Ross Brawn is a man who makes an impact; and whose words matter.
From the moment his 6ft 3in frame walks through the door and he introduces himself – “Hello, I’m Ross” – in his instantly recognisable, but surprisingly quiet voice, you can sense his controlled authority.
Brawn is one of the most important men in Formula 1, if not the most important. In his role as managing director of motorsports and technical director for the Formula One Group, it is his responsibility to guide the sport into its next era.
And he does so from a position of “been there, seen it, bought trucksfull of the t-shirt”. Just consider his achievements in F1:
- Benetton: Back-to-back Drivers’ world titles in 1994 and ’95 with Michael Schumacher, and Constructors’ title in ’95.
- Ferrari: Between 1999 and 2004, five consecutive Drivers’ titles for Schumacher, and six consecutive Constructors’ Championships.
- Brawn GP: After buying out Honda F1, in 2009 he stunned the establishment by leading his team to the Constructors’ title, and steered Jenson Button to world championship glory.
- After selling Brawn GP to Mercedes, he was pivotal in attracting Lewis Hamilton to the team. While Brawn decided in 2014 to take a sabbatical from the sport, Hamilton, of course, now has five F1 titles to his name.
Slightly bizarre then that on the eve of the new F1 season getting under way this week in Australia, I found myself sitting with Brawn in a village hall in Oxfordshire discussing not only 2019, but also the future of the sport, and how he compared Schumacher and Hamilton.
First though, Silverstone. The home of the British Grand Prix is in the final year of its F1 contract, with nothing in place for 2020. Would he, and F1 owners Liberty Media, like to see Silverstone on next season’s calendar?
“We would,” he nodded. “We have a long history at Silverstone. But we’re struggling a bit with their rationale for why they should get the race for less money. Silverstone’s logic as to why they want a reduction we don’t think is correct. We think they should maintain their fee close to what we’ve been receiving for a number of years now.
“We believe they can make a viable commercial model out of what they’re paying now. But they want to reduce it. So we’re stuck. I do believe there will be a British Grand Prix in 2020; whether it’s at Silverstone or somewhere else.”
Lewis Hamilton, of course, is a Silverstone favourite, having won his home grand prix on five occasions. His flamboyant exploits though, and use of social media away from the sport have split opinions. How happy is Brawn with the Brit’s lifestyle?
“I must admit, when I first got involved with Lewis, his lifestyle was bit of a concern, just because it was out of the norm,” the F1 boss explained. “A modern Formula 1 driver keeps a very low profile outside the sport. They put tremendous work into their job, and tremendous effort, but they tend to be lower profile away from the sport.
“Of course, seeing Lewis — his social life, his interests, his passions outside the sport — meant he had a pretty high profile; he was zooming around all over the place to attend events and activities which were fun for him.
“I must admit, I was intrigued … but the results on-track speak for themselves.
“For him, that balance of Formula 1 and other activities suit him; suit his personality; suit his character. And I have to say, for Formula 1, from a commercial and brand perspective, it’s fantastic. Lewis does draw in people’s interest, and a lot of them are people outwith those who would normally watch our sport. So he’s a great ambassador for Formula 1 in many ways.”
Hamilton’s exuberant lifestyle away from F1 is in marked contrast to that of Schumacher’s.
“Michael was far quieter outside the car. He shunned the limelight,” Brawn reflected. “But he had a family — son, daughter, wife — so there was a lot of things he did as a family man. Lewis doesn’t have that … yet.
“So yes, Michael kept a lower profile. But on the professional side, I see the level of commitment, the sheer talent that both of them display, and displayed in the car and on track. Applying that talent is crucial, but if you haven’t got that raw talent, then you’re not going to reach the levels that both those drivers have reached in the last few decades.”
This season sees a number of technical and aerodynamic changes introduced, all ahead of a major reset — which will include new engines — in 2021. And Brawn is clear he intends those changes to shake up the podium, which has essentially seen only three teams — Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull — win grands prix over the last few years.
In fact, you need to go back to March 2013 to find the last time one of the big three didn’t win, when Kimi Raikkonen took victory in Australia for Renault.
“What I want to achieve in the longer term is more teams able to pull a result,” Brawn stressed. “The same three teams have won every race for the last few years. That’s something we’re addressing. We’re trying to create more potential for the good middle teams to occasionally succeed, and perhaps to ease back and control the amount or resources the top teams can throw at their efforts.”
That, effectively, is cost-capping? And will F1 redress the current situation where the top three winning teams receive a higher percentage of the prize money, thus fuelling their ability do throw more money at problems and accelerate further away from the rest?
“There are two fundamental initiatives. One is to control the maximum amount of money a team can spend; the second is to overwrite the revenue model. For years the higher teams have had a higher percentage of the prize money, and that’s self-perpetuating the core problem.
“We want to, and we need to reward the successful teams, but we also want to tilt the rewards and make it much more of an attractive environment for the medium and small teams. Of course, while that’s attractive to the teams at the lower end of the grid; it’s not something which will be welcomed by the three larger teams.
“We’re meeting some resistance,” Brawn laughed, “but I think they recognise somebody has to run the business. Somebody’s got to run the sport, because if they run it themselves they’ll just continue this cycle.”
As for this season, and who’s most likely to win, you’ll not be surprised to hear his assessment.
“Predominantly it’ll be Mercedes versus Ferrari, but I think the fascinating thing will be how Red Bull and Honda fair. I know Red Bull are certainly very optimistic from what they’ve seen at the tests. I think we’re also going to see a fascinating duel in the midfield.”
More of the same then, I guess. Roll on Ross’s changes 2021.
Ross Brawn was speaking exclusively to Jim McGill as part of his charitable support for Help for Hospitals in Uganda.