“Michael and I had been in the trenches together”

Departed Mercedes-Benz team principal Ross Brawn analyses the key moments of a long, successful F1 career… and outlines the reasons for his decision to step down at the end of 2013

Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey have won all but three of 22 world championships for constructors since 1992. The current score is Newey 10, Brawn 9. These two, more than any drivers, have provided F1’s competitive thrust for almost a quarter-century. Yet they could hardly be more different in their abilities and personalities. Title-winning teams have been formed around their differing strengths and weaknesses, and have risen and fallen with their arrivals and departures.

Yet Ross currently sits on the F1 sidelines, eased out of Mercedes F1 just as it is apparently poised on the verge of success built upon foundations he laid. We’re sitting in a hotel reception the morning after his induction to the Motor Sport Hall of Fame and he’s in standard-spec jovial, relaxed form. Given the immensity of his achievements, his induction and his current non-participation, it seems an apt time to look back on title success over two decades, to a career built upon a controversial partnership with Michael Schumacher and encompassing championships with Benetton, Ferrari and Brawn Grand Prix. If Mercedes should go on to win the 2014 title, he will have played no small part in that on the 20th anniversary of the first championship with which he was involved – Schumacher’s controversial ‘option 13’ launch control tainted, Damon Hill-nerfing season with Benetton in ’94.

“We had some tough times,” says Ross, smiling. “We grew up together at Benetton. My formative years as a technical director were his as an F1 driver and we both made mistakes, were both wet behind the ears. That really made our relationship very special; we went through all that controversy together and stood by each other. It was a bit traumatic at times. It was like we’d been in the trenches together; we came out the other side after a lot of pain and aggro.

“Michael by his own admission made some questionable moves on the track. At Jerez in ’97 when he hit Villeneuve, he came back to the pits and said, ‘That bastard had me off’. I replied, ‘Michael, stop. You need to look at what went on’. When he did, he said: ‘Oh shit, that was me, wasn’t it?’ At that level of commitment to win, it’s right on the edge. That’s what makes him so special. He’d been through those situations and, although I didn’t like it, I stood by him in support. Similarly at Benetton, there were things the team and I did that he didn’t like, but he stood by and supported regardless.”

That last sentence is particularly interesting. Ross is speaking specifically of the Benetton phase of their partnership, a chapter of F1 that has yet to be fully mined and exposed. The main players – and Ross would have to be included as one – are not about to go into detail. But something was going on behind the scenes, a bigger picture than just Benetton perhaps. Ayrton Senna had joined Williams, the world’s greatest driver getting into the dominant machine of the previous two seasons; a whitewash looked on the cards. But it didn’t happen that way. The Williams was flawed, the Benetton improbably fast and Senna went to his death believing he was competing against an illegal car. Tom Walkinshaw, a man who prided himself upon not being too constrained by what the rulebook said, was in charge at Benetton. That’s how Ross, who had overseen the blockbusting Jaguar XJR-14 sports racer for Walkinshaw, got his big F1 break. Something enabled Schumacher to get out of his Benetton contract one year early; it was supposed to expire at the end of ’96, just like those of Brawn and Byrne. Instead he was able to walk at the end of ’95, after winning his second consecutive title, in less controversial fashion. Why did he want to get out and what clause was invoked? After the FIA had Benetton’s Imola ’94 software analysed. it was found to contain an ‘option 13’ that could trigger the banned launch control. But the FIA said it could find no evidence that it had been used, which seemed a fairly soft conclusion under the circumstances. The reader should fit all those pieces together to come up with their own most likely story. For the moment, that’s all we have.

Let’s not try to paint Ross as some wide-eyed innocent caught up in the ways of his bosses, but at one point Benetton owner Flavio Briatore was considering a ‘plea bargain’ with the FIA. Ross informed him that both he and Rory Byrne would resign if he did so, because it would implicate them in something they felt was not of their making. Some of the players in this piece seem to have been trapped within a bigger game and Ross was probably among them. Brawn retains a keen eye for the unfair advantage, for circumnavigating the intent of a rule with clever interpretation of the wording – and afterwards he plays the perfectly reasonable, well-intentioned, fair play gentleman brilliantly well while retaining that inner steely edge – but they are simply the real-world rules of F1. Benetton ’94 and the traction control software was something rather more blatant.

With all the key players on the ground – Schumacher, Brawn and Byrne – untangled from the Benetton management web, they were re-united at Ferrari from ’97 under the direction of Jean Todt. This foursome made a pact: that they would not allow anyone to break them apart, to use them the way three of them had been used at Benetton. They were the four points of a compass and not even Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemelo could penetrate their force field. It was the basis of Ferrari’s eventual return to glory and thereafter the longest period of sustained success for any team in the sport’s history. This time Ross was in more direct control and the team was expressly, deliberately constructed around Schumacher.

