In his first major interview since taking over as director of motor sports, Ross Brawn spells out his vision for the future of Formula 1
Ross Brawn, architect of multiple world championships at Benetton, Ferrari and Mercedes over a 20-year period, returns to Formula 1 in the only role that was left – the boss. The acquisition of F1’s commercial rights by Liberty Media marked the long-anticipated shift of the championship’s control from Bernie Ecclestone’s entrepreneurial model to something more modern, from dictatorship to management, ideally from conflict to consensus. Brawn doesn’t directly replace Ecclestone; it has taken three men to do that: CEO Chase Carey, commercial boss Sean Bratches and Brawn, who is in charge of sporting and technical matters. But Brawn is essentially both the public face of the sport’s ownership and the man tasked with a strategy for adapting F1 to a world changing faster than it’s ever done before. While doing that he has to resolve a lot of underlying challenges in a sport that has lived with damaging conflict for many years.
It would be difficult to think of anyone better equipped for the job. His skill set and experiences make him uniquely qualified to pull together the three strands of the sport – the FIA, the teams and the commercial rights holder. Traditionally any two of these have been in conflict at any given point, often for reasons of history. Brawn has been a team engineer and boss, has a deep, successful history and good personal relationship with FIA president Jean Todt and now works for the commercial rights holder. Furthermore, his personal style could hardly be more different from the divide and conquer favoured by Bernie. Yet he’s like a tank – slowly but surely advancing towards the goal, nigh-on impossible to deflect.
I caught up with him at the pre-season tests in Barcelona, where he was talking to the teams, presenting to them the idea that here’s an opportunity for everyone, that this is a new era of consultation and hopefully joined-up thinking, to raise the water level of the whole sport by making it more appealing, so everyone within rises up with it. But just because that’s the best outcome doesn’t mean it’s simply going to happen; the challenges – particularly those of post-2020 when the current commercial agreement with the teams expires – are not inconsiderable. How to improve the spectacle of the sport while retaining or enhancing the technical and driving challenges, how to make it more modern-media savvy and, perhaps most difficult of all, how to keep everyone on board while working towards some sort of cost containment and an income redistribution. In this there is at least one powerful potential opponent in the shape of Brawn’s old employer Ferrari. Sailing through these tricky waters to the promised land on the other side will require skill, diplomacy and a quality of thought marked by both subtlety and agility – all underpinned by a steely resolve. Which is a pretty good description of Ross.
With regard to Ecclestone, Brawn was always one of the few who didn’t automatically comply, making him something of an irritation for the erstwhile boss. The antipathy was mutual, as Brawn made pretty clear in his recent book Total Competition. Working alongside Ecclestone was not something that would have worked and it’s difficult not to conclude that Brawn’s unmoving position on that is probably what led Liberty to say goodbye to Bernie sooner rather than later. To get Brawn they had to lose Ecclestone. From Brawn’s perspective, the opportunity was there and he’s played it perfectly. He’s now empowered to bring in a very different style of leadership. He’s diplomatic in how he says this, but the message is clear.
“In the last few years, there wasn’t the opportunity that there is now to change things,” he says. “Now with new owners, there can be a new era. That’s what I found exciting; that’s what got my juices flowing. I’d had one or two opportunities to come back and do what I’d done before but that didn’t really appeal; it would have felt like a replay.”
Three decades of working in F1 have given him what he feels is a pretty good insight into its snagging points. He intends to adapt its leadership to fit a world very different to when Ecclestone in partnership with Max Mosley controlled teams with powerful, combative bosses – Ron Dennis in particular – who resented that control, who always took the underlying position that Mosley and Ecclestone together had stolen F1 from the teams. Such enmities made navigation through the subsequent challenges almost impossible.
“We’ve had some very powerful personalities in F1,” reflects Brawn, “probably out of necessity. But now we have a much more conciliatory FIA president. He’s not someone who wants to stamp his authority on F1. Like me, he wants to see reasoned argument, wants people to be consistent and straightforward. Bernie has an entrepreneurial character and often refers to himself as a dictator. That creates a certain environment, certain adversarial relationships and yes, often two legs of the three-legged stool that is the sport were not joined up. If we can get all three legs joined up it’ll be wonderful.
