Formula 1 Insight

Button and the Brain

Brawn GP's success this year has highlighted Ross Brawn's talents as a strategic mastermind. When we see Jenson Button winning as relentlessly and faultlessly as he is, memories of the Schumacher years surface and we cannot help but notice the common denominator between today and that time of domination by Michael: Ross himself. Already we have seen races where the deciding factor has been Brawn's superior pit stop tactics, echoing those many races that Schumacher won because his stops were timed so perfectly.

Brawn and Button
"Who da man? You da man!" Ross Brawn and Jenson Button

Strangely, this forces a re-evaluation of both Ross and Michael. Is it possible that we did not appreciate just how much the multiple world champion owed to the "brain on the pit wall"? Could it be that Ross would have achieved as much with any of the better drivers in those years, the Frentzens, the Hakkinens, the Alesis, even the Coulthards? It seems impossible, so long have we considered Michael the fastest driver of his era, a contender too for the ephemeral title of Greatest Ever. Yet would he have built a record anything like as impressive had there been no Ross to guide him through?

Consider how we are having to re-assess Britain's darling of yesteryear, Jenson Button. Once trumpeted as the next British champion, Jenson's history of always being in the wrong team at the wrong time blunted our expectations and we came to see him as a "nearly man", talented, yes, but lacking in determination and the killer instinct that Schumacher had in abundance. A spoiled kid, we thought, as we heard of the girlfriend changes and fancy cars, the broken contracts and dismal results.

Now Ross is in charge and suddenly Button looks as invincible as Michael used to. We cannot ignore his effortless style, the precision that allows him to post such consistent lap times, his ability to give even more when the mastermind requests it.

Ross has long been respected as the greatest strategist on the pit wall but it may be that we are still not giving him the credit he deserves. It may well be that the dream team at Ferrari was not a trio but a duo of Michael and Ross with no Jean Todt necessary at all.

Of course, Brawn's success this year would not be possible without the excellent BGP 001. In his Honda years, the car was so bad that Ross could do no more than work the occasional miracle to earn an odd point or two. So perhaps we should have given more recognition to the talents of Rory Byrne, so quietly creating one world-beating Ferrari after another in the back room. Maybe the real triumvirate was Ross/Schumacher/Byrne.

Watching Ferrari's pit lane fiascos of the last couple of years, this impression of Ross' infallibillity is reinforced. Some of the inexplicable tactical decisions by the Ferrari team remind me of those times when Ross made a seemingly silly call only to be proved correct when Michael salvaged yet another victory from apparent defeat. The difference is that Ferrari no longer have a man with the vision to see how things will pan out; they try to repeat the trick and their attempts explode in their faces.

Of the six GPs so far, Button has won five and been third in Shanghai where the wet race characteristics of Red Bull's RB5 proved too big an advantage over the BGP 001 to be overcome. With every race it becomes more likely that Jenson will cruise to the title this year, whether or not the other teams get their acts together. He will have earned his championship but not just because he is a far better driver than previous years would suggest; he also has had the good sense to stick with the man who makes champions.

It seems that F1 has another dream team on its hands, another triumvirate that sets the standard for others to aim at. All you need is an excellent driver, a strategist in the Brawn mold and... What? A Rory Byrne in the design office? A transformation of Nick Fry into Jean Todt? I suppose it depends on who can claim responsibility for the BGP 001.

Which makes it very clear that the third arm of the trio is the car, regardless of who designed it. Brawn/Honda do not have a star designer, unless you think Ross has more influence in that area than usually estimated (I do). The car was designed by a team headed by Jörg Zander, a designer of considerable experience in F1 but hardly the worker of miracles for his previous employers, Toyota, BAR, Williams and BMW Sauber. The car is the product of a team effort, not the creation of a star like Adrian Newey.

Finally, we need to notice another ingredient that is making Brawn look so unbeatable this season: reliability. It makes no sense that a car designed for one engine proves unbreakable when another is shoe-horned into it at the last moment but the results speak for themselves. The Brawns have completed every race thus far and three times produced 1-2 finishes. The echoes of the Schumacher years just keep coming.

It is reliability that has created the situation that we see after six races, the apparently inevitable championships coming to the Brawn team. And it is reliability that almost guarantees the team success, even if other teams manage to surpass them in the development stakes. But from where does this reliability come? Is it possible that it's thanks to that man Ross again...?


What a great, great post, Clive.

I only would put another key element in the chemistry, Clive: the Rubens input. Monaco was the second race where Rubens helped Jenson with his setup…

Without Rubens at Ferrari, remember, The Rascassi Parker cant beat Fernando. A coincidence, I´m sure, but this is what the books will tell.

