Ross Brawn has never been a man short on ambition.
The former technical director of Formula One Constructors’ Championship-winning Ferrari and Benetton teams, and a man widely considered to be the architect of record Michael Schumacher’s seven Drivers’ Championships, Brawn might have undertaken his largest project to date when he agreed to become F1’s technical director and managing director of motorsports in 2017. His move came at the same time the sport started an overhaul, with the most radical changes set to go into effect with the 2021 season.
Brawn recently sat down with TSN.ca and admitted that he might have underestimated the breadth of the venture three years ago.
“I think I was probably a bit too optimistic when I started,” Brawn said. “I assumed what I felt was logical, was logical [to everybody] and everyone else could see it as a solution. What I hadn’t accounted for was the reaction of some of the teams and how tough it was to eventually get them to a place we needed to get to. We did get there. I thought we could have probably done it a year earlier, but perhaps that extra year we took was worth it in terms of refining and taking everything into consideration.”
Announced last October, among the new rules set to come into effect next season include newly designed cars with increased aerodynamics that should enable drivers to race closer together, plus a $175 million spending cap on cars and standardized parts in a move to increase parity among teams.
“We’ve had people who have said, ‘Why do you want to touch it?’ but I think we’re exposed,” Brawn said of the impetus for change. “We’re exposed by the fact that there are only three teams in Formula One that are truly competitive. We’re exposed by the fact that the cost of being competitive is so high that I don’t think it’s sustainable. We’re exposed by the environmental considerations for the future and we can’t ignore those. And I think the structure we had up until Liberty Media company coming in [to buy F1 in 2016] meant there were very little resources devoted to developing the sport. The FIA (Federation International de l’Automobile) made a good attempt. The teams were taking a self-centred view and there was nothing else. There is now a decent resource being applied from the commercial rights holder and a decent investment from the commercial rights holder into saying: How do we improve and develop the sport and how do we make it fit our needs for the future?”
Brawn admits that a sweeping overhaul of the sport isn’t something that was an easy sell to all of the competition’s teams, but they bought in once they understood that the integrity of the sport would be unchanged.
“I think if you’re a small, unsuccessful team, you just want change,” Brawn said. “You hope that if things change, you might benefit, but in reality, you don’t. You’re a small, unsuccessful team because you’re not doing a good enough job. Formula One will always be a meritocracy and we always want to keep it that way. The big teams said great initially because, yeah, we need to get costs under control, but then when they realized the implications of that, then they started to push back a bit. But I think they’re all on board now. They’ve all accepted it. They’ve all recognized that as long as it’s applied fairly, then it will be for the good of the sport.”
The 65-year-old Brawn said that in rolling out the new regulations, an eye was kept towards the worldwide push towards alternative fuels and a global reconsideration of the way people consume energy, movements that have had great effect on the sport’s constructors, even among championship-calibre teams.
“You’ve seen the commercial figures released by Mercedes and they’re facing very challenging times in the car market,” Brawn explained. “Now, we never want Formula One to be an option in terms of Mercedes deciding to reduce their expenditures because we want Formula One, at the very minimum, to be washing its face. So their Formula One team should be able to pay for itself and maybe even be able to make them a profit. And if you’ve got a Formula One team that’s making you a profit, then why would you sell? Unless it’s having such abysmal results that it’s damaging your brand, but I don’t think that would ever happen. If you’ve got a Formula One team and the bottom line is positive, why would you ever stop? And that’s where we need to get to and not where we are today, which requires a decent investment from Mercedes to be successful in Formula One.”
But before the Formula One revolution of 2021 can take place, there is the small matter of the 2020 season. The campaign is set to get underway on March 15 with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, but the scheduled stop in Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix that was scheduled for April 19 and the fourth race of the season has been postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak in the country.
The series hopes to reschedule a date later in the season, Brawn says, but admits it’s going to be tough and will require “everyone to be accommodating to fit it in.”
“China is a great market for us,” Brawn said. “It was a bit in the doldrums when we arrived. It had the initial impetus of almost being a novelty and then it settled down to a sort of group of diehard fans. But now we’ve turned the corner. We’re increasing numbers, we’re increasing exposure on terrestrial TV there and we want to keep that momentum going. The Chinese fans will be really disappointed if they can’t go to a race this year, so I hope we can do something later in the year.”
For Canadian racing fans, the 2020 season brings with it something unprecedented – for the first time ever, there will be two regular Canadian drivers on the circuit. Montreal’s Lance Stroll of SportPesa Racing Point is set for his fourth season in F1 and he will be joined by last season’s Formula Two runner-up and fellow Montrealer, Nicholas Latifi, set to make his bow in F1 with Williams.
While Stroll has struggled to find footing in his early career, accruing just 67 points over his three seasons with his lone podium finish coming with a third-place showing at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Brawn believes that his abilities aren’t getting the respect they deserve.
“I think he’s underestimated, Lance, because of the circumstance with Lance and [team owner] Lawrence [Stroll] and the way his father has helped him and supported him through the sport,” Brawn said. “I think it’s easy to underestimate him and what he’s been able to achieve. Driving a Formula One car is a massive challenge. I think he has to prove that he’s worthy of being there. There’s been several signs [he is], but I think he’s got to put it together. He’s got to beat his teammate [Sergio Perez] – that’s always a reference [point] over a season. You’ve got to match or beat your teammate because you’ll be judged on that. You’ve got the same equipment and same opportunity. I think Lance is, perhaps, at the point of his career where he has to show that.”
Along with the sport-wide changes for 2021, Stroll’s team will also be undergoing a rebrand. Starting next season, the Racing Point team will become Aston Martin, with the hopes that adopting the iconic British brand will be part of a true challenge to break up the Mercedes-Red Bull-Ferrari hegemony at the top of Formula One.
