Interview: Ross Brawn – ‘Nothing Ever Stays The Same…’
July 5, 2011 – There was a moment, in the early 2000s, when the Ross Brawn-Michael Schumacher partnership seemed as permanent as the Ferrari name itself. Colin Chapman/Jim Clark? Ken Tyrrell/Jackie Stewart? They paled into the background. Ross and Michael re-wrote the record book, albeit in a safer, more prolific era of Formula One.
Then – suddenly – it ended. Ross Brawn decided he’d had enough. Michael followed suit. It was all over. A new age would dawn. The face of F1 would change.
Now, five years after Ross Brawn decided to retire from his career at Ferrari, it’s almost as if those older, Maranello times were but a dream. The same Ross is working with the same Michael….but the main goal now is to make Q3 – and then, perchance, the podium. Nothing stays the same; everybody knows that. No-one back in the early 2000s, though, would ever have predicted that it would develop in the way it has – that it would all result in a 42-year-old Michael working with a Team Principal called Ross Brawn, within a team re-born as Mercedes and a in car that is significantly inferior to a Ferrari and a McLaren, let alone a Red Bull-Renault.
I chatted to Ross on the eve of this year’s Canadian Grand Prix. Michael would run strongly in the race the following day. He would slice his way up to a strong second place; he would prove that the pace and the fire are still there, even if eventually Michael would give best to Jenson Button’s McLaren-Mercedes and to Mark Webber’s DRS-assisted Red Bull. It would provide justification, indeed, for much of what Ross had to say when we chatted in his back office, adjacent to his engineers’ meeting room.
I began by asking Ross how he felt in those Ferrari days. Was a “retirement” always planned?
“I think you know that nothing ever stays the same,” he replied, “and that everything is going to have a shelf-life. So I set myself an arbitrary ten years, and when it started to approach ten years I thought ‘this is a good time to stop’. There was no massive logic to it all. I joined Ferrari on a three-year contract because I figured that over three years I would know if they liked me or I liked them, and whether it would all work, and as life went on it got extended and extended. What I really wanted to avoid – which would have been dreadful – was a decline of all our fortunes at Ferrari and it ending a little bit sour. As it happened, I was able to leave with everybody’s head still held quite high and with lot of friends still in Italy. I speak often to Luca Montezemolo and to Stefano Domenicali – all people with whom I can have a friendly and easy chat and relationship with. Was it too soon? Who knows. For me, it worked out perfectly. I went off and had a sabbatical for a year, and got some things out of my system that I wanted to do, and then came back again.”
Ross’s love of fishing is legendary – but by how much during that sabbatical did he deplete the oceans and rivers of the world? What did he do exactly?
“I was sure that I needed a year away to reflect on everything, to list the things that I enjoyed about F1 and to identify the things that were perhaps not so much fun. The object was to achieve a decent balance. And there were things I wanted to do that I knew I wouldn’t be able to do once I got a lot older. My wife and I did a lot of touring. We travel all over the world in F1 but we never see anything; we spent several weeks in Argentina, which is always a place I enjoyed – in Buenos Aires and Terra del Fuego, where, yes, I did some fishing. My wife wanted to go on Safari – so we did that, too. It was a great year – but I still felt there were things I wanted to do in F1. I wanted to get up in the morning and have a project, something with which I could be involved. That’s why I came back.”
Which seemed a good moment to raise the subject of Michael’s comeback. Many have been outspoken in their criticism of Michael’s return. Ross’s take?
“I think Michael had been at it for a very long time. And you do get tired. You do get tired of all the pressures, of all the things that you can’t do. He had a young family. And you do get weary, even though it is a fantastic life and the rewards are fantastic if you do well. I don’t know whether my decision to stop made him reflect. Maybe he was jealous of all the things I was going to go off and do, because, you know, he had a great three years in retirement, doing lots of things that he would never had done in the world of F1. He did the same as I did. He looked at what he enjoyed about F1, he tried to maximize those things and tried to handle the tiresome side –the constant travel and focus and attention.”