Date Added: 25/05/2009

Becken: You might have a point. How big influence does the drivers have on the development of the cars. When Honda was out and Ross in 100% control, he chose Rubens. It could be because he knows how good feedback he gives.

There is no testing and the teams must rely on computers and Fridays practise. No input from the experienced test drivers like Pedro de la Rosa is that the reason why McLaren is having trouble?
Date Added: 25/05/2009

Roger Carballo AKA Architrion
Cive is missing another factor of that winning formula, one I recalled yesterday. The ability of the FIA to legalize some technical stuff, even when people like Red Bull had made an official inquiry about it's legality, just to show the world that budget capped teams can be winners. Therefore, with 10% of current budgets they need no more money from Bernie's part of the cake. Incredible we are seeing this massacre, and even we are on applause mode.....

I can't deny engineering mastering of Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne. I've always liked the Button's driving. Remember his battle with the Fred on Hockenheim 2004. It was incredible to watch... and he won the Fred if I'm right.... But nothing, not a bit of this dreams season for BGP would be possible without all that FIA's politics behind the curtain.... It's insane, brothers.
Date Added: 25/05/2009

The FIA did not allow the DD to see Brawn win. It was within the letter of the rules. The other teams protests did not really address the DD itself, but how it received it's air from the bottom of the car. The inlets within the steps were what was ruled legal, not the DD itself. And Clive, if you cast your mind back, Michael was not very successful at Ferrari until he was joined by Todt, and Brawn. Brawn says now that Honda always had the talent to win, he just shifted the responsibilities around a bit for this year, so maybe a star designer is not necessary, or maybe one will emerge at Brawn as we learn more about who does what there. I have always said that Williams strategies served Damon very poorly, and Williams never seemed to make an effort to change them. I have not been a fan of Schumi's and I am rather glad to see that others who were involved at Ferrari, particularly Brawn, are getting some credit, at least on this blog ;-).
Date Added: 25/05/2009

C´mon, Roger, stop complaining about the diffuser.

I´m not sure that you would complaining like that if Fernando — the guy sent by God to win, the only one driver at the grid who deserves to be in a winning car — would be driving the BGP 001.

I´m sure that God has been playing with Briatore this season and the way that he treats the drivers that do not like to be his toys, especially Jenson who has been bulling by him this season.

I like Jenson, I like Brawn, I like Ross and this F1 that we are seeing this year.

Jenson and Brawn has destroyed this bizarre sense of meritocracy in F1 — something that in fact, doesn´t exist.

Date Added: 25/05/2009

Becken: Thank you for your kind words. I did want to include Barrichello in the mix that has made Brawn so effective this year - I agree that he is proving very important in setting up the car quickly at each race. In the end, he got lost as the post grew and grew; I had to imply his part in the teamwork that is so important in Brawn's recipe for success. Perhaps a post on Rubens himself at a later date will make up for my omission.
Date Added: 26/05/2009

Hezla: Very good point about the lack of testing. This must surely increase the value of drivers like Barrichello who have so much experience of setting up the car for the race.
Date Added: 26/05/2009

Roger: Sorry, I just don't buy the political side of the DD story. The Brawns car was and is legal according to the letter of the regulations and the FIA had no option but to confirm its legality.

Red Bull and Renault claim to have asked the FIA about the loophole during the off season and been told that it was not legal but the FIA says that the questions they asked were not in the area used by the DD. I tend to believe the FIA on this one since Toyota definitely did ask the exact question and were told it was legal. And this was long before the political storm between the FIA and FOTA blew up.
Date Added: 26/05/2009

Lonny: Not correct, I'm afraid. Todt went to Ferrari in 1993 and only hired Schumacher in 1996. Michael insisted that Brawn and Byrne were also taken on from Benetton and so the dream team was born. The car was rubbish when Michael arrived and it took the new team about two years, more or less the same time frame that has worked for Ross at Honda, to produce a competitive car. Note that Newey, too, required over two years to create a Red Bull that could win races.

I think the story demonstrates that having a star designer is not absolutely necessary for success but it helps. And that is enough for any team to be interested in the services of a designer who has been involved in the creation of a winning car.

I am no fan of Michael's either although I recognise the fact that he was a truly talented driver. It is interesting, however, to look back and wonder if his phenomenal success was more a product of the men he gathered around him than purely a matter of superior driving skills.

And Williams' historically poor strategy has become increasingly apparent as I have studied previous years, including the championships they won. It is amazing but the team seem to need a pretty hefty performance advantage before they can put together a winning season.
Date Added: 26/05/2009

I stand corrected. Still, it did seem to need the team to gather Ferrari up and start winning. I wonder if McLaren's lack of improvement is partly due to lack of feedback from Ham and Kov. This is the first car that wasn't a development of cars that guys like De la Rosa, Alonso, Coulthard helped to develop. Ferrari does seem to be making better progress than Macca, and they have two experienced drivers for race weekends.
Date Added: 26/05/2009

Alianora La Canta
This entry goes to show how important the collective is over the individual. One great individual alone can make some progress, but if the rest of the team is mediocre and/or not in tune with the thinking of that individual, nothing will happen.

