Formula One managing director Ross Brawn on simplifying the sport, new drivers and historic races
Ross Brawn’s appointment in January 2017 as Managing Director of Formula One made perfect sense. The sport had been taken over by Liberty Media, an American organisation with little knowledge of F1’s complexities. Brawn, on the other hand, had knew every angle.
The quiet Englishman had risen from trainee engineer with the UK Atomic Energy Authority to become one of the most respected engineers and designers in Formula One. Having begun his motor sport career in the late Seventies as a mechanic with the March team, Ross moved on to become aerodynamicist at Williams, chief designer at Arrows and technical director at Jaguar, followed by Benetton.
It was with the latter that he began a remarkable partnership with Michael Schumacher, winning the World Championship in 1994 and 1995. When Schumacher moved to Ferrari in 1996, Brawn was soon to follow and begin an outstanding run of five World Championships together between 2000 and 2004.
In 2007, Ross moved to Honda and subsequently bought the team, re-naming it Brawn Grand Prix when Honda withdrew from F1. In one of the greatest fairy tale motor sport stories, Brawn and
Jenson Button won the 2009 World Championship in their first season. Ross then received an offer he couldn’t refuse, sold his team to Mercedes and took on the role of team principal for three years.
Known as a master strategist, Brawn could think outside the box and was renowned for exploiting loopholes in the technical regulations. After leaving Mercedes for a sabbatical to enjoy his passion for fishing, Ross was persuaded back to head up Formula One . His most recent project has been a raft of innovations to rejuvenate Grand Prix racing in 2021.
NI born F1 commentator Maurice Hamilton spoke to Brawn ahead of his visit as principal guest at the 25th anniversary SPARKS NI Celebration of Motorsport charity dinner and auction for Action Medical Research at Culloden on Friday, December 6.
Q: Did the three years away from F1 give you a different and useful perspective, looking on from the outside?
A: It was one of the motivations for me to get involved again, because with that distance, watching races on the television rather than being on the pit wall and being fed all the information, I realised that we do Formula One a bit of a disservice.
I was previously deeply involved in strategy and the way the races work, but I would sit there on a Sunday afternoon and watch the race at home not knowing what the hell was going on. I was having to get my laptop out to look at the times and who had made a pit stop and so on and so forth.
I know that can be a very interesting element of a race, but I started to believe that what you should be able to do is pick up a race at any stage and know what is going on. If you’ve got to follow a race from lap one to the very end where you’ve got to work out every nuance, then we are getting a bit complicated.
So the period away made me realise that we do have to step back and look at the races and see what the fans are seeing. If you’re at a circuit and you haven’t got access to that information, it must be difficult.
Q: How do you make F1 simpler?
A: I’ve talked to a lot of people to see how we can progress this. There are different levels where we deliver Formula One to different types of enthusiasts. We can improve the access to the information that the real enthusiast needs to look at all the detail, but we have to go back to the point where the guy who turns up to a circuit on a Sunday can follow a race without the need to access a laptop.
The tyre strategies are complex, there are different compounds, and unless you know what compound the car’s on and how many pit stops they’ve made and where they are, then work out the gaps and know how long a pit stop takes and all the rest of it, then it’s difficult to follow.
I felt that side could be made simpler and technology would give access to fans who want to explore that side as well. I think the technology is great, but it doesn’t appeal to everyone – in the same way that the fans of any other sport are all at different levels. We need to create that tier for people to choose where they want to enter Formula One as a fan.
I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve been working with the teams and the broadcasters and different partners in Formula One, trying to find the answers. It hadn’t really been done before. It used to be crisis management when we suddenly decided we’ve got a drama and something is not working, there’s a team dominating or there’s a report that viewing figures have dropped and suddenly we have to change things. I never worked like that in the race teams I was in.
Q: Would you have welcomed a managing director of motor sport when you were working for a F1 team?
A: On that side of the sport, yes I would. That’s what was so appealing to me in this position. Bernie [Ecclestone] had done an amazing job but he had been very autocratic in the approach he’d taken and looked at it from a certain perspective.
We’ve been trying to look at if from a few different perspectives now and I’m hopeful this is going to take the sport forward. There’s not one simple solution that makes Formula One great; it’s a process, a culture and philosophy.
Q: Where does F1 stand when it comes to the sport’s relevance to road cars? Should that be considered at all or should F1 focus on being a sport?