So who made the first approach? Ross or Michael himself?
“It evolved quite slowly,” remembers Ross. “I saw him at the end of 2009. It was one of the last races. We had a good beer together, a good session – and we did a lot of reminiscing – a comparison of the notes of life. He talked a lot about his horses, and breeding horses, and Mick, his son who is karting, and I’ve got some grandchildren now, so we talked about kids, too. There are always some old stories that come out but we didn’t make a specific commitment to do anything because, quite frankly, at that stage I thought we were going to keep Jenson at what was going to be Mercedes. It was only when things looked as though they wouldn’t happen with Jenson – I was on holiday in Mauritius when Jenson made that infamous visit to McLaren – that we said, well, what do we do? I rang Michael, spoke to him, explained the situation and said ‘If you’re interested we can talk’. He wanted a few days to reflect on it and then we started again from there.”
What sort of Michael Schumacher did he begin to work with, I wondered?
“The whole thing was a little bit different because my role at Mercedes is different from that at Ferrari. At Ferrari it was a very technical-based role – I was Technical Director – but at Mercedes I am in a general Team Principal role. At Ferrari I would never deal with the drivers’ specific issues, problems, contracts and so forth. I would be asked my opinion but I didn’t deal with them first hand. Here, with Nick Fry, I have to deal with that side. So my professional relationship is different – and our relationship reflects that difference.
“What there is, is trust,” continued Ross thoughtfully. “There’s trust between the people I know. I trust Michael with the things he tells me about the car. And he trusts me with the things that help him to understand the team. That trust is pretty consistent and I don’t think either of us would do anything consciously to damage that trust. That’s something that has been born over many years. I’m proud to say that I believe that I have the trust of Michael and I certainly trust him. Possibly as a team where we’ve had a bit of a void is that no-one has stepped into those shoes for ‘me’ in this team and therefore there’s been a bit of a void in that area. Now Bob Bell has joined us as Technical Director and he is filling that void.”
And now the touchy subject: I suggest to Ross that there was/is a public perception that he and Michael together couldn’t have produced anything other than a great car. That, after all, is what the Ross/Michael relationship used to be all about….
“I understand that perception,” replied Ross, “but the reality is that cars are born 12, 18 months before you see them. The car we ran last year was conceived long before Michael joined us. Trying to win the Championship in 09 with a pretty slimmed-down team didn’t leave a lot to spare for the build of a good car for 2010. I think our 2011 car is not bad. It’s the first car designed by John Owen, our new Chief Designer; it’s the first complete car he’s designed. So I think it’s pretty impressive but it’s not where we want to be. John’s next car will for sure be a lot better. So we’re a team in transition but a team that for me is transitioning in a very upward direction. And Michael is helping us achieve that, helping us build the team.
“Michael is very involved with visiting the factory, with working with the engineers, with helping them understand where we’ve got to focus. And because he’s got such charisma everyone listens! Nico Rosberg is also very effective in this role but of course Michael is this iconic character and when he comes to the factory people listen. He does present things in a way that forces people to challenge him. He doesn’t just want to say ‘do this, this and this’; he wants people to challenge him and to understand why. It’s rare for him to say ‘look, you must change this because I think it will solve the problem’. He presents the problem and then debates with the engineers about how the problem could be solved. He doesn’t have many pre-conceived ideas about how things should be. He has a good, open mind. He provokes debate, provokes discussion. He’s very good in this respect.”
“Pretty good” may yet stand as the understatement of the year. Even so, I also asked Ross how Michael has handled the speed of Nico – how he has reacted to Nico’s usual advantage of 0.2-0.3sec per lap. And why is this so? What does it mean? I’m one of those people who loves watching great racing drivers work their way out of a trough. I don’t condemn Michael for returning; I enjoy the detail of how he is attempting to maximize his situation, given Nico’s speed, those 42 years and the car’s obvious limitations. How, though, does Ross see it?
