Just one man has led an eponymous Formula 1 team to championship victory this millennium: Ross James Brawn OBE, in 2009.
Having departed the three-pointed star at the end of 2013 early retirement beckoned at last after years of toil. Brawn was 59 and comfortably sorted – or so he thought. But that reckoned without a late-2016 call from Liberty Media, the new owners of Formula 1’s commercial rights.
The company needed a managing director able to advise an executive team of broadcast professionals, few of which had seen a grand prix at close quarters prior to bidding for the rights, who suddenly found themselves in charge of a global, multi-billion dollar sporting spectacular.
Fireplaces and slippers went on hold, and in 2017 Brawn was announced as Formula 1’s managing director of motorsport, charged with restructuring an activity that had patently lost its pizzazz under the ownership of venture fund CVC Capital Partners. His first problem was that the sport’s convoluted governance process, compounded by an inequitable revenue structure, meant meaningful change could not be effected until covenants expired at the end of 2020.
Thus, Brawn returned to the paddock, having been granted the free hand he had demanded, determined to turn the effective four-year rules ‘freeze’ to his advantage. For seldom, if ever before, had this most scientific of all sports sport enjoyed a four-year period to devise regulations scientifically. Plus, Liberty was prepared to invest in the process, rather than squeeze every last brass coin out of the sport, as he explained.
“I came back into Formula 1 because I always felt there was this need and opportunity to put a comparative amount of effort into the type of car and the type of racing we had,” he told RaceFans in an exclusive interview.
“I [had] spent decades in trying to improve the performance of the cars, but felt that the attempts to change the regulations were always done in a very short timescale, certainly without any research or preparation. Which, in proportion to what the teams were doing in terms of making the cars perform, was embarrassing, really.
“So, I rejoined Formula 1 because I could see that there was a very interesting opportunity to put some effort into where we take the rules and where we take the cars, and how we improve the quality of racing.”
He unquestionably had the necessary gravitas to win the teams over. Besides guiding Brawn GP to one of F1’s most improbable championship triumphs, he enjoyed a career of successes with Jaguar’s sports car team, Benetton in F1, and eventually overseeing Ferrari’s technical domination during their halcyon Michael Schumacher years.
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His belief, widely shared through the pit lane, is the complexity of F1 aerodynamics had made for cars that were “hostile” to drive when racing in close proximity to each other.
[icon2019autocoursempu]”That seems to be contrary to what you want out of a racing car,” he says, explaining the aero-centric philosophy behind the 2021-onwards technical regulations. To this end a technical department was formed, headed by seasoned engineer Pat Symonds, with the data fed to the FIA, who framed the regulations under the leadership of Nikolas Tombazis, who worked under Brawn at both Benetton and Ferrari.
“That was the first element. And then in doing that, cost control was another major fundamental, because the lack of certainty over how much it costs to be reasonably successful in Formula 1 was another massive hurdle for anyone to overcome, particularly manufacturers.”
Having been involved in the framing of the sport’s ineffective Resource Restriction Agreement – the much-vaunted alternative to a cost cap introduced in 2010, which fell apart even before signatures had dried – Brawn was conscious of the need for a set of regulations that had teeth.
“In terms of cost control I’ve seen the flaws in our system,” he explains. I saw why it didn’t work and what the weaknesses were. So cost control was the other cornerstone of this initiative.
“You look at cost control and you look at how you can reduce some of the pressure on the teams who have to achieve those limits, and some of it is then to try and constrain the technology in areas which are particularly non-relevant.
“You may argue all of it is relevant because it’s a technical competition, but I think there are areas which don’t promote enthusiasm and interest in the sport, because nobody knows anything about them.
“It’s really a competition between engineers deep down in the systems and nobody knows about them, although you get large disparities on the track between those that have the funding to go to such extreme lengths and those that don’t.”
The $175 million budget cap which will come into force in 2021 effectively pans out at $250m – or more – once all exceptions are factored into the equation. These include marketing costs, salaries for drivers and other top staff and costs relating to travel and accommodation.
“It’s a start,” says Brawn, “a compromise in what the large teams felt they could achieve without. It’s fairly draconian but without destroying them. The large teams are going to have to take between 50 and 100 million dollars out of their budgets to achieve the cost cap. That’s going to have quite an impact.”
He argues that major teams spend vast amounts on complex items such as suspension systems that “have no relevance for anything to do with the automotive world or the real world. And only the really well-funded teams could exploit those to the maximum. So I think it will take a lot out of the variables that these teams have.”
Equally, on the level of budget cap he says F1 now has “a dial we can turn up or we can turn down. The system is there now, and I think that’s very important. I think it’s at the right level to introduce the system.”
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But road relevance is not necessarily a trait which creates good racing. Is it something F1 truly needs?
“We’re entering an era where the environmental and sustainability issue is paramount,” Brawn says after a pause for thought.
“We’re seeing the success of Formula E, the relative success of Formula E, and that’s because it has quite a strong message. I don’t think anyone will pretend the racing is at the calibre of Formula 1, but it has an appeal because of the message it can present. We recognise that the relevance of Formula 1 can be to present the right message going forward.