Brawn sees the move as a positive sign towards growing the strength of the sport.
“Seeing Aston Martin on the grid in the future is fabulous for our sport,” Brawn said. “But you’re also seeing it in lots of areas. [British chemical company] Ineos just joined Mercedes and it’s a five-year deal. That doesn’t sound like a team that doesn’t have commitment to Formula One. We’re seeing it in many areas where teams are renewing or teams are doing deals with drivers. I think there’s a decent confidence in the future of the sport. I think they feel the sport is in reasonable hands and we’re doing the right things to develop the sport while always maintaining its integrity. The vital thing is to always keep the integrity of the sport. This is not wrestling. This is a genuine sport at its core and we have to have that competition, we have to have man against man. We must never distort that, but we can add a lot around it in terms of making it even more rewarding for the fans.”
As for Latifi, the 24-year-old who has worked his way up to the circuit all the way from Formula Three, the transition to racing’s premier competition comes at a time where his Williams team is at its nadir. Nine-times the Constructors’ Champions, Williams’ steady descent down the standings in recent seasons saw them claim just a single point in 2019, its worst-ever result.
“Nicholas, I watched him through Formula Two and he did very well, so we’ll see how that goes,” Brawn said. “Hopefully, Williams can be in a stronger position. They’re coming off the back of two or three dreadful, dreadful years. It’s a great name with a great history in the sport. They’ve restructured. They obviously had great hopes with [the return of former team engineer] Paddy Lowe [in 2017] and that didn’t work out for whatever reason (Lowe left the team last year). I think they, then, had to recover from that. They put all their faith in working with Paddy and that being the solution and it didn’t happen and Lawrence [Stroll] left the team [in 2018]. So fingers crossed that they can pull out of it because Formula One would be all the worse if they didn’t.”
The 2020 season isn’t just a pivotal one for Canadian drivers. A fourth straight title for Lewis Hamilton would match Schumacher’s record haul of seven Driver’s Championships. Brawn says Hamilton’s pursuit is a testament to his fellow Briton’s quality.
“I think when Michael set the new record [in 2004], nobody ever envisaged it being matched or beaten,” Brawn said. “But Lewis is relentless. He’s a fabulous driver and he put himself in the right place. I think he made the move at the perfect time and it was a smart move from McLaren to Mercedes. It worked out perfectly for him and he’s got a team of people around him who believe in him, support him and it’s a mutual relationship. And he doesn’t make mistakes. He’s an incredibly quick driver and very smart on the track. That’s been the perfect place at the perfect time for the perfect driver. That’s what happens.”
While Hamilton seeks to make history, another former champion looks to prove that he still has the mettle that made him a four-time Driver’s Champion as Sebastian Vettel heads into the final season of his contract with Ferrari with his future very much up in the air.
“Sebastian is a little bit of an enigma,” Brawn said. “There are times when he drives beautifully and then there are times when he looks a little exposed. But again, he’s a great driver. You don’t win that many world championships if you’re not a great driver. You might fluke one, but you don’t win several unless you’re a great driver. He’s a nice guy and he works well with the team, but he’s under a pretty incredible amount of pressure with [teammate Charles] Leclerc this year – he was last year and he will be this year. I think it will be a very interesting year with Sebastian, but still a great driver. We lose perspective sometimes in Formula One. We forget how good and great these guys are – because there’s a little twitch and suddenly [you write them off]. But it’s all relative.”
Brawn believes that the stiffest challenges to Hamilton’s title push will come from two of the sport’s best young drivers in Ferrari’s 22-year-old Leclerc and 22-year-old Max Verstappen of Red Bull. If Leclerc can continue to mature and avoid missteps like screaming over the radio at teammate Vettel for undercutting him last year in Singapore, Brawn thinks his title credentials will become evident.
“I think what he’s achieved in a short period of time in Formula One is mightily impressive,” Brawn said. “I think where he’s gaining experience is in working with a team looking at the season with an overall view. He’s very intelligent. I think, by his own admission, he said and did things that didn’t help him or the team. I think one of the great strengths of Michael – and I see it with Lewis, as well – is that the criticism is internal. Michael never externally criticized his team or the decisions it made. He could kick up a storm internally, but for me, that was a productive process. He was part of the team. It was his team. You don’t criticize something you’re a part of. I think those are lessons that Charles is learning and he’s a bright guy, so he’ll pick up on it. I think both [Leclerc and Verstappen] are very strong candidates for future world champions.”
No Formula One season would be complete without a visit to Montreal and the Canadian Grand Prix, a tour stop that Brawn considers among the absolute best.
“My career in Formula One started about the time the [Canadian Grand Prix] started in Montreal [in 1978] and I’ve been to a vast majority of races here over the years,” Brawn said. “It’s always a very enjoyable experience. Montreal fans and Canadian fans are very well informed and very enthusiastic. They get the sport. Some races you go to, you get the feeling that people are going to a party – and no criticism, but you come to Montreal and you feel like you’ve got real enthusiasm [for racing]. You go around the city and you see the events going on and, for me, it’s a great template for the sort of model that Formula One needs where you’ve got a great racetrack and a great destination.”
Brawn cites the Canadian Grand Prix as the type of event that turn somebody into a Formula One fan.
“I often tell friends of mine who ask me, ‘What race should I go to?’ to go to Montreal,” Brawn said. “You won’t get ripped off with hotels. You’ll have a great city to eat and go around and a track that’s only a couple of miles away from the city centre. What is there not to like?”Formula One is set to return to Montreal for the 41st time on June 14 where Hamilton could become the first seven-time winner of the Canadian Grand Prix.