The Mercedes GP team principal talks with Matt Majendie about playing catch up and how winning can get boring.
Brains and Brawn
"I was never very good at it," is Ross Brawn's frank assessment of his own abilities as a racing driver. The young Brawn's upbringing meant he was probably always destined for a path into motorsport after being taken to races from a young age by his father Ernie, who worked for Firestone Tyres. Brawn Sr also helped his son pursue his relatively shortlived karting passion. His son was clearly hooked on the buzz of motorsport, but increasingly he realised that it was not wheel-to-wheel racing but the nuts and bolts of the machine he was racing that drove him.
"I actually raced karts for quite a long time - until my late teens, early 20s," says the Mercedes GP team principal. "But somehow being out on track and fighting with other people in karts didn't quite do it for me. "On the other hand, my kart had so many engineering tweaks on it and that's what got me excited - that's what did it for me. Racing cars or karts didn't have the same effect but probably because I wasn't very good on it."
Engineering, on the other hand, is very much Brawn's forte. The 55-year-old was the mastermind behind all seven of Michael Schumacher's seven world titles and similarly led the team that inspired Jenson Button to last year's world title. Brawn appears to see design innovations that others don't, such as the double diffuser he introduced at Brawn GP last year and that is now a feature of every Formula One car on the grid.
The former Ferrari technical director denies that the thought process in radical innovations necessarily come easily to him, but admits his brain lends itself to the problems that F1 throws up. "I think my pragmatism helps; otherwise you can run away with yourself too easily in F1 if you're not careful," he explains. "Basically, my temperament and logic seem to fit in well with the problem solving of F1."
Brawn's problem solving, though, is now very much of a different nature. As team principal, he is no longer getting his hands dirty with the day-to-day stuff of the Mercedes' creation and its season-long evolution. "In the early part of my career I was finding solutions and fixing problems," he says. "Now I'm creating the structure for fixing those things. It's a different challenge and it certainly gets me out of bed in the morning."
Brawn has been involved in F1 now for more than three decades, but it was never his intention to stay in the sport for more than a couple of years. Intriguingly, the man who gave him his first big break, Patrick Head at Williams, had no intention of giving impressionable Brawn a job at all when he interviewed him in 1976. Brawn recalls: "I saw an advert for a job at Williams and so applied. I was interviewed by Patrick Head, who's definitely a lively one. They gave the job to someone else but he decided he didn't want it for whatever reason. So six weeks later, I got a call asking if I still wanted the job. I went in with my eyes wide open and thought it would be a year or two of fun and that would be it."
His engineering career had begun at Atomic Energy Research Establishment, and the speed of F1 - not necessarily on the track - was what got him hooked on it. "Before, I was working on projects that saw the light of day three to five years after starting work on them," he recalls. "Then suddenly I was in this world where things saw the light of day after just two weeks. And that was very exciting. "But back then, 30 years ago, things were so much more basic, although in some ways it was better as there was more potential for me to have an impact and influence. Now, the technology of F1 is at such an exceptional level and that's also very exciting."
At the moment, the technology at Mercedes is marginally behind that of the front-running Red Bulls, Ferraris and McLarens. Brawn, for his part, is not unduly concerned, having enjoyed dominant but often short-lived spells out front, such as in the championship-winning year with Brawn GP in 2009. He admits: "It's hard to enjoy what you're doing. F1 is perverse really in that you have these great moments of satisfaction but all the time you're desperately trying to maintain that position. You can't enjoy your lead properly as everyone's trying to knock you off your perch and you have this insecurity that you know you won't stay there for long.
"And then when you slip behind - as we have now - you're playing catch-up. Actually, for about 80 per cent of my career I've been playing catch-up." Brawn and the teams for which he has worked have all enjoyed lengthy dominant runs, which have led to trophy-laden years. But somewhat surprisingly, he insists that the winning runs are often a bit dull. "It can get boring winning all the time. In fact, the greatest seasons of motivation are the hard years when you're behind and trying to close the gap."
Picking out a favourite car, a favourite win or even a favourite season are an impossibility for Brawn. One suspects that winning the world title with a team under his own name was the sweetest, but he refuses to accept that. "It really is impossible to pick just one favourite season," he says. "I thought my peak had been reached with Ferrari but then last year happened. I don't know if I've peaked now or in fact what lies ahead. Hopefully there will be more race wins and world championships to look forward to and hopefully I've not had my best season yet."
Retirement is not exactly on the radar for Brawn at the moment. He had toyed with staying out of the sport following his year-long sabbatical in 2006, but the lure of the sport he fell in love with when first taken to Brands Hatch as a youngster lured him back in. "I still jump out of the bed in the morning which is a good sign," he says. "Hopefully there will be a few warning signs when the time comes but I'm still having a lot of fun at the moment. Maybe I've peaked already but I hope not."
When Brawn first worked at Williams, the team boss Frank Williams had no idea that his young charge was destined for greatness but that he was blown away by his ability to take in and retain information. "With most of us, things go in one ear and a lot comes out the other, but not with Ross," says Williams. "It all seems to stay in there - he's like a sponge." Brawn admits the sponge comparison still has a ring of truth to it. "The funny thing about this sport is that you never stop learning. You never really get bored or top out. You can always get better."
The Mercedes team principal makes no secret of his retirement plans, which will involve globe trotting to pursue his other major passion: fishing. His sabbatical was spent doing just that and he celebrated last year's world title with a deep-sea fishing trip to Mauritius last November, which coincided with his birthday. His approach to fishing is very similar to his approach to F1 and he believes the two are comparable.
"The competitive element is very similar in that you're doing everything you can so you're best prepared in the correct manner," he says. "With fishing, you often get just one shot at catching a fish and there can be hours of build-up and you must avoid spooking it. Likewise in F1, you spend hours on the smallest innovations and have one shot at getting it right in the race. "The other similarity is that you don't catch a fish every time you go out. Similarly in F1, you don't win every race you go to. If that happened on both accounts, life would actually get pretty boring."
Brawn and Mercedes - which, along with the Abu Dhabi firm Abaar Investments, bought out the Brawn GP team last year - would desperately love a return to winning ways. Victory at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix would be ideal for the team's relatively new co-owners but Brawn has plans to win long before then. "I still believe we'll get wins before the end of the season," he said. "We're not quite capable of that at the moment but I hope it's before Abu Dhabi, which is obviously a very important race for us with Aabar on board."
Whether that success comes from Nico Rosberg or Brawn's long-term ally, Schumacher, their team boss is unfussed. But Brawn is clearly revelling in his reunion with the seven-time world champion. "It's an exciting time," said Brawn. "I've obviously worked with Michael before and it's great to be working with him again, and Nico's a pleasure to work with as well. "Both have driven as I'd expected and I think Michael's beginning to prove a few people wrong. What he did at Monaco when he passed Fernando Alonso gave us all a big thrill. The stewards sadly didn't see it the same way but it showed that the racer in Michael is still there. I don't think it ever went away, quite frankly."