Brains over Brawn in Formula One
“It would be a tragedy for the world championship to be won by a car driven either by somebody who is as slow as a gatepost, or a retired crock,” Renault's team boss Flavio Briatore remarked recently, disparaging the talents of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, and Ross Brawn, who masterminded Benetton's mid-Nineties successes for him.
Not for nothing is F1 known as the Piranha Club, and the dramatic success of the Brawn team as it emerged, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of Honda, has bruised many fragile egos.
Only last week team owner Brawn had to listen as Ferrari's QC Nigel Tozzi, pleading the Scuderia's case for banning the trick diffuser on the Brawn car, told the FIA international court of appeal: "Our appeal is not because we have not made the most of an opportunity, but because Brawn, Toyota and Williams have not acted within the regulations.
“Only a person of supreme arrogance would think he is right when so many of his esteemed colleagues would disagree.”
Tozzi lost his case, and Button's two extraordinary triumphs in the opening races of 2009 were safe. The fairy story of the team that sprang, victorious, from Honda's debris, remained intact.
Does Brawn, the mild-mannered engineer who was also the architect of Michael Schumacher's tremendous run of success at Ferrari, feel vindicated by the decision handed down by five appeal judges?
“I don't think of it that way,” he says equably. “It's unfortunate that this argument reached the extent that it did. We all need to learn how to handle these things. I can see it from both sides, but I really feel that we have just got to accept the arbitrators' decision and get on with it. It's a bit like a football match and the referee's decision. Sometimes it goes with you, sometimes it doesn't.”
He understands the frustration of rivals now faced with the cost of revamping their cars to keep up with his, but adds: “When we came up with the concept, we didn't think it was radical. We thought it was clever, but it wasn't a eureka! moment. It was no surprise to us that other teams had it at the beginning of the season. In fact, the surprise was that there were not more.”
He is also magnanimous about Tozzi's attack on his character.
“I never took it personally, but my wife did! If it had been Stefano Domenicali (Ferrari's team principal) saying it, then I would have been upset. But I was quite strong in my own presentation. Tozzi is just a hired gun and knows how it works, though I feel his style of argument has probably had its day. The mood was moving in an acrimonious direction, but if it was intended to put me off balance, it had the opposite effect.”
Brawn has been around racing long enough to appreciate that what goes around comes around, and that today's heroes can be tomorrow's backmarkers.
As a schoolboy in Manchester his interest in engineering was fired when his father Ernie took him slot car racing. Spells with teams such as FORCE, Williams and Arrows led him to Benetton and thence to Ferrari, before he ended a year's sabbatical in 2007 by moving to technical directorship of the struggling Honda team. When that folded last December, he found team ownership thrust upon him.
“It happened by happy accident! Being a team owner was not an ambition, but just evolved as the only solution to the Honda problem.”
He is modest enough to admit that he was taken aback by his nascent team's extraordinary success.
“We have been very pleasantly surprised that we were as competitive as we have been.”
McLaren and Ferrari were hellbent on their fight for the world championship in 2008, and Brawn believes that cost them valuable time on their new cars.
“They were in a nightmare situation where neither could give up their fight for the title, but they were doing that at a time when the regulations were going to change for 2009, so all the development they were still doing right to the end of the season took time and could not be rolled into a new car.
“Everything they did at the end just had to be thrown into the bin. Now we have new regulations and more difficult constraints, such as a restriction on testing. In the future, it is quite possible that a team will have to accept that it might be able to fight for the world championship one year but not in the following season because of this.”