It was no great surprise when Ross Brawn was appointed managing director of Formula 1 in 2017, with the primary task of steering its new American owners Liberty Media through the various commercial, political and sporting chicanes that had evolved during the 40-year Bernie Ecclestone era.
Once it became known that F1 chairman and CEO Chase Carey was retiring from his executive role at end-2020 Brawn’s was one of the names variously listed as replacement despite his age – 65 last October – being viewed as an impediment by some financial analysts. Forget not that Liberty is a listed company, and that share prices – not lap times – rule supreme.
After RaceFans revealed last September that Stefano Domenicali (55) was replacing Carey, paddock tongues immediately started wagging: Brawn would step aside, particularly as he had held the more senior role while working with Domenicali at Ferrari. Plus, Brawn had come out of early retirement to join Liberty, so a return to quality time with his family – and more time for fishing – would surely be welcomed back home.
However, no sooner had Domenicali slid his feet under his metaphorical Liberty desk – due to Covid restrictions he is home-officing, near Monza – than they discussed continuity. Domenicali needs someone he knows well while getting to grips with running F1, and their time (and serial successes) at Ferrari surely established just that.
During an exclusive interview with RaceFans on Tuesday Brawn confirmed he will remain in the role for the foreseeable future. As reported here, Ross retains the same broad remit – “it’s pretty flexible” – with particular emphasis on overseeing F1’s transition to ‘new era’ regulations, due in 2022 after being pushed out a year due to Covid.
Thus my opening question: what valuable lessons have F1 learned after operating for a season under the unpredictable pandemic?
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Brawn makes the point that the vast majority of fans were forced to watch the sport on a variety of platforms after only three of the eventual 17 rounds admitted spectators (in reduced numbers), which was in itself a valuable lesson. However, one of the most interesting aspects was fans’ enthusiasm for new additions to F1’s roster of circuits.
“That’s something we’re taking into consideration: should we think about a rotation of [venues] to get a little bit more variety?
“Another popular aspect was the different winners,” he says. “It wasn’t quite so metronomic, which really gives us encouragement for the future with our ambitions to make for more competitive racing [which is less] dominated by a specific team.
“We still want it to be a meritocracy – don’t get me wrong – but we want to see different teams succeed. The fact we had more of a range of winners and races really came across very strongly; it was one of our best years in many areas of the measurements we take. In terms of digital [media] it is one of our strongest shares; in fact, our strongest year ever.”
Squeezing 17 races into 23 weeks forced F1 into a two-day weekend format for the Imola round – there was insufficient travel time after the previous weekend’s round on the Algarve. Will F1 adopt this format in order to facilitate its much-vaunted calendar expansion?
“We have to balance the right circuits, the right events,” Brawn says. “A promoter likes to have a three-day event; it helps their commercial model. Last year the commercial model was turned on its head, so having a two-day event wasn’t such a problem. We’ve kept it in our pocket for when we need it, but for a season as a whole it would be a massive change to make, and not one we’re considering.”
Efforts to introduce reverse-grid qualifying races at a limited number of rounds have so far been unsuccessful. But Brawn remains keen to experiment with further changes to F1’s race weekend structure.
“What I’d like to see is some weekends where we do run a different format, and we can judge what the responses are, so we don’t commit the whole championship to a new format.
“That would be a sensible way to move forward, and find new avenues that would appeal to the fans and, and perhaps appeal to new fans. We don’t want to alienate our existing fans. We’re very loyal to our fan base. But if we can find ways of engaging with new fans, that would be for everyone’s benefit.”
However, he stresses again that: “It always has to be a meritocracy.”
“Turkey was a great example,” he explains, referring to a race weekend which was shaped by unusual and unexpectedly low levels of grip on the recently resurfaced track. “We had some negative comments about grip levels and the conditions, yet it was one of the greatest races of the year.
“Everybody took something away from that, and it was it was very interesting to see the more experienced drivers come to the fore.”
Brawn believes any new formats which are introduced would need to be tested over two or three races to gauge their effectiveness. “That’s enough to judge the impact of it without debasing the championship,” he says.
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“What you don’t want to do is have a championship that’s spoiled because you’ve done something which creates strange results.”
Meanwhile 2022 looms large: Teams have started preparing for the ‘new era’, and under budget caps, too, which demand that they race their (largely) carried-over designs after the incoming regulations were pushed out a year due to Covid. Are the regulations now fully sorted?
“In the bulk,” Brawn says before clarifying his response: “When you get some extra time, the engineers – I count myself in that category – refine things. With that opportunity, there’s been refinements, and as teams have looked at the regulations in more detail there’s some bugs which have been ironed out.
“There’s some things which we found which would be in everyone’s interest to make some modifications, but they don’t alter the primary objective and they’ve always been made with the support of the teams. There’s no fundamental changes.”
