Lunch with... Brawn GP

The core of the Mercedes squad that dominates F1 today was forged in the chaos and elation of Brawn's title-winning year. We sat down with four of the team's key players

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When TV cameras go behind the scenes with Formula 1 powerhouse Mercedes, chances are that they’ll focus on extravagant gestures from team principal Toto Wolff, pumping or banging his fist according to how well – or otherwise – a race is progressing. There is parallel passion a few metres away on the pit counter, but it is less flamboyant and reflects one of the most stable relationships in modern sport. Four of those atop the stools have worked with this team through several phases of ownership – and the two most ‘recent’ recruits joined in 2001.

Ten years ago, when Brawn GP rose from the ashes of Honda to win an F1 title double before morphing into Mercedes, they were sitting pretty much where they do today. The uniform might have changed, but their roles aren’t dissimilar. The biggest difference is the scale of the team they represent.

Now as then, Ron Meadows is sporting director. He joined the new British American Racing venture at the end of 1997, just as it was in the throes of taking over the Tyrrell team to facilitate its F1 entry. Andrew Shovlin – ‘Shov’ to all and sundry – came on board in 1999; he worked as Jenson Button’s race engineer during the Brawn campaign and is today chief engineer. Chief strategist James Vowles and chief track engineer Simon Cole arrived in 2001, when BAR was still beginning to ferment lofty ambitions that would produce 15 podium finishes between 1999 and 2005, though the team did not become a winner – and then only once, at Budapest – until ownership had passed on to Honda. That would be a rare highlight during the three largely fallow seasons that preceded the Japanese manufacturer’s withdrawal and the team’s rebirth as Brawn.

For context, victory in the 2009 Australian GP was only the second F1 win the four gentlemen here had known; there would be seven more during that season – and there’s been another 88 since Mercedes purchased the assets that November.

To reflect on that momentous 2009 campaign, we convene in the boardroom at Mercedes AMG F1’s Brackley headquarters, where catering staff have laid on sandwiches and wraps. The setting is appropriate not just because this is where Brawn GP was based throughout its fleeting existence, but because Meadows played a key role in setting up the factory. “A spade went in the ground in February 1998 and I was tasked with getting the building finished by the end of November, for a formal presentation,” he says. “Cometh the day, everything was just about finished, and I did an all-nighter getting this boardroom ready. I didn’t quite get the carpet finished on the stairs, but covered the sections at the top and the bottom, because I knew the suits would be coming up in the lift and wouldn’t notice the bit that was missing. They arrived in three helicopters, immaculate in their cashmere jackets, and then the lift failed…”

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From left: Andrew Shovlin (Jenson’s race engineer), James Vowles (chief strategist), Ron Meadows (sporting director) and Simon Cole (chief track engineer)

It was on December 1, 2008 that Honda Racing directors Ross Brawn and Nick Fry summoned a select management group to impart the news that Honda was withdrawing from Formula 1 with immediate effect. “It was a Monday,” Meadows says, “but we were sworn to secrecy and weren’t allowed to say anything until the end of the week. That was the hardest thing, because I couldn’t share the information with colleagues – and I knew the effect might be life-changing for some of them. When we’d had that first meeting, though, Ross and Nick made it clear that their intention would be to try to keep things going. Honda was stopping, so we’d just have to find another way to carry on – and I just believed in that.”

Shovlin adds: “I had a half-finished house and a fully pregnant wife, so the timing wasn’t terribly convenient, but you sort of knew there was a chance Honda might stop one day, because results hadn’t been terribly good. It still was a bit of a shock because just before pulling out they’d pushed ahead with some serious investment. I actually found out before Jenson did – and wasn’t allowed to tell him, either.”

Cole: “There were lots of car plant closures at the time and Honda was laying people off in Swindon, so the industry was unstable and there was talk about F1 needing to rein itself in, but the extent of that wasn’t immediately obvious in Honda’s case. They’d only just bought a new seven-post rig so there appeared to be no tapering off in terms of investment – it went from an almost bottomless pit of cash to an overnight stop.”

All, though, had faith in what had been developed behind closed doors. “We all knew how good the new car might be,” Vowles says, “and that led me to believe that things definitely weren’t over. I was involved in the process of talking to potential buyers – wealthy men who didn’t really understand F1, or what they’d be getting in to – but the level of interest told me we had a chance. I focused on looking forward to working with this team in whatever form it took – it didn’t really cross my mind that it could all end.”

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Button won the Australian GP to kick-start his title-winning year in 2009

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Shovlin even turned down a firm job offer from Sauber, ahead of what would be its final F1 campaign under BMW ownership. “For me that was a backstop,” he says, “but they started trying to push me into resigning. I really didn’t want to leave unless I no longer had a job. I had never formally agreed to go there – and eventually, when they started becoming quite aggressive, I let them know I wouldn’t be joining. It was strangely calming telling them – getting rid of the stress of somebody hassling you every day was better than the potential prospect of not having a job. I knew I’d always have regretted missing out on what I thought we had.”

