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Brawn supremacy built on bravado and experience

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From The Sunday Times
April 5, 2009
Brawn supremacy built on bravado and experience.

By Martin Brundle

ROSS BRAWN is the hero of the hour after being thrust into the public consciousness with the stunning debut 1-2 in Australia of his eponymous Grand Prix team. But he has actually been around the motor racing block more than a few times and helped steer Michael Schumacher to his seven world championships.

I worked with him in both F1 and sports car racing and got to know, like and immensely respect the man that Jenson Button calls “the big bear”. It is a fair nickname because he does have a gentle giant persona — authoritative but very calm. But under the surface he’s a determined and competitive man. The Brawn GP001 is coming under intense scrutiny because of how Ross and his team have interpreted the new technical regulations with regard to the car’s diffuser.

This isn’t the first time he’s been prepared to challenge and maximise interpretations of the rules. At Benetton and Ferrari he came up with unique bodywork and race strategies. He began at Williams in the mid-1970s where he had a reputation as being a lone operator, but someone who could do a wide variety of tasks with great dedication. He moved on to design F1 cars for Haas-Lola, Arrows and then the Jaguar XJR-14.

This Jaguar was essentially an F1 car with a roof and was initially faster than the opposition by five seconds per lap. I recall starting a race from the pitlane after an engine change at Monza in a 34-car field, and being up to eighth position by the end of the first lap. It was a stunning car.

Ross is not someone who challenges you as a driver, but believes in you and let’s you know that you are valued. This is a key to his skill and it makes him, in my opinion, the ultimate glue in forming a team.

There’s a human side to him that’s very much part of his ability to bring a group of people together. I recall once crashing a Jag during a test at Dijon, hurting my leg. Ross abandoned his duties to help me get home. I was leaning on him as I hobbled through Charles de Gaulle airport.

He’s been away from the cutting edge of design for some years now but obviously his technical knowledge remains extensive. He focuses on the key issues for speed, reliability and race-long performance.

He’s extremely effective at putting the right people in the right places. He is someone that you want to do well for and I’m sure this has played its part in making the new Brawn a success story.

Pre-season I said that the team had a mountain to climb just to make it to the opening race after the Honda withdrawal. Little did I know that the ‘mountain’ was only the Chilterns just south of the Brackley factory.

I also worked with Ross in 1992 at Benetton, where he joined forces with the brilliant designer Rory Byrne. My team-mate was Michael Schumacher. The team was jointly run by Tom Walkinshaw and Flavio Briatore. I was Tom’s boy and Michael was Flavio’s. Ross was always politically adept and early on he could sense which way the wind was blowing. Michael was the shining star of the future and Ross knew that. The way he handled us proved he is a tough and determined man when it comes to business. He went on to have greater success with Byrne and Schumacher, and when all three of them joined up with Jean Todt a dream team was formed.

Ross helped instil a focus and structure at Ferrari that was sorely missing and returned them to world title glory after a drought. It must have been the job from hell as a foreigner to move to Italy and demand new structures for such an iconic team. By the time he left at the end of 2006 he was a legend.

Schumacher formed an incredibly close bond with Ross. Michael seemed to do most of the talking, but when Ross called the shots he responded. When Ross came over the radio and said ‘right Michael I need seven qualifying-level laps and then we will have it in the bag’, Michael would deliver.

Meanwhile Ross would be sitting on the pit wall eating a banana.

I think back to the Benetton days with Schumacher arguing that black was white when he was so wide of the mark yet Ross didn’t tell him to shut up. Instead he just let him talk until Schumacher himself realised he was wrong. This was in the very early days of their relationship but an indication of how it would work.

Ross would never try to score points off you, either. If you said you needed more front end grip he wouldn’t say ‘I have data here that suggests you’re wrong about that’, but would instead say ‘Martin needs some more front grip, let’s find some more for him’.

Those who didn’t understand the depth of his ability have questioned whether his success was simply because he had Michael on his side. Honda’s mediocre performance last year after he joined gave this line of reasoning some ammunition.

But it’s quite clear he simply switched off development of the 2008 car in order to make a devastatingly effective one for 2009. He was cute enough to get himself into the overtaking working group. He says he warned that the 2009 regulations were not finding the big chunks of downforce reduction they were looking for and he wanted the changes to be more extreme. Some of his rivals believe he knew he had an advantage up his sleeve and wanted to make it an even bigger one. I’ve spoken to him about that and he’s hurt by the suggestion.

His next challenge is to convert the car’s speed to a world title, to keep up the development as his better funded rivals crank up their own programmes in order to fight back. I do wonder how he’ll manage on the commercial side because although in his affable way he’s quite capable of schmoozing, he can’t spread himself too thinly and he’s taken on a team with no ongoing sponsor relations thanks to the Honda earth dream cul-de-sac. It’s going to be a tough task, but then when has that ever stopped Ross Brawn?

Brawn supremacy built on bravado and experience - Times Online