“I don’t think any one of us feel that electric cars are the only solution; there must be and will need to be parallel solutions. Electric cars are great for getting the pollution out of the city centre, but where the electricity is generated can be causing just as big, if not bigger problems. If you drive an electric car in China, there’s a good chance that the electricity has been generated by a coal power station.”
Brawn believes that F1’s relevance lies in directing its “competitive spirit and resource and effort into things which can be relevant.”
“We’ve made that commitment to carbon zero,” he adds, “and we’re now putting the resource into that that we were putting into finding a better set of aerodynamic regulations.”
Using the example of the current hybrid engines – which he describes as “fantastic piece of engineering, but undersold and under-promoted” – he believes F1 needs to identify technologies “that can really make an impact, [so] we can continue to go racing and we can continue having fantastic battles and the contest that we have, making it a win-win situation.”
Such technologies, though, require a strong manufacturer presence. This means striking a balance between manufacturer entries and independent teams particularly when, as Brawn knows from experience, car makers are prone to scrapping their racing teams at very short notice.
“I think it’s great to have manufacturers,” he says. “What we’ve been focused on is having sustainability for the mid-range teams. We don’t want to carry teams that have no place in Formula 1. I think to set the bar that low is wrong. So we need to have good, competent, sensible racing teams who are able to wash their face and make a profit.
“If you go to your board as a manufacturer and say ‘We’d like to compete in Formula 1′, today they say ‘Well, how much is it going to cost?’ You can’t tell them because you keep spending until you’re successful, and that’s almost an infinite number.
“Now we’re saying: ‘You can’t spend more than this, that is controlled, that’s the maximum you’re going to be allowed to spend and therefore you’ve got a fixed level’.
“I think it’s much more appealing. If we marry that with the right message that Formula 1 can send, then I think we’re far more appealing to manufacturers, and we would welcome them. But, I think first of all we’ve got to make a sustainable model for at least the majority of teams in Formula 1.”
I point out that F1’s vicious cost spiral does not only extend to teams budgets, but also to the costs of getting a worthy driver from karting to F1. After all, what good are profitable F1 teams without talented drivers?
“It’s a concern, to be honest,” he agrees. “We’re looking at how we can support that; we’re looking at grassroots level. We’re carrying out work at the moment to understand where we could best support motor racing and where are the areas where you would have the most impact on investment if you want to put money into feeder formulae.”
Lewis Hamilton has been particularly vocal on the subject of the costs young drivers must face if they have any hope of reaching Formula 1. But Brawn believes the talent can still rise to the top.
“When you get to a certain level, your ability really shines through and therefore you get the support you need,” says Brawn.” But it’s getting to that level.
“Where is the gap between talent and funding that doesn’t allow that talent to really demonstrate how good it is? So we are looking at the moment where we would get the best bang for our buck if we wanted to support motor racing at different levels.
“I think there’s a number of examples of drivers who had to make a lot of commitment and sacrifices, but they still came through. George Russell and I think even [Alexander] Albon were not supported by incredibly wealthy benefactors. These guys all made their way through, they showed their talent.”
Brawn adds he hopes the same proves true for girls as well, so does that philosophy extend to W Series as well? “We’re looking at that,” he says. “I think the question is whether there should be such an exclusive series, or whether it should be a more open series.”
His final 2021 regulations package has deviated in some areas from the wish list he had when he took the Liberty deal. It is no secret he urged louder, cheaper power units as part of F1’s regulatory revamp.
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“[On] the engine regulations I would have preferred to have been more dramatic,” he admits. “[But] as it turned out, I think we can use that situation to our advantage.”
Dropping plans to alter the engine rules has given them more time to react to changing priorities, says Brawn. “In the three years I’ve been here the importance of sustainability and environmental relevance has become much stronger.” he explains.
“In a way, not pushing the resource of the teams in a direction to simplify the engine should enable us to push that resource into directions which make these engines and these technologies more relevant.
“So we’re putting a big push on fuels, for instance, on what type of fuels should be relevant for the future. That will mean engine modifications and that will mean developments that can be carried out now.
“I’ll openly say that our picture of where we thought the engine should or could be three years ago is different to where it is now. So that’s one area of change but I think as fortune would have it I think we can benefit from that.”
Equally, a shake-up of the sporting regulations was on the cards. “On the sporting side I still feel a little frustrated that we don’t have an open mind about some of the changes. A very small victory was a point for fastest lap, which had a lot of people up in arms when it started but I think generally we view it as a success now.”
Another plan, to introduce reverse-grid sprint races on Saturday to set the starting line-up for Sunday, was nixed by teams.
“[That] format was a proposal we made which was a taster for 2020,” he explains. “We didn’t plan that necessarily to be the final version. But we wanted to have a few races this year where we could try different formats and different approaches, and see how they worked.
“We’d be the first to put our hand up if it didn’t work. But the teams have been a bit too conservative in that respect and I think it’s a bit of a frustration. But let’s see in the future.”
Then, as has been a constant thread throughout our fascinating 38-minute interview (and, by all accounts, throughout his life), Brawn finds positives to counter-act team opposition: “With the change in the cars and the change with the cost cap and the revenue model we’re hopeful we’ll have a much stronger competition anyway.
“That’s been the comeback we’ve had from a lot of stakeholders, [who said], ‘With everything you’re doing, rather you let that settle in before you think about sporting changes…'”
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