A: We've been at a bit of a crossroads in that respect. Road cars are developing more quickly at the moment than probably any of us can remember. We've got hybrids, full electrics, fuel cells and we’ve got autonomous cars. I’ve got a car now that doesn't let me, but I could take my hand off the wheel on the motorway and it will keep going perfectly happily watching the lanes and controlling everything.
Clearly that’s not what we would want in Formula One. If we say Formula One has to align itself with road cars, then logically we end up with an electric car that drives itself, and nobody wants that in Formula One. We have gone partway into the hybrid route, and they are fabulous engines in terms of the technology, but we've been engaging with the manufacturers (Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Ferrari, Honda) to get their views on what is the racing engine of the future.
The noise is part of the emotion and it’s one of the more constant feedbacks we get, that the noise and passion has disappeared, so what can we do to regain that? I’m not saying we should go back to the way we were because that would be a shame if we just went back to where we were 10 years ago because these current engines are amazing pieces of technology – and I think that is another thing we didn’t sell very well.
We've been trying to understand what the manufacturers’ objectives are, because they invest a huge amount in Formula One, and see what the path is with the engines in the future.
Q: There are complaints about one team – Mercedes – dominating and making F1 boring. How is that related to the huge budgets some of the bigger teams enjoy? Is that why you are working on restricting costs?
A: The situation is that the return on investment, in terms of performance, is still steep. So, the more money you invest the faster you go. As long as you get a competent team like Mercedes doing it, then that is what happens.
What we are aiming to do with the proposed cost control is to do is reduce that slope and find ways within the technical regulations of rewarding less for heavy investment. That’s been the concept; achieving it is more difficult.
This process is going on all the time; chipping away and getting back to where we want to be. We've kept thinking about it and trying to make sure that all the discussions are going in the right direction to pull the slope down.
My personal view is that a healthy Formula One is where there is a good stock of teams that can stand on their own two feet, not be manufacturer teams, but smaller teams that can do a decent job. If those teams spend far more money than they have and go bust then we can’t stop that, but you want to get them over the breadline so at least of they do a sensible job with sensible management. Then they are going to have a good business and the businesses are going to be attractive and get new teams in.
Q: How have you addressed the need to have young drivers coming into F1?
A: The ideal situation is the smaller teams should be the nursery grounds for young drivers to come through, and maybe even a compulsory nursery ground where you have a draft pick system so that the guys coming through then have to drive for a small team for the first season of their career before they then have a move up to the top teams.
If you could imagine a scenario where we have Formula Three, Formula Two and Formula One, to have those championships as the path you have to go through to get into Formula One and you have to be in the top number of each championship to get your path to go into Formula One, you would again start this process of having the best drivers in Formula One.
On a Sunday morning there should be a Formula Two and Formula Three race and the fans see those young drivers and start to engage and they see them coming up so that then they get their chance in Formula One. That way, you broaden the entertainment, engage with the young guys coming through and making sure that we only have drivers on merit in Formula One.
Q: What are your views on classic races – the Monaco, British and Italian Grands Prix, for example – continuing to have a place on the F1 calendar when you’re entertaining new venues such as Vietnam and Miami?
A: Liberty Media are supportive of the fact we have a strong heritage in Formula One. That’s what they respect and that’s what we’ve been trying to build on. My view is there is a core of races which are the heritage of Formula One and we must preserve them.
Of course, other races will become the heritage of Formula One; other races have started to become well-liked and important races in the calendar; Bahrain, Singapore and others now joining that group. But of course it’s the existence of that group that makes it so appealing to the other races; they want to be part of it. And if you lose that then you don’t stay attractive to the other races.
Q: Having achieved so much in F1, you could easily have turned down this role. Have you enjoyed it?
A: When you’re not involved, you slow down a bit. I quickly found that I speeded up and I’m getting more things into a day. When you haven’t got that intensity, then you do a few less things in the day than perhaps you used to.
So the intensity came back quite quickly. I had been very team orientated in the past with very clear and simple objectives of winning races and championships, so everything was aligned round that.
My focus is now different and I had to discover how that works for me. There were a lot of elements I had missed from Formula One. There were some aspects I didn’t miss and yet found myself straight back in the middle of the bits I didn’t always enjoy!
But if I could leave Formula One in the future with the feeling that I’ve been able to contribute and move it forward a bit, then I would be very happy.
Belfast Telegraph Digital