Once Brawn and Fry had negotiated a deal to keep the company afloat, henceforth under the former’s name, redundancy notices were served as members of the team were preparing to depart for Australia. “That was tough,” Vowles says, “because we knew how much everything would have changed by the time we returned.”

Meadows: “In one day I had to lose 40 really good people from the race team, which was just heartbreaking.”

Their feelings might have been mixed, but their competitive instincts had been stirred by the pre-season performance of the Brawn BGP 001, as the Honda RA109 (now with a Mercedes V8) would henceforth be known. The team had contemplated running Ferrari customer engines – and there was one in the design office for the purposes of measurement – but the Mercedes deal was confirmed just before Christmas. “Looking back,” Cole says, “it’s amazing how quickly we could install the ‘wrong’ engine in a car.”

“We didn’t attend the first Barcelona test,” Shovlin adds, “but Toro Rosso was running its 2008 car with a Montréal-type rear wing, probably indicative of where they thought they’d be in downforce terms with their new chassis. Initially it was the fastest thing on the track and we knew how our 2008 car compared with that – and how the new one appeared to stack up in comparison. So we made a few calculations, taking on board that they were running with an unsuitable rear wing, and worked out that we’d probably be about 1.5sec quicker than anyone else – which surely couldn’t be right… But that was probably the first indication that other teams had given up chunks of downforce while we reckoned we had more than we’d had in 2008 – despite the regulation change that was supposed to reduce it. When I first saw some of the other cars, I thought, ‘Blimey, that looks like our wind-tunnel model from eight months ago.’ We’d shaken ours down at Silverstone and Jenson reported that it didn’t feel terribly good, but then we went to Barcelona and the speed was immediately obvious. Everyone started to say, ‘Yeah, they must be running light’, but someone at McLaren told us they’d calculated that they wouldn’t be able to match our times unless we’d been about 90kg underweight!”

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Mercedes bought the team from 2010 and has dominated the sport since

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With the team’s future in the balance, bookies had been offering odds as high as 80/1 on Button to win the world title. “When you’re testing,” Meadows says, “those in the garage don’t always know the fuel numbers but can tell when the car looks quick. You always get a bit of pressure from the drivers to stick new tyres on and remove a bit of fuel, so we did and I think Jenson went about 2.5sec quicker than anyone else had managed to that point. When I turned around afterwards there was nobody in the garage – I think they were all on their laptops, trying to place bets…”

Shovlin: “I called home to suggest a wager, though with hindsight we didn’t put enough on. We’d had our first child by then and the district nurse came round to do a check to find my wife on an online gambling site at about 8.30 in the morning…”

For all the car’s speed, however, Brawn GP was still vitally short of resources. “We were acutely aware that we were up against teams with more people, more everything – we had a head count of about 50 in Melbourne,” Cole says. “We had absolutely no fallback, either, and very few spares. Over the winter the instruction had been issued to keep parts production to a minimum – and that was misinterpreted by some people as one per car… After the Bahrain Grand Prix, race four, everything was completely shot.”

Shovlin: “We were probably saved by the fact there was so much stuff in all the store rooms. The car build budget was laughably small, in context – about one million quid for two cars.”

Meadows: “I think we had enough brakes in the cupboard to last us the whole year. We built only three tubs – and the third, our spare, wasn’t ready until Monaco, so one big shunt and we’d have been stuffed…”

Cole: “It was also fortunate that all the tools in our machine shop had been purchased outright, for cash, so we had no leasing bills. When Honda walked away they left behind a very solid infrastructure.”

Shovlin: “When we arrived in Melbourne for the first race, we had this fantastic sense of clarity. Previously we’d had all these Honda engineers running around and changing stuff, the team was big, things happened and it was hard to keep an eye on everything that was going on. Now, all of a sudden, you just had to ask Ross – and that was the extent of the red tape.”

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Cole in his general engineering role

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Along with Williams and Toyota, Brawn was protested in Australia over the legality of its double-diffuser floor concept, although it was eventually declared legal and rivals quit grumbling in order to get on with making their own. “During testing people noticed that we had something,” Shovlin says, “but they couldn’t understand quite what it was – or how we’d constructed it legally. They were all trying to get close-up photos, so in Melbourne we waited until it was dark before taking the car to scrutineering checks. Nick Tombazis from Ferrari came running with a torch and a camera, trying to get photos of the car’s underside, but there is a certain etiquette in the way you go spying on other teams. Ross appeared and said, ‘If you don’t f*** off I’m going to ram that torch up your arse’.”

An effective deterrent, apparently.

The Brawns of Button and Rubens Barrichello duly annexed the front row (Cole: “We went out for pizza and wine – I thought it was best to celebrate in case that was our lot for the year”) before taking a one-two that was less straightforward than it might have been.

