOM, but wishing quietly to make it plain that FOTA members were not about to be pushed around – not least in the matter of where their cars raced.

I have written before of the lopsided direction the World Championship calendar is taking. Already we have Grands Prix in Australia, Japan, China, Malaysia and Singapore, while India and South Korea are on the near horizon, and Ecclestone recently warned, as if it were necessary, that more races in F1’s cultural heartland – Europe – might have to fall by the wayside in the future.
It was in 1996 that Bernie gave the Labour Party £1 million, and revelation of the gift – previously undisclosed – was the first major scandal of the Blair government, for by then F1 had been exempted from the forthcoming ban on tobacco advertising, and there were those who unworthily suggested that the two may have been not unconnected.

Whatever, it was that same year that Ecclestone assured me the Far East was the future, that, “In 10 years, maximum, Europe will be a Third World economy…”

He cannot then have known of Gordon Brown’s plans to dismantle the economy, so it seemed a bit over the top at the time, but I wish in hindsight that I’d taken Bernie more seriously than I did. For one thing, I might have treated myself to a succession of 911s, rather than squander numberless thousands on private pensions; for another, I would certainly have had more insight into the path F1 was likely increasingly to follow. East.

When, in the summer of 2007, Bernie failed to reach a financial accommodation with Tony George, the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis was summarily chopped, and there was great consternation among the constructors, for whom a massive marketplace had been lost. And when, last autumn, it was revealed that neither henceforth would there be a Canadian Grand Prix – that ‘North America’ was now without a race at all – that consternation turned to anger.

A week after the Geneva conference Martin Whitmarsh declared FOTA’s urgent wish to have America back on the schedule. “We’ve got to work on how to achieve that,” he said, adding that the schedule needed to be developed more strategically. “The calendar for this year was fixed before FOTA got going, but we want to look at where our major investors are, and America is a massive challenge.”

No doubt about that. Last year Norbert Haug, of Mercedes-Benz, told me that his company would like to see at least three races that side of the water, two in the US and one in Canada.

“We can’t turn our back on America,” Whitmarsh went on, “but maybe we need to have a completely different approach. Rather than leave it in the hands of the promoter, and consider who’s going to give us the most money to turn up and race, we should go there strategically, perhaps with FOTA offering to support the race, and make an investment. The US is a significant market…”

And this is a significant development, I thought, as I read what Martin had to say: “Rather than who’s going to give us the most money…” This, after all, has been the overwhelming consideration in determining the shape of the World Championship, thanks to Ecclestone and CVC Capital Holdings. Whitmarsh’s words – hinting that FOTA could be thinking of going into business for itself – might not, it seemed to me, sit well with the powers-that-be.

The formation of FOTA, let’s face it, amounts to Bernie-and-Max’s worst nightmare – and not only because R Dennis will almost certainly succeed di Montezemolo as president. Over time, after all, they have relied on the teams’ cooperation to allow their ‘divide and conquer’ policies to flourish. As Briatore put it, “We’d go to a meeting – and we couldn’t even agree about the time of the next meeting! Nothing was ever done. But eventually everyone began to understand that we needed to be strong in ourselves.

“In the end, F1 is the teams, isn’t it? We’re investing the money, and we’re producing the show. We need to work with Max and Bernie – but in the end we, the teams, are F1 and we should be together. Now we are, and I must say that Ferrari’s involvement was crucial…”

Absolutely it was. Ecclestone, as he related, was able to fend off the GPWC challenge by ‘buying’ Ferrari, by making them an offer they couldn’t – or didn’t – refuse, but this time around di Montezemolo appears committed to unity among the teams. Indeed, it was Luca who responded instantly, icily, to the declarations of the World Motor Sport Council, which met on March 17: “FOTA would like to express its disappointment and concern at the fact that these decisions have been taken in a unilateral manner”.

Don’t think Max-and-Bernie do bilateral, Luca, save with each other. I remember something Ecclestone said a year or two ago when I asked about how he felt the sport should be governed: “Well, you need a dictator, really…”

Obviously FOTA had hoped that at least some of the Geneva proposals might be adopted by the governing body, forming the basis of a common vision for the future of F1. But when the WMSC’s decisions were announced, they took no account of any FOTA suggestions – indeed appeared contemptuous of them, as if swatting a pesky fly.

The message was unspoken, but no less clear for that: ‘We rule this business – and don’t you forget it’.

Reading through the WMSC’s decisions, I came first to the question of points and the World Championship. ‘The WMSC accepted the proposal from Formula One Management to award the drivers’ championship to the driver who has won the most races during the season.’ Then later, ‘The WMSC rejected the alternative proposal from the FOTA to change
the points awarded to drivers finishing first, second and third, to 12, 9 and 7 points respectively’.