“We didn’t want a conflict within the team – and for Michael’s team-mate we chose only the fastest driver we could get within that constraint. Why would we pick someone we knew would immediately go into loggerheads with Michael and ensure us a lot of wasted energy trying to deal with it? It was never, ‘Oh we don’t want that guy because he’s too quick’. It was more, ‘What’s the character of this guy? Is he going to fit into the team?’ There was a need to make sure we had the best chance of winning championships – and that was particularly acute the first few years because the team hadn’t won for so long.”

The Schumacher-centric structure was infamously exposed at Austria in 2002, when Rubens Barrichello was forced to surrender his lead to Michael, creating an outcry. Brawn explains the background to it all. “The whole thing was a mess. We’d had the discussion before the race, anticipating exactly that situation and agreed what we would do. Rubens then didn’t want to do it. He came on the radio and said, ‘Don’t make me do this, I want to win the race’, and we had this massive dilemma. You can either let it go – and then you have a different problem because you can’t trust that driver any more and any discussions in the future wouldn’t mean anything, and that is something which is very fractious in the team. Or you could insist. We said, ‘Rubens, you agreed to do this, you said you’d do it, you’d better do it’. And Rubens made a big show of doing it – which didn’t help the team at all. I have a lot of sympathy with him. But he needed to say before the race, ‘Look guys, if I’m leading the race I ain’t going to do that’ and then we could have thrashed it out and come to a conclusion. Michael just got dragged into the situation. He was given the win, could see the crowd reaction and was embarrassed.”

With his title secured, Schumacher then ‘gave’ Barrichello Hungary, trying to make amends by driving off the pace at critical parts of the race. He also tried a staged finish at Indy – which resulted in Rubens sneaking the win. “We didn’t plan any of that,” says Brawn. “It was just Michael trying to compensate for what had happened, because he felt bad about it and was getting bad press. That was all fall-out from Austria. We can debate whether team tactics should be a part of F1, but that’s how it was.”

Perhaps inevitably post-Benetton, insinuations followed the team about traction control and at times there was audible evidence that the Ferrari had some electronic help in getting its power down. But what Ferrari had during this time was not traction control in the strictest sense of the term, but rather a clever interpretation of the regulations that forbade any torque reduction reaction from the ECU to a spinning wheel. What the Ferrari system was doing was anticipating wheelspin rather than reacting to it and was thereby technically legal. Other engine manufacturers came to realise this in time and at least one was using a similar system before the technology was re-admitted in 2002.

These are the murky waters of F1, pushing the rules and politicking. Everyone plays them, but Brawn perhaps most adeptly of all. But there was one area of advantage he claims not to have known. Many years later it emerged that Ferrari had enjoyed a rules veto since 1998, something Todt had negotiated with Max Mosley. “I was quite shocked when I discovered that existed,” says Ross. “It was never used to my knowledge and I couldn’t see how you could use it. Perhaps the threat of a veto had more impact [on the FIA] than ever using it.”

In 1999 – Brawn’s third year at Maranello – a constructors title finally came Ferrari’s way, the first in 16 years. Prior to that, the obstacles were always the designs of Adrian Newey, firstly at Williams and later at McLaren. Michael took a few against-the-odds wins during this time, when it was difficult to see the join between his own extraordinary skills and Brawn’s strategic nous. “It was a golden era for race strategy,” he recalls. “I’d had the good fortune of getting involved in strategy through sports car racing for a couple of years before F1. So I had a better insight. It was a small group and we were quick, nimble on our feet. We probably missed a few opportunities because we didn’t have the capacity to look at everything, but our hit rate was better than 50/50. It worked for a number of years – and at crucial times. The impression I got of the McLaren system was that it was broader-based and less dictatorial and sometimes that let them down, though occasionally it was to their advantage because they would have scanned and understood the broader situation. In later years, with the speed of communication with the factory and the enormous modelling, there was less scope for an innovative decision to swing it.”

Schumacher narrowly defeated McLaren’s Mika Häkkinen in 2000 to become the first Ferrari-mounted world champion for 21 years – and from there the team bestrode the sport for several seasons. The energy eventually began to wane as first Rory went into retirement, then di Montezemelo, in trying to plan for a post-Schumacher future by signing Kimi Räikkönen, triggered Schumacher’s reluctant retirement at the end of 2006. Months earlier, Brawn had already decided he was going to take a sabbatical in 2007.

Negotiations regarding his Ferrari return broke down and Brawn opted instead for the altogether more difficult challenge of trying to make something from under-achieving Honda. He would be in the team principal role this time – and without Schumacher or Byrne. It was quite a test. The 2008 car was woeful and he spent much of his time trying to keep the input from Japan from compounding the difficulties faced at the Brackley factory. The course of events there would directly impact upon the fortunes of Mercedes to this day.

“It takes three years in my view to build a team,” he says. “When I joined Honda I tried to accelerate that process by not wasting time in the first year, just accepting what was there, bringing people in, getting to build a team up. That got abbreviated because they withdrew [at the end of 2008 following the world financial crisis], but that impetus and inertia just carried us through into the Brawn GP year.” Incredibly, Brawn GP won both world championships in its only year of existence.