“There’s never been a long-term plan in F1. Bernie said there’s no point having a long-term plan because it’s different when you get there. I kind of understand that but if you have a long-term plan, every step you make along the way is to try and achieve that plan. It may not necessarily end up as you envisaged but if you have a plan with the objectives agreed, then at least as you go along the path you can make sure you’re trying to move towards that outcome.” Like a tank…
That’s how he plans to do it. But what is it he plans to do? What is his vision? “I’m reluctant to be too dogmatic on that. I have my ideas but they are just opinions – and a lot of the difficulties F1 has got itself into are as a result of making changes based only on opinion, rather than through deep study. We’ve just been through a major rule change [to make cars around 5sec per lap faster but which will probably make overtaking more difficult, undoing the work of the previous overtaking working group] but the background to that change was just opinion. Opinion is important, but could we have done more to understand what the implications were rather than only discovering effects through racing that could have been anticipated with more investigation?
“My idea is to build up a group of specialists in FOM [Formula One Management, a principal subsidiary of the Formula One Group that Liberty now controls]. My knowledge has its limits and these specialists will be able properly to debate and negotiate with the teams on technical and sporting matters. They will have the respect of the technical people on the teams and have the time and resource to start to shape proposals for the future, so that we can then present to the FIA and the teams in collaboration to identify how we want the sport to look in the future. Those proposals would be in line with the three-year plans and five-year plans we will have agreed upon about where we want F1 to be by then. So we could be moving towards those agreed objectives together.
“The FIA are regulators of the sport and they have the health of the sport as one of their priorities, for sure. But I wouldn’t say they have the resource in that respect, although they have some very good people. The teams are focusing on their own competitive position – and their survival in some cases. But who is actually focused on where the sport should go in the future? In the environment we have now it should be FOM. F1 is a very technical environment. Football is a very basic sport, it has its nuances but it’s two goals and a ball, not a sport where you have the necessity to be constantly monitoring and pushing back. Because the players aren’t getting a lot faster, the ball’s not going a lot quicker. But F1 is such a dynamic sport it needs that input to keep nudging it in the right direction – and we don’t seem to have it. My ambition is to create within the commercial rights group the input that at least can put ideas on the table with a lot of background to them.”
So Brawn doesn’t want to pre-judge anything publicly, but of the obvious current points of difficulty – the noise of the cars, the commercial terms between the teams, the circuits – what is his position?
“I think we have to sit down with the manufacturers and the interested parties and start to build a vision of what we want as an engine in the future. At one end of the scale is a simplistic approach of ‘let’s go back to what we had’. At the other end is even more advanced hybrid technology. I’m not advocating going back to where we were because that won’t suit a number of the manufacturers. And I actually think F1 is strong because of the manufacturers, but I don’t want it to be exclusively for them and I don’t think they do either, because they recognise the value of the mix. But manufacturers give strong credibility to F1 and are an important part of it so we have to find solutions. But perhaps we should start by setting out what the objectives are. I have some views but don’t want to put them on the table yet. But they will be aligned with setting some objectives and seeing a) if the teams and manufacturers agree with the objectives and b) how they would achieve them. I think we all know we want a cheaper engine for the customer. The technology has become very expensive. A realistically competitive customer engine is high on the list.
“Also we have to find something that appeals more to the spectators. But we have to quantify not only the noise but also that comment because I’m hearing different opinions on noise. Some promoters tell me fans are telling them they quite like the fact that they can have a conversation with their family in the grandstand. Other fans say the emotion’s been lost with the energy and vibration. I wouldn’t pretend I have a proper understanding. One of the things I want to do when I go to the races is mix with the fans and find out what they think. Because we have a lot of people who are very enthusiastic on forums and different areas of social media etc. But also the person who has bought the ticket may not choose to use social media to express their views.
