The hugely successful Formula One technical director and motorsport engineer, who has helped the drivers Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button to world titles, could be about to park his career, writes Jonathan Gornall.
It began 50 years ago, with a young boy standing alongside his father with his face pressed up against the trackside fencing at Manchester’s Belle Vue motorcycle speedway stadium.
Soaking up the fumes and the thrills and spills as the Belle Vue Aces took on all-comers, the young Ross Brawn would be inspired by that first taste of competitive motor sport to forge one of the most successful, if low-profile, careers in Formula One.
But this weekend, as the grand prix circus rolls into Abu Dhabi in the closing stages of the 2013 season, it looks as though that career might finally have run out of road.
On Tuesday, the man who masterminded Michael Schumacher’s unprecedented domination of Formula One and who went on to become a reluctant team owner, announced that he had failed to agree to future terms with Mercedes GP.
Brawn will most likely quit as team principal after the season-closing Brazilian Grand Prix on November 24, just five days before his 59th birthday, leaving his future in the sport uncertain.
Brawn was born in Ashton-under-Lyme, Greater Manchester, UK, in 1954. His father, Ernie, moved the family to the south of England when the boy was 11 years old, but he has never forgotten the city that he left behind – he regularly returns to watch Manchester United play football.
“I still have a great affinity with the city,” he once recalled. “It’s the period of my life when I got interested in what I do now.”
His father, who had once raced go-karts, worked for the Firestone tyre company, supplying motor-racing teams. Father and son went to many races at a time when the boy’s heroes included “the real icons of Formula One” – Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt and Jackie Stewart.
Brawn Jr tried his hand at karting but, “to be honest”, he later told Karting Magazine, “I wasn’t very good”.
Karting’s loss would be Formula One’s gain.
At 16, Brawn joined the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority as an apprentice engineer. Motor racing, however, was in his blood, and in 1977 he got his first real break, joining Frank Williams’s newly founded Williams Grand Prix Engineering.
“I saw an advert in the local paper for a metalworking machinist,” he later told Replay Motorsport. “Luckily for me, they offered me the job, though I gather I wasn’t actually first choice; it was offered to someone else but they turned the job down.”
Here, Brawn gained a great deal of invaluable experience as part of a well-oiled if small F1 machine, playing a part in four constructors’ championship victories and three drivers’ championships – with Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg and Nelson Piquet, in 1980, 1982 and 1987.
“I would make the bits for the cars, be a mechanic at the track, drive the truck and just do whatever I needed to to make the whole team function,” Brawn later said.
He spent two years at Jaguar, working on the XJR-14 sports car, which won the World Sportscar Championship’s drivers’ and constructors’ titles and the Le Mans 24-hour. But it was next move, to Benetton, that put Brawn on the fast track to the Formula One hall of fame.
Benetton formed its own outfit in 1986. Debuting at the Brazilian Grand Prix that year, it struggled until 1991, when Brawn was brought in as technical director and set about designing the car that would put Michael Schumacher in the sport’s fast lane.
The two men had met while Brawn was at Jaguar and he had spotted the German driver’s talent. “When we heard he was looking to move into Formula One,”Brawn later recalled, “we snapped him up.”
For the next two seasons, the Benetton was no match for the dominant Williams, though Schumacher did manage to take third and fourth place in the drivers’ championship in 1992 and 1993.
Brawn, meanwhile, was working his engineering magic. In 1994, Schumacher won six of the first seven races and went on to become the first German driver to win the F1 championship. He retained the title the following year and gave Benetton its first constructors’ title.
In 1996, Schumacher was headhunted by Ferrari. He had one condition: that Brawn came with him, which he did the following year.
“His decisions changed everything for me,” Schumacher later said. “Ross is a very clever man who can examine a situation and give us a plan to win. He is the best in Formula One.”
The partnership was credited with reviving the grand prix fortunes of the Prancing Horse, which hadn’t won a championship for 20 years. Schumacher dominated the sport, winning five titles on the trot from 2000, while between 1999 and 2004 Ferrari landed six consecutive constructors’ titles.
It couldn’t last for ever and, in 2005, the Ferrari charge finally faltered. Towards the end of the 2006 season, Brawn announced that he was leaving to take a year off and go travelling. He returned to the sport, refreshed, in November 2007, as team principal for Honda F1 team.
The main challenge was Honda’s wholly uncompetitive car – Jenson Button, who had won just six points in 2007, was ready to leave the team. The car, he said, “was a complete dog, and I’m just not interested in racing like this anymore”.
Brawn, the puzzle-solving engineer, was in his element.
“When I arrived, it became clear we didn’t have a good car and there was little point in persevering through 2008,” he recalled. “So we virtually dropped the programme and focused on [developing] the car.”
What no one was expecting, however, was the economic downturn. At the end of Brawn’s first season, Honda pulled out of F1 and put the team up for sale. For any prospective buyer, said Brawn, it was “a fantastic opportunity ... we have a race-winning car next year”.
He, as it turned out, would be that buyer.
Brawn the engineer found that he had another skill – as a businessman. Just one week before the start of the 2009 season, he announced that he had put together a buyout, starring him as the 54 per cent majority shareholder. A dramatic last-minute sponsorship deal with Virgin was the icing on the cake.
The team’s success was stunning. Brawn kept the same two drivers and Button and Rubens Barrichello qualified in pole and second position at the first race in Melbourne, taking the flag in the same order. It was, as Button said, “a fairy-tale ending for the first race”.
Button would win six races, claiming the 2009 title, while Brawn took the constructors’ honours. The enormity of what he and the team had achieved was not lost on Brawn. Button clinched the title in Brazil, one race before the season closer in Abu Dhabi. “I don’t normally blub,” Brawn would later recall, “but at Brazil 2009 I did.” His success would bring an Order of the British Empire award.
At the end of the 2009 season, the team was bought by Mercedes, in partnership with an Abu Dhabi investment company, for a rumoured £110 million (Dh647m), leaving Brawn a very rich man. Retaining a 12.45 per cent share in the team, he stayed on to run Mercedes GP – and caused a sensation by luring Schumacher out of retirement.
But the fairy tale was over.
Both 2010 and 2011 passed without a win for Schumacher or teammate Nico Rosberg, who finally lifted the team’s first trophy in China in April 2012.
Word seeped out that Brawn was increasingly unhappy in a role diluted by the hiring of the former McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe. Whatever the truth, Schumacher had had enough, announcing his second career retirement in October last year.
At that same race, the normally discreet Brawn talked openly of his frustration with Mercedes.
“We have quite a heavy senior management team,” he said. “Any successful F1 team has to have a senior reference and ... we need to make sure if I’m to remain here that I’m the reference.”
In February, Mercedes GP non-executive chairman Niki Lauda tried to quell rumours of trouble.
“There’s peace,” he said. “Ross is in his position, he will stay in his position, so everything is under control.”
Brawn wasn’t so sure. “I am responsible for the sporting side; running the team on an operational level,” he said. “If we can maintain that then there will not be a problem.”
Sadly, there was a problem.
It remains to be seen how well the team will fare next season without Brawn’s vast experience at the helm.
Doubtless there will be no shortage of offers for his talents. But if anyone has earned more time to pursue his hobbies – trout and salmon fishing – and spend time with his family, it’s Ross Brawn, the back-room boy from Manchester who turned an entire sport on its head – not once, but twice.
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