Ross Brawn secured his eighth Constructors’ Title and Jenson Button won the Formula 1 racing championship on Saturday 18th October – with no help from Lady Luck.
Ross is an engineer who graduated in 1976 and for his first job had to settle for operating a lathe. It took him fifteen years of hard graft before his brilliance was noticed by the owner of Benetton Racing who hired him on the cheap to improve its failing cars. Within only four years, Ross had built a car worthy enough to win his first constructors’ crown, with M. Schumacher at the wheel. To make racing more spectacular, rules are changed every year governing how cars could be powered, braked, shaped and weighed: Ross navigated his way through all these changes, and Schumacher drove his cars to victory seven times over the next decade. Ross’s genius and Michael’s determination dominated Formula 1. Unbeaten, Ross retired when Michael left the sport, but the following year was attracted back by the challenge of doing for Honda what he had done for Benetton and Ferrari years before, creating a winning car out of a defunct loser.
Then the recession kicks in, and Ross seizes the opportunity of a lifetime. Honda pulls out of racing and for a song Ross buys the team, mechanics and cars. As the 2009 season opens, he is now in the historically unique position of being in total control of a Formula 1 team: he owns it, he decides what to spend money on, he engineers the car himself, he makes the race tactics, and he hires the drivers. The first element of success is his.
Ross had a racing car, but no engine. The economic downturn which enabled him to get Honda meant that all the engine manufacturers are desperate to sell him an engine, to spread their costs. So with his network of connections, Ross is able to buy the most powerful engine around, Mercedes, for much less than in any other times. The second element drops into place.
Jenson Button had been a journeyman driver on the circuits for eight years, bouncing around the backend of the grid, with his highest finish at seventh. The experts regarded him as a playboy lightweight heading for the end of an undistinguished career, 2008 seeing him 18th driver out of 22. He was 29 years old and as 2009 approached nobody had hired him. Ross had inherited Jenson when he bought Honda, but only kept him on for 2009 at the relatively trivial wage of £3 million, down from £8 million the previous year and around a tenth of what Ferrari pay their drivers. Jenson had no other option but to accept. This didn’t look like the third element of 2009’s success, but that’s how it turned out.
Astoundingly, teams nowadays are restricted from testing their new cars and drivers except for a few weeks before the first race of the season: the idea is to limit costs for everyone so that small teams have at least a chance to challenge the Ferraris of this world. Ross didn’t even have an engine ready for the initial weeks, so at the Barcelona tests, a fortnight before the first race in Australia, Ross has an untried car, a team in painful transition from a huge budget to a tiny one, an unproved engine and a driver seemingly unmotivated to win.
Suddenly the tide turns: Ross sees a way to gain a huge advantage; the regulations on down-force (pushing the rear tyres down on to the road, for greater grip) have been tightened. He invents an aerodynamic “double diffuser” which gives his car extra grip on corners and therefore makes it about half a second faster per lap. This engineering coup changes the game completely.
So Ross sends Button out on the first race with a superior car, and Jenson drives faster than he ever has done, cutting through the established teams to win for only the second time in his life. He stands on the top step of the podium a new man, determined, focused, and motivated by this last chance to succeed in racing cars. Brawn and Button win six out of the first seven races, even though the other teams have copied the diffuser. There is now no stopping the winning combination, and although Jenson doesn’t win again, he keeps accumulating points and his top position is unassailable. Just to demonstrate the importance of the engineer, Ross’s car powers his other driver, Rubens Barichello, to another two victories. Ross has indeed done it again, taking a bad car, a small budget and an unsuccessful driver to the podium time after time. A triumph of skill over loadsamoney…
It’s pretty clear that Ross won because he alone in Formula 1 combined a brilliant and practical engineering talent with the power of an owner to carry out his technical decisions. Maybe other companies should learn from this, and have a few experts as directors and chairmen: an engineer in charge of BAE, or a chemist at Unilever?