Ross Brawn has spent a remarkable career in Formula One relentlessly looking forward. In a febrile paddock all that mattered was the next race, the next win, the next title. But times have changed and, in his current role as F1’s sporting director, the former Mercedes principal has the task of plotting how the sport will evolve, and Brawn is looking to take F1 back to the future.
F1 celebrates its 1,000th world championship race in China on Sunday morning and Brawn has become immersed in F1’s history in order to ensure it can boldly march on to another 1,000 meetings.
Since the first round at Silverstone in 1950, across 70 seasons, F1’s milestone in Shanghai has given him plenty to work with. “F1 is a fascinating story of man and machine,” he says. “Both can compensate a little for the other but neither can succeed without the other. It is full of politics, intrigue, bravery, incredible talent, fairy stories and heartbreaking stories. It has every element of life but amplified a thousand times.”
His appointment in 2017 by F1’s incoming owners, Liberty Media, was universally welcomed. Here was the poacher turned gamekeeper, the man with knowledge and experience of the sport at the highest level, after spells with Benetton, Ferrari and Honda, not to mention his own championship-winning Brawn team, now assessing it with an unbiased vision.
“In my career, like most participants, the next race was the most important,” he says. “However, in my new role, the history and heritage of the sport is a key element. This will reflect in the designs of the new cars, the rules that evolve and the circuits we will race on. We want to find the right balance of innovation without becoming gimmicky and losing our values.”
The 64-year-old Lancastrian has been handed the daunting task of ensuring F1 remains relevant, that the racing improves, that it is cost-effective and that the playing field is levelled across disparate spending by teams, in new regulations for 2021. This he must achieve while not detracting from what F1 means to a great range of vested interests, not to mention the fans. Within the sport, maintaining its “DNA” is often referred to by participants, a tough task given that its definition can be entirely subjective.
In Brawn’s favour he has almost a lifetime of F1 experience to draw on. It has been a constant companion. “In the 1960s my dad worked at Firestone, who supplied the tyres for a lot of F1 teams,” he says. “He travelled all over the world but I went to the British races and tests with him and hung around the paddock. My younger brother used to play in the paddock with Damon Hill when they were both six to seven years old. So I had an inside introduction to the sport. As I grew up, it was F1 that made me want to be an engineer. The cars were the fascination for me.”
That fascination duly turned into a remarkable career and Brawn has the sense of where the sport should be heading because he has been involved in almost every facet of it. He began at March Engineering before being taken on by Frank Williams as a machinist in 1978 and worked his way up from there. As technical director at Benetton he steered Michael Schumacher to his first two world championships, in 1994 and 1995.
When Schumacher went to Ferrari he took Brawn with him and in 1999 they won the first of six consecutive constructors’ titles. Between 2000 and 2004 Schumacher won five consecutive drivers’ titles, the most successful run in the Scuderia’s history.
Brawn joined Honda at the end of 2007 only for the team to announce they were withdrawing from F1 at the end of 2008. Confident they had already had a successful car in the making for 2009, Brawn led the buyout that created Brawn GP. Jenson Button won six of the first seven races of that season and clinched the title in Brazil, where Brawn also secured the constructors’ championship. The team was bought by Mercedes the following year and Brawn remained at the helm until 2013; his presence was key to Schumacher coming out of retirement to join them in 2010. During that period he laid the groundwork for their dominance of the past five years and was instrumental in bringing Lewis Hamilton from McLaren to Mercedes.
He describes the “fairy story of Brawn GP” as one his favourite times in the sport but emphasises that it is the experience as a whole that has left him well-prepared to build the new F1. “When you work in a team you are always learning,” he says. “Learning about how to succeed and how to handle failure. Learning what makes a group of people strong and what makes them weak. For me the special moments in F1 were about being in a team.”
In F1 everyone from teams to fans has special moments, favourite eras, unforgettable races and beloved drivers, as might be expected of a sport that is hosting its 1,000th meeting. In the Shanghai paddock portraits of world champions flutter over helmets, trophies and title-winning cars, all reflecting the sport’s rich heritage. Considering it all, Brawn, an engineer by trade, is still acutely aware that F1 is more than the sum of its technological parts and that the very human element remains crucial.
The balancing act he faces will by no means be an easy one to pull off. It was Bernie Ecclestone who turned the sport from one of relatively niche interest to a global phenomenon worth millions of pounds. Brawn has inherited a mighty machine but he is also keenly aware of what is at the core of its longevity. “F1 is fast moving and it is incredibly complex,” he says. “It needs nurturing to allow the sport and the driver-to-driver competition to remain the most important element.”