“One of the guys we’d let go was Gary Holland, a gearbox specialist and also our refueller,” Meadows says. “He’d decided to take Honda’s redundancy package and start up his own plumbing business, so we did Melbourne with a stand-in refueller and each stop was a few seconds slower than it should have been. That really shouldn’t have been our race and I felt we wouldn’t win much else if we carried on like that, so I spoke to Ross and we did a deal with Gary to fly him out to races on Saturday nights to operate the fuel rig for the rest of the year.”

Victory would be the first of six in the opening seven races for Button – he was third in China, behind the Red Bulls of Vettel and Mark Webber – while Barrichello backed him up with three second places. There was, though, some good fortune. The Malaysian GP was stopped early, due to torrential rain and fading light, and didn’t restart. “Just as well, really,” Vowles says, “because Jenson’s steering wheel was absolutely full of water and we’d never have been able to get the thing going again. Toyota should have won Bahrain – they’d tested there and proved really quick, but come the race they made the wrong tyre call at the first stop and rapidly went backwards. That was a bit of a gift. In Barcelona we had a new front wing flap that had been built incorrectly – and we didn’t notice until after qualifying, so weren’t allowed to change it. There seemed to be almost one incident per race.”

“I remember there being an attitude of having nothing to lose

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Meadows on the pit wall with Ross Brawn

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Meadows: “In Monaco we fitted the wheel shields the wrong way around – and we also had a thing called the FFA, an adjustable front wing flap. But that never worked, as in ever.”

Cole: “And there was no curfew in those days, so we could stay up all night confirming that it still didn’t work…”

Vowles: “The camaraderie was there, because we were a small team and every one of us was doing what would have been the jobs of several people. You felt exhausted the whole time. In Bahrain, where I was trying to fix those front flap adjusters, I fell asleep on the pit floor at 3am or something.”

Shovlin: “Almost everything was a battle. In Turkey we had a seventh gear that was about 40kph too short – the wind had changed direction and we fitted the wrong ratio. At one part of the track we must have been on the limiter for about 600 metres – it didn’t make a massive difference to lap time and Jenson was OK because he was out on his own at the front, but Rubens had made a bad start and simply couldn’t overtake. At every race we seemed to be fighting, whether it be a load of knackered old parts, updates that didn’t quite work or a car that wasn’t quick enough – at no point did the season feel fully under control.”

While the Turkish GP proved to be Button’s final win of the campaign as better-financed teams caught up with Brawn’s technical head-start, he scored points in every race bar one – Spa, where he was victim of an accident triggered by Romain Grosjean (Cole: “That was the only time all season that his car returned to the pits on a flat-bed, a record of which we’d be proud with our current resources”) – he had built enough of a cushion to put the title beyond rivals’ reach in Brazil, the penultimate race.

Vowles: “We’d had a bad qualifying and there weren’t too many cars behind, so it was just about looking forwards – capitalising on any opportunities. I remember there being an attitude of having nothing to lose.”

Shovlin: “James had worked out strategy plans that showed we had a better than 50 per cent chance of getting the result we needed, almost regardless of what anyone else did, and by Sunday it was just a case of getting on with it. Nobody was keen on trying to finish it off in Abu Dhabi, because championships can catch you out when they go down to the wire.”

We’re very privileged to have what we’ve got today at Mercedes, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had feelings like those I had with Brawn…”

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The double diffuser earned Brawn an early season boost over the competition

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Meadows: “I think Melbourne was probably more emotional than Brazil, because it came so soon after everything that had happened over the winter, whereas at Interlagos we were all just elated. It was complete mayhem in the pit garage – about 40 or 50 TV crews all trying to get in at the same time to catch the scene. My best memory from the after-race party is our IT guy, Bert. He was a huge bloke, about 6ft 5in, and was walking around holding Ross over his shoulder… using just one arm.”

Cole: “There was never any sense of representing an organisation other than your own – we were just Brawn GP and the boss would be in the bar with us, having a beer. It was interesting to see the way the whole thing was reported outside the specialist press – it became a proper news story.”

Vowles: “We’re very privileged to have what we’ve got today at Mercedes, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had feelings like those I had with Brawn…”

Confirmation of the Mercedes takeover followed not long after the team’s coronation – to general relief. For Meadows, one of the first tasks was to bring back some of those who had been released at the campaign’s dawn. “There had been lots of people knocking around,” Shovlin says, “so when we heard it was going to be Mercedes the reaction tended to be, ‘Thank God for that’.”

The final word goes to the man who helped build the factory in which he still works more than 20 years later. “There are so many memories,” Meadows says, “but the one that comes most readily to mind is from the days following Honda’s announcement. Ross called us all together into the workshop. Various things still hadn’t happened, but he gave a rousing speech and said, ‘We’re going to fight.’ That got everybody into a lather because you could sense his commitment. We realised he wanted it to work.”=

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