“Honda had made a huge investment and a massive effort had gone in to that car. That became Brawn GP for a year but it wasn’t sustainable – we couldn’t continue that momentum because there weren’t the resources any more. We only had two cars for half the year, the spare didn’t appear until mid-season. We were actually OK financially but concerned we might have to do a second year without a major sponsor. It was a finely judged year and we didn’t spend anything more than we had to. Which meant there wasn’t a lot in the coffers in terms of technical innovation, development for the following season.”

Technically, there were two crucial components to Jenson Button’s championship that year in the Brawn BGP 001. The Honda engine for which the car was designed was replaced by a customer Mercedes unit that proved rather better. Secondly, the car had a double diffuser – getting around the intention of new regulations that limited diffuser size and steepness of ramp. This cunning interpretation had left designs from such rivals as Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren essentially obsolete before they raced. Adrian Newey was furious and remains adamant that the only reason the sequence of Red Bull titles didn’t begin in 2009 is that the Brawn was not legal. In looking at the long-running struggle between these two giants, there’s a sense that Newey finds it frustrating to have his creative design genius constantly thwarted by Brawn’s interpretive skills, rather like the gifted striker who’s forever being taken down by the burly defender. Adrian sometimes finds it difficult to hide that frustration, Ross seems to enjoy being magnanimous – which surely only winds up Adrian even more. “My nemesis!” says Ross, smile a mile wide, eyes sparkling with mischief. “I don’t know why he gets so caught up on the double diffuser. What is legal? Legal is what the FIA defines. A lot was made of the double diffuser, but two other teams [Williams and Toyota] also had it and we beat them comfortably. A lot was made of the fact that we were able to optimise our car, but we didn’t hit upon it until quite late – around August, so our car wasn’t fundamentally designed around it and was still a compromise.

“Although we’ve been in competition with each other, Adrian and I have been in slightly different spheres. He has operated within the creative side and I’ve been in the operative element. But he is extremely competitive, very innovative, very good at interpreting regulations, a poor loser – like I am, I think that goes with the territory – and we’ve been at each others’ throats for 20-odd years.

“I have huge respect for him. He’s very talented but just has a different cross-section of talents to those I might have. You build a team around the people you have and a team built around Adrian would have a different profile to a team built around me.”

Button won six races in 2009, Barrichello another two. “Jenson had his fantastic days, then sometimes the odd off-race. On his day, though, he’s very, very, very good; great on the tyres, great in the wet. Put it all together with Jenson and you can do what we did – which was win the world championship. It got a bit sticky in the middle of the year, yet he really dug down and did the business. He came to me before the race in Brazil and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to be OK today, I’m going to sort it out’, and he did just that.”

Brawn GP was bought out by Mercedes, making Ross an even wealthier man, but he was retained as team principal. “During 2009 it’s fair to say we had quite a number of approaches – some of them outside F1 but very big within the sports world. But because we had become close to Mercedes, we informed them that we were moving towards trying to find some commercial security for the future and that might involve other people becoming involved. It was then that Mercedes said, ‘Well, maybe now’s the right time for us to bite the bullet and have our own team’. If I’m frank it was a very good deal for the shareholders – but it wasn’t the best deal that was on offer. There were more lucrative alternatives, where we could have had extra money and have it sooner because the Mercedes deal was staged over three or four years, but it was the right deal for the team.”

Unfortunately, Mercedes could not simply carry on where Brawn GP had left off and even the return of Schumacher could not make the team a consistent winner. “We all believed the resource restriction was going to bite,” Ross says, “and the size of Brawn GP would be the model for where the big teams would be in the next year or two. Unfortunately, that simply didn’t happen. The 400 people at Brawn GP weren’t enough. We suffered during the first year or two as Mercedes, because we didn’t have the resources. When Toto [Wolff] joined the team he advised us that Williams’s budget was bigger than what we’d been working on as Mercedes. The good thing was that Toto was able to go to the board and say, ‘Look, you guys better wake up because…’ And the board did wake up. Even before Toto arrived we’d managed to persuade the board to step up because the resource restriction wasn’t going to be effective and, in 2012, we brought Aldo Costa and Geoff Willis on board and upgraded the wind tunnel to 60 per cent.

“But somewhere along the way I lost the board’s confidence. We’d not had a good second half of 2012 as I diverted resources to the 2014 project. They brought in first Niki [Lauda], then Toto… who without my knowledge appointed Paddy Lowe [as technical director, with the promise of team principal later]. I was informed by McLaren that Paddy was coming – and that’s not the way I think things should be done. Then of course we had a much better 2013, so there was an about-face and the board tried to find a solution to keep me within the team. But I decided I wasn’t very comfortable the ways things were. I think the team is going to be very successful this season and in a way it’s frustrating not to be around to be part of it, but I’m just going to have to be philosophical.”

Philosophical, perhaps, but he’ll be watching and waiting for the next opening. He is not short of offers and his title tally within the last 20 years dwarfs that of McLaren...