Mercifully, the WMSC stopped short of awarding gold, silver and bronze medals to the first three drivers, but otherwise the plan precisely mirrored that propounded by Ecclestone last season. It was exactly the same when he came up with ‘knock out’ qualifying. As Patrick Head wryly put it years ago, “Whatever Bernie wants to happen… tends to happen, doesn’t it?”
This is not an absolute – Ecclestone is vehemently opposed to KERS, for example – but as a rule of thumb it’s pretty sound.

Down the years the points system has been frequently modified according to the demands of the moment. For example, at the beginning of the 21st century, when it was 10-6-4-3-2-1, Michael Schumacher kept locking up the World Championship by July, and that didn’t do great things for the TV figures.

For 2003, therefore, the FIA decided to put less emphasis on winning, and introduced a new system: 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1. Most thought the gap between first and second ridiculously small, and so it was, but it achieved the desired result in taking the championship to the final race, where Schumacher (with six wins), edged out Kimi Räikkönen (with one) by a couple of points. A touch farcical, one thought.

In a perfect world the World Champion would indeed be the driver with the most victories that season, but few agree with Ecclestone’s contention that it should be the sole criterion. Back in 1988, for example, the system of the time was that a driver’s best 11 results counted towards his points total, and on that basis Ayrton Senna beat Alain Prost to the title, 90 to 87. Had, as now, all the season’s points been taken into account, Prost would have beaten Senna, 105 to 94, and I’ll always contend that Alain’s seven wins and seven second places had more merit than Ayrton’s eight wins and three seconds. Still…

Bernie, for all his desire to see the championship settled at the last race, instinctively disliked the 10-8-6 system, feeling there should be more emphasis on winning. No argument there, but when he came up with his ‘medals’ idea last year, and proposed that the championship should go automatically to the winner of the most races (regardless of his other results), it was not enthusiastically received. At the same time, history suggested it would almost certainly come to be…

And, lo, it did. On March 17 the WMSC announced that the proposal from FOM would indeed be adopted as of now. And the teams, not least because their own proposal had been brushed aside, not least because this was less than a fortnight before the first Grand Prix, were enraged. Di Montezemolo described the decision as, “Absurd, and very bad for the credibility
of F1”, and several drivers, including Hamilton and Alonso, echoed Luca’s words. Even the retired Schumacher, who for good reason has always been a Max-and-Bernie supporter, said he thought it made no sense at all.

Ecclestone was unmoved. “It’s just par for the course. Any time we make any changes” – note the ‘we’ – “there’s a bunch of people who say forget it…”

Two days later, though, there was a remarkable turnaround, and I can remember nothing else like it. In a press release, the FIA said this: ‘On 17 March, the FIA WMSC unanimously rejected FOTA’s proposed amendment to the points system to the F1 Drivers’ Championship. The ‘winner takes all’ proposal made by the commercial rights holder (who had been told that the teams were in favour) was then approved. If, for any reason, the F1 teams do not now agree with the new system, its implementation will be deferred until 2010’.

Now you see it, now you don’t. Is it any wonder that F1 fans across the world despair at the endless changes and uncertainties in their sport?

More fundamental than any punch-up about scoring systems, though, was the WMSC ’s announcement that cost capping would come into force in 2010.

Again FOTA’s declared intention – to achieve a budget cut of 50 per cent next year – was ignored, Max-and-Bernie substituting something rather more brutal of their own. A cynic might be tempted to believe their primary objective was to destabilise FOTA.

The WMSC’s release read thus: ‘As an alternative to running under the existing rules, which are to remain stable until 2012, all teams will have the option to compete with cars built and operated within a stringent cost cap.

‘The cost cap is £30m. This figure will cover all expenditure of any kind. Anything subsidised or supplied free will be deemed to have cost its full commercial value, and rigorous auditing procedures will apply.

‘To enable these cars to compete with those from teams which are not subject to cost constraints, the cost-capped cars will be allowed greater technical freedom.

‘The principal technical freedoms allowed are as follows: 1) A more aerodynamically efficient (but standard) underbody; 2) Movable wings; 3) An engine which is not subject to a rev limit or a development freeze.

‘The FIA has the right to adjust elements of these freedoms to ensure that the cost-capped cars have neither an advantage nor disadvantage when compared with cars running to the existing rules.’

Once the smelling salts have done their work, let’s see where we are with that lot.
{1} The World Championship, embracing cars working to differing sets of rules, will by definition no longer be for Formula 1, but Formule Libre.
{2} Differing technical regulations will apply to different cars – but all cars will be of the same performance.
{3} Rev limits and ‘frozen’ engines may once have been sacrosanct to this FIA administration, but no longer.
{4} Scrutineers will swiftly become certifiable.
{5} The Stasi will be round to look at your books.
{6} If Ferrari should opt for a cost cap of £30m, Kimi Räikkönen will retire – his own cost cap is already more than that.

Mosley said that a couple of the smaller teams have been very supportive of the ‘cost cap’ idea, but declined to mention the reaction of others, who think it an absurdity. Max did, however, allow that the figure of £30m was perhaps not set in stone, and this has become a familiar ploy over the years: threaten them with something draconian – and ultimately they’ll accept what you had in mind all along. Fifty million? Sixty?