“First, Nico is doing a fantastic job,” he replies. “He’s set a very high reference for Michael to match and beat. And we’ve not done a great car this year, as I say. We’re struggling a bit with the rear tyres, we’re struggling with rear tyre consistency, we’re having to look at how we set the car up to look after that situation. Whether this moves more towards Michael than Nico – or vice versa – I don’t know. The car is far from ideal but I think now we understand the Pirellis; we understand certain things about where we are so we should be able to make strong progress in that area for next year.
“One of the things I’ve been conscious of is not having the polarity of Ross/Michael in the team. I’ve tried to have as balanced an approach as I can. Nico was very concerned when he heard Michael was coming into the team, because we do have a long history and we have had a lot of success in the past. I spent quite a lot of time with Nico, explaining why we would have a balanced approach and at the end of the day it is your actions not your words that demonstrate how you’re going to run a team. Nico has relaxed enormously now that he sees how we run it. I think Nico at any moment would say that he’s able to make a contribution, that he’s listened-to, that he has exactly the same equipment. There’s no alignment in any way towards Michael.
“Where Michael has helped is with his very professional, very experienced approach. Nico is a smart guy. He looks at it. He learns. He quietly watches what goes on. And I’m sure it rubs off on him. And I’m sure that Michael has learned from Nico, too, so it’s not just one-way traffic.”
I persist: why the speed differential? From where does it mostly come?
“That’s a very good question!” says Ross ruefully. “Michael pores over the data trying work out where Nico’s speed comes from. They both apex the corner at similar speeds, so it’s the way you enter and exit that chips away at those hundredths of a second that accumulate into a gain. You couldn’t pick a spot or an aspect of a corner and say ‘Nico brakes better than Michael’ or is ‘better in traction’; he just puts a corner together a little bit better than Michael in terms of braking and turning-in. And that’s a reflection on how good Nico is. He has progressed over the last few years. The reason we asked him to join the team is that we were all impressed with him at Williams but he was a little less consistent there at times. But here he has been really consistent and has fitted in well.”
Which begs the question of the man who knows him best: is Michael as quick as he was?
“I don’t know, to be honest. You lose your references. What I do know is that we haven’t produced the car that we had back in the Ferrari days – the type of cars we had back then. When we get the car we should have, when we get the competitive car, maybe that will change the performance differentials that sometimes exist between Michael and Nico. I don’t know. I don’t know where our reference is. What you know you have to achieve is a car that is good enough to win races. That’s the critical point.”
And a point well-made. We’ll see if Michael is still a winning driver when he drives again a winning car. Until then, he is working at it – with Ross; until then, the most successful partnership in the history of F1 is alive, working hard – and still full of hope and trust.
I finish by asking Ross about his feelings about F1. Sabatical over, will he become a latter-day Sir Frank Williams, eating, sleeping and drinking his F1 life until the end of time?
“Well, I’m still going to take holidays! I’m not quite as addicted as Frank as to motor racing. Frank was in many ways unlucky with his accident but in many ways lucky with his passion for motor racing. That for sure has kept him going. I have massive admiration for Frank for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that he gave me my first break in motor racing. I’m not as addicted to motor racing as Frank and I do take breaks when I can, and spend some time with my family. Which for me I need to do in order to keep that enthusiasm going and the desire to carry on. It is swinging your legs out of bed in the morning and wanting to go to work and as long as I want to do that then I’ll continue doing it. There may come a day when I think, ‘actually, I’m not doing as good a job as I want to because my enthusiasm has ebbed’. And strangely enough, when you’re in a position like we are this year, when we’re not good enough – that is when I seem to get most of my enthusiasm. When you’re there, winning races, then it almost looks a bit too easy. It’s great. You’re getting rewards for your hard work but somehow it doesn’t quite drive you. My decision to stop at Ferrari was made at the peak of our successes. And I certainly won’t walk away from our team until we have achieved our ambitions. And then I’ll step back and reflect.
“We’ve kept the house in Italy and we very much enjoy our time in Italy. My wife and family go over there more often than I am able to but Italians still remain incredibly friendly.“But England is my home and, particularly now that my wife and I have grandchildren, it makes it even more of a magnetic attraction.”