Historically, radical changes to aerodynamic regulations have resulted in some teams grabbing early advantages by exploiting unintended areas. I remind a grinning Brawn that in 2009 his team benefitted from the double-diffuser which played no small part in the team’s championship successes that year and sound him out on the chances of history repeating itself.
“Never say ‘never’,” he smiles. “We’ve been mindful of that. One of the things that’s different [under Liberty] is the resource we have internally and with the FIA to look at these regulations,” Brawn explains, adding that in 2009 such an infrastructure was lacking.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t overlook something, but it’s far less likely. We’ve stress-tested these regulations as much as we can.”
However, he believes that the less restrictive contemporary governance process will enable the teams, F1 and FIA to impose changes more readily, so any exploitation may be short-lived. In addition, the imposition of budget caps mean teams are less likely to exploit ‘grey areas’ lest they need to backtrack at great cost.
“I think they are likely to be more prudent now that none of the teams have open-ended budgets and can’t go to sponsors or owners and say, ‘We’ve got this fantastic idea, we need 10 million more to go do it.
“When I was at Honda it wasn’t a hard ceiling, the budget, if you could justify it you could have it, but now you have to justify everything and balance it with everything else you want to do.”
Talking of budget caps, can these be tightly controlled? After all, a cut from the $400 million-plus (£291m) spent by the larger teams to the $145m (£105m) cap – which is due to reduce by a further $5m over each of the next two years – will require enormous efforts and could see some breaches.
“It will be tough, there’s no doubt,” says Brawn. “We’ve put in a lot of resources, the FIA put a team together and we’ve supported it,” he says, but adds that they have an experienced team headed up by Nigel Kerr, formerly financial director at Honda, then with Brawn and thereafter Mercedes as the Brackley operation evolved.
“It’s interesting, because now we’ve introduced it on the [chassis side] we are getting feedback from the engine suppliers, they want the same, because the certainty of the cost is one of the most vital things.”
Apart from obvious cost savings there is another major benefit of costs caps: “If you want to enter [F1] by supplying an engine or being an OEM involved in Formula 1, you want to be able to take to the [company] board some certainty on what it’s going to cost. If you can [show] the board that the team is going to cost ‘X’ and an engine is going to cost ‘Y’, you can give you the board some certainty of what it’s going to cost.
“That’s invaluable,” he stresses.
Talk of engines leads us neatly into the next topic, namely future power units, but before these can be nailed down we require clarity on the current regulatory window: the intention had been for the ‘new era’ framework to have a 2021-25 shelf life; with the start having been pushed out a year, has the expiration date followed suit?
“There’s some discussion at the moment about what’s ideal. We’re keen to introduce a new power unit at some point in the future; we think there’s opportunity with the power unit to set new targets and new objectives, which could be extremely relevant, extremely appealing to existing suppliers and new [manufacturers].
“So, it’s a question of whether we do that for 2025, or ‘26. The [regulations] will align with that, because when we do the new power unit we need to do it in step with the car because one of the things we want is to be able to demonstrate another major step in efficiency in terms of fuel consumption.
“That will come partly from the technology of the car as well as the technology of the power unit. So, it could be 2025 or it could be 2026,” he says, adding that a decision is due to fall this year “because we’ll need to start getting ready and we’re already in discussions with our existing power unit suppliers. We hope to start having discussions with prospective suppliers in the near future.”
Clearly one of the targets for the new power units is some form of carbon neutrality. Does that mean these engines would tailored to whichever direction F1 plans to head, fuel-wise?
“The key thing is sustainable fuels; we want to be able to use a fuel which completes the carbon cycle and comes from renewable sources to demonstrate that having a carbon-neutral fuel is viable, and that it can be another option – another alternative [to electrification] – certainly for the next 20 or 30 years.”
On that basis, what are the chances of additional engine suppliers in the near future?
“The acid test is that we meet our objectives; if we don’t meet them we’re not doing it right. One of the primary objectives is sustainable fuel. The second is to have an engine that’s affordable for a manufacturer.
“Too often in the past, we’ve set technical objectives: it will be ‘X’ capacity, it will have 1,000 horsepower, it will do this, will do that. But we’ve never mentioned cost. We now have engines with a unit cost in excess of a million pounds – they used to cost £100,000!
“That was a consequence of a technical objective-led formula, rather than having a business case as well. A business case is just as big a challenge as having a technical case. We want to make sure that the new power unit has the business model around it, as well as the set of technical objectives.
With Honda due to depart at the end of the season, many would like to see new manufacturers showing an interest in F1. On this crucial point Brawn is cautiously optimistic.
“They’re waiting to see data,” he says. “I think it’s appealing; the feedback we’re getting is manufacturers want to talk, which is encouraging, particularly in this environment. I don’t want to say anything further than that, but we’re not meeting many closed doors when we explain what we want to do.”
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