The Brawn Enigma


In case you have been cast into a particularly opaque motorsport limbo this last week, you will know that Ross Brawn, 55 in November, has pulled off a stunning achievement. The team he created out of the ashes of Honda’s withdrawal from Formula One has executed a stunning double victory in the drivers’ and constructors’ world championship.

But Brawn, by his own admission, is not a hands-on design ace, sketching out ideas on the back of fag packets or waking up during the night with that ‘lightbulb’ idea. That, he admits, is more his rival Adrian Newey, whose Red Bull RB5 has made such a fight of the second half of this season’s championship. Ross is renowned for his depth of experience and his man management expertise.

“Sometimes,” he says, “Very good people can be worried about the competitiveness of the racing environment, worried about making a mistake or getting something wrong. What I try to do is put people in the right places, give them the benefit of my experience, encourage them to perform and hopefully bring the best out of them. I’ve worked with some very good teams in my career and this Brawn team is one of the best.”

Brawn’s first racing role was with the March team in 1976. He joined Williams two years later and worked everything from a milling machine to a wind tunnel. After design jobs with both the Haas Lola and Arrows teams, he was recruited by Jaguar and brought F1 technology to the superb Jaguar XJR14 which won the world sportscar championship in 1991. Tom Walkinshaw then took him to Benetton as technical director, where he masterminded back-to-back world championships for Michael Schumacher in 1994-5.

When Schumacher left for Ferrari he took Ross with him and over the next decade, under Jean Todt’s management and Brawn’s technical leadership, Ferrari dominated Formula 1 in a manner never witnessed before. Brawn earned a reputation as a demon race strategist, but modestly says, ‘I think you’ve got a bit more flexibility when you’ve got Michael in the cockpit!’

After working in such an intense environment for so long, Brawn needed a sabbatical and spent 2007 indulging one of his other great passions – fishing. When he returned to the F1 fray it was as team principal of Honda.

But then Honda dropped a bombshell. Amid the credit crunch, with car sales plummeting and factory closures, it withdrew from F1. Brawn, if not quite kicking and screaming, was led somewhat reluctantly into the realms of team ownership. It was, he says, never an ambition to have his name above the door but a management buyout was the only viable way to save 700 plus jobs at Honda F1’s Brackley HQ.

Experts estimated it would have cost Honda $100 million plus in redundancies to close the team and so, instead, the Japanese allowed Brawn to take it off their hands and provided part of an operating budget for the first year.

On the one hand Brawn GP was a ‘new’ team. But on the other it was a highly competent group of people with huge resource via the investment Honda had already made.

Other factors helped. First, new aerodynamic regulations for 2009 were the most significant changes for 25 years. Second, Honda’s ‘08 season was such a dead loss that a line had been drawn under the development programme very early on, with all hands turning to the 09 project. Third, now without Honda’s engine, Brawn managed to secure the Mercedes Benz V8, widely held to be the best current unit in F1.

Crucially too, Brawn was one of just three of the 10 F1 teams to design its 2009 car around a ‘trick’ double diffuser, which generated more downforce than the opposition and got the team off to a flying start. Button won six of the first seven grands prix. It looked as if they could do no wrong. But, mid season, things started to go awry.

The opposition was now catching up with the double diffuser concept and Brawn itself suffered a performance drop-off due to an inability to generate tyre grip when track temperatures were lower. And Button suffered with it more than Barrichello. Team data proves that Barrichello’s more aggressive style generates more heat than Button’s ultra-smooth approach. What may become a disadvantage over a race distance when tyres need to be looked after, is a positive over a single qualifying lap. And, with overtaking as difficult as it is in F1, qualify too far down and your race day is terminally compromised.

That has largely been the story of the second half of Brawn’s season. Silverstone, Nurburgring and Spa were all affected by it. Normally, the more compliant a chassis and the kinder to its tyres, the better. And it will certainly be an advantage in 2010 when refueling is banned and a set of rubber has to last an entire race distance.

Going into the last two races of the season, Button needed just six points (one third place or two fifths) from the remaining two races to clinch the title. Despite that Honda foundation, the fact that he clinched the title before the final race constitutes a truly stunning achievement for Brawn.

The week the team got back from winning the first race in Melbourne, Ross had to lay-off 250 of his 700 staff. Brawn is located a stone’s throw from rivals Renault, Red Bull and Williams in motor racing’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. There is a pool of expertise but, suddenly, with cost-cutting the future, there were too many cooks. It was a stressful time for everyone.

The team’s achievements are a ringing endorsement to sound management. Not to mention the validation of Jenson Button as a truly first rate racing talent.