“We want to improve F1, with Bernie and Max,” Briatore had said. “But we have to do it together, because if not there’s absolute confusion.”

Stiffen your sinews, boys, you’re being put to the test. As Flavio said, if you’re not together you’re very weak.

*****

When I talked last year to Eddie Cheever about his years, at both Arrows and Jaguar, as team-mate to Derek Warwick, he admitted that they had not always behaved as maturely as they might have done. “There were periods when we weren’t really ‘speaking’, but Ross [Brawn] did a very good job of making everybody realise that they had to stop acting like children, and get on with it. Ross was young then, making his name, but already standing out. He was the first engineer I ever worked with who had a pragmatic way of taking apart a problem. There was no, ‘I have this magic black book in my pocket’ – none of that. He scaled everything from one to five. You couldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a lot of understeer’ or ‘The car’s rubbish’ – he’d just look at you, and say, ‘Well, that’s going to do you a lot of good’. He would say, ‘Well, how much understeer? On a scale of one to five, where is it?’ And I tried to stick to that in my racing career ever after. It’s so simple, isn’t it?

“Ross is a manager – a really good manager of people. He’ll turn Honda around, you wait and see…”

Ross Brawn is one of that handful of people in F1 who don’t make a lot of fuss, who – very unobtrusively, but very obviously – make a huge contribution to their teams. As a strategist, an organiser, a manager, he was pivotal in transforming Ferrari, and Michael Schumacher came to look upon him almost as a guru.

When Schumacher retired, at the end of 2006, Brawn, too, took his leave of Maranello. After all those intense years of working with Michael, he felt he deserved a sabbatical, a year of family and fishing; he might come back to racing, he might not. The speculation was that if he were ultimately to return to Ferrari, it would be as team principal or nothing.

When Ross came back to F1, it was indeed as a team principal – but of Honda, not Ferrari. And when his appointment was announced, such was his reputation that many assumed that the becalmed team would quickly be brought back to life.

Brawn himself had no illusions, for ocean liners and instant u-turns do not belong together. The 2008 car was already beyond his help, and while Messrs Button and Barrichello faced yet another wretched year, Ross got on with thinking about ’09, when the rules would radically change.

Did it pretty effectively, too, although we had to wait to see the evidence. In December Honda, having spent a king’s ransom to almost no effect, withdrew from F1.

Brawn could have gone back to fishing, for he had enough money to live the rest of his life in ease. Instead, he applied himself to saving the team – and as many jobs as possible.

It was no surprise that Ross was the lynchpin in the rescue operation, nor that, when the team was relaunched at the beginning of March, its new name was ‘Brawn GP’. What seemed to astonish many, though, was that Barrichello would continue in the team, that there was no place for Bruno Senna.

Having talked many times over the years to Ross about Rubens, and to Rubens about Ross, I would have been frankly amazed if another driver had been signed. Yes, Bruno tested, but that was when the team was still officially ‘Honda’, and the attraction of hiring a ‘Senna’ was obvious.

For Brawn GP, however, a different set of priorities applied. A rookie was not what Ross felt he needed. Jenson and Rubens have already worked well together for three seasons. As well as that, there’s no doubt that last season Barrichello, 16-year F1 veteran or not, did a better job with a recalcitrant car than his team-mate.

And, of course, having worked together at Ferrari for six seasons, Brawn and Barrichello have history. “I like Rubens a lot,” Ross told me some years ago, “and I think he’s actually very talented. He gets the bit between his teeth in races – he can overtake, and he rarely makes a mistake.

“He’s got probably the toughest job in F1, being team-mate to Schumacher. He’s a great team member, and sometimes he’s plain quicker than Michael, in equal cars, so I think that tells its own story…”

Barrichello, meantime, said this about Brawn: “To work with Ross is like being in a really good school: I respect him, and I hope he’ll go on teaching me – from him you learn about cars, but also about life in general. Ross takes a straightforward approach, and that’s my way, too.”

The Brawn is, of course, Mercedes-powered, and I wondered if supplying engines to three teams (McLaren and Force India being the others) might be a stretch. “Not a bit of it,” a Mercedes man told me. “In fact, we’re delighted to do it – the teams are allowed fewer engines for the season now, and supplying three teams has probably saved us from making redundancies.”

The German engine has, I’m told, greatly impressed two drivers lately accustomed to Honda power. So, too, has the British chassis. Many believed Ross’s team would be hurt more than most by the new in-season testing ban. As it was, from the beginning the times of the Brawn RB01 left everyone open-mouthed. “We’re looking pretty good,” said Felipe Massa, “but we can’t match the Brawn…”

Feet on the ground is Ross’s way, although as Melbourne loomed he was prepared to admit some gratification at the car’s out-of-the-box performance. Back in Tokyo the response can only be imagined. It was going to be a Honda, after all.