“We have to be balanced. Because people don’t always know what they like – in the sense that they know what they’re enjoying now but do they know what would be better than that? I’m the same. I can see something and think, ‘Wow that’s fantastic’ but I would never have had the idea that that’s what I wanted to see. You have to understand the triggers that excite people then see if you can offer them. If you excite the fans at the track you go a long way to moving it in the right direction.”
QUALITY OF RACING
“We’ll move relatively slowly on the technical and sporting side because we have to get it right. By the time we know what engine we want to have, I’d like us to have a comprehensive understanding of the type of aerodynamics we want on the cars. You’ll never eliminate aero but is it optimistic to think you could generate a reasonable amount of downforce in a way that the cars are compatible with each other? The speed and performance of these cars is important and so I don’t think if we just took downforce off we’d have the solution. We don’t want to lose a dramatic amount of performance. But are there ways? Have we bottomed out the opportunity to create something that maybe is much more benign?”
Looking longer term, Brawn recognises the crucial part circuit design and tyres play in the equation of the quality of racing. “We’ve hopefully got new races on the horizon and we should be actively involved in how they are configured. Getting it right at the design stage is crucial and, just as with the cars, this needs proper analysis and a full understanding. We will apply the same process. On tyres, we’ve had discussions with Pirelli already and we’ve had a big change for this year, so we need to see where we are with those first. It’s a difficult challenge getting a degradation slope that makes the racing more exciting without taking it too far. This tyre looks much more benign and the drivers can push more, which is good. But let’s see how it is on hotter tracks. This is one of the areas where the drivers will be part of the process, but they need to be free to give an unpolitical view. They get leant on by their teams and we have to cut through all that.” Freeing up tyre supply, a return to a tyre war? “Not impossible, but difficult…” You sense Brawn has enough big challenges on his hands without introducing a new one just yet.
Bringing meaningful cost containment into F1, so as to allow independents to remain healthy and thereby give the sport a strong backbone, immune to the whims of the manufacturers, has proved nigh-on impossible to date. The agendas and interests of the big teams and small are too disparate. An F1 budget is chicken feed to a manufacturer, but dangerously close to being out of reach for about half the grid. Brawn is determined to grab the nettle. “If I walk down the pitlane I can guarantee that 70 per cent of the teams would want a budget cap. You know which the 30 per cent are. A cap is the outwardly simple and appealing solution – limit how much everyone can spend and you might even then be able to open out the technical freedom. But the devil is in the detail. We need to find a way of having a budget cap that is fair and appropriate for all the different entities. Then you might have a chance of something everyone can sign up to. But how far do you push those who don’t want it but are going to have to accept it?” That’s the big Ferrari-liveried elephant in the room. And that is almost certainly going to be at the centre of post-2020 negotiations, the nub of which is likely to be that chestnut of whether Ferrari needs F1 more than vice-versa. That discussion is going to require skill, diplomacy and balls.
“Related to costs of course is the technology we decide upon, beyond just the engines. What should the performance differentiators be? Can we identify areas of technology that are relevant, good value and available to all the teams that can be those differentiators, that aren’t just about how much money you pour into them? Bodywork is high profile and allows fans to see the difference in the cars and see the new bits added to them and while the research that goes into them is very costly, at least it’s there and talked about. Conversely there are parts inside the car no one sees, but some are differentiators. Do you want to preserve that? So it’s a bit deeper than, ‘If you can’t see it, ban it’.”
There are going to be major changes in the marketing of the sport and the mediums through which it’s seen. But with Brawn in charge of what is actually being projected as part of the new broom, the sport would appear to be in a better place than it was. “The teams have got an opportunity to start afresh in terms of their relationship. There should be no prejudice about their intentions. They – and myself – have been charged by Liberty Media to grow the sport and make it as big as possible. The end result is Liberty Media will make more money out of it. We know that. But they are prepared to invest to do it and they’ve put their team of people in place to do it and said, ‘Right, it’s your baby, we want plans, want to know what’s going on and you have time to build this into something very special.’ It’s a different attitude to what we had before.”
There’s a sparkle in those eyes as Brawn prepares for his mission.