Honda was mostly composed of the same people in 2008 as it is in 2009. For that matter, the two people in Clive's triumvirate were there as were most of the people involved in making the third. The trouble (as is clear now but wasn't then) was that everything was slightly out of alignment, people not quite seeing everything the same way as their colleagues. The Japanese influence was often cited but maybe that was just the symbol of a deeper, albeit relatively simple to fix, problem.

Adversity will, ironically, have helped with this problem. When someone sees that there's a strong chance the entire team will be lost, and there's a leader able and willing to save it, they will readily slot into the leader's vision. Since people generally try to slot into the thinking of those around them anyway and everyone at Honda/Brawn would have seen the consequences of failure, they will have been thinking in exactly the same way - thus solving the big problem at Honda without really thinking about it. The Cinderella myth might be a lazy way for outsiders to describe Brawn's story this season, but it would have been a fantastic way to motivate and cohere a team from within.

I am not sure that Ross alone could go over to Ferrari and sort its problems out. He'd probably need to take some other people to give himself the necessary foothold to effect the personnel changes. By that I don't necessarily mean hiring and firing (though some of that might prove unavoidable) but helping everyone to understand each other's thought processes, to eliminate the little barriers preventing each employee from seeing exactly how to make their contribution slot seamlessly into everyone else's.
Date Added: 26/05/2009

Lonny: I agree that team effort is what provides success but the effectiveness of a team depends very much on the ability of the leader or leaders to create a united team in the first place. It looks to me as though this is one of Ross' strengths and that we probably gave Jean Todt too much credit for rebuilding Ferrari in the nineties. He's an argumentative little blighter, after all, and not really the type one would expect to be good at getting people to work together.

As regards the drivers' input into McLaren's improvement over the season, it is difficult to say as yet. The car has improved greatly since the Australian GP but that is thanks to the upgrades introduced from race to race. It would be surprising if Hamilton were as good at setting up the car as well as Fernando, for instance, purely from the fact of Lewis' shorter experience in F1. But not impossible. Some guys are just better at that sort of thing than others. So I'm unsure that the Ferrari drivers are doing a better job in the set up stakes than McLarens boys.
Date Added: 26/05/2009

Alianora: Whilst I agree with most of your comment, I think it is important to remember the departure of Honda's motor bike specialist (can't remember his name) from the design department last year. It took the company a while to face it but bike design is a different thing from creating effective F1 cars - and we saw that in the Hondas of 2007 and 2008!

The BGP 001 is the first Honda designed entirely under the oversight of Ross Brawn and its success must surely say something about the man himself.

Which means that I do think Ross could go to Ferrari and solve their problems without making major personnel changes. Most of the old team are still there and they functioned very well until Brawn departed. They could do so again if given the powerful leadership that Brawn introduces.

Mind you, I do think he'd kick out Kimi and get a solid number two driver to support Massa. Presuming that Alonso doesn't go there, of course. But that would mean Raikkonen had gone anyway...
Date Added: 26/05/2009

I think we are in agreement about the difference Brawn makes in a team. I'm not suree he would kick out Kimi at Ferrari, though. Kimi has shown some signs of his old flair and Ross is a motivator after all. :-)
Date Added: 26/05/2009

That would be "sign", rather than "signs", Lonny. :D

It's true that Ross is a motivator but I wonder whether he would bother trying with Kimi. The Finn is notoriously impervious to good advice and goes his own sweet way - I can see Ross wanting someone a bit more receptive to his guidance.
Date Added: 26/05/2009

I strongly suspect that we are witnessing nothing more then the political interference of the FIA here again.

Button is no great driver, and it's no coincidence that Bernie invested his money into BrawnGP and declared Button as his WDC of choice before the start of the season...

The FIA have been on a slippery slope of race fixing for a long time now, and this is entirely consistent with that.

With Ferrari falling out of favour with Max and Bernie, they needed to ensure the small teams survival...

It's so convenient that BrawnGP are suddenly appealing to the sponsors again...

F1 is nothing to do with racing at all - it's a show about politics and absolutely nothing else...

I'm extremely bored of it now, and can see my 12 years of F1 coming to an abrupt end.
Date Added: 27/05/2009

Fake: Let's not go over the top, Fake. There is no denying that the FIA is hopelessly political but, in Brawn's case, they would have had to be psychic to arrange things as suggested by you. There was no danger of the big teams leaving at the time Brawn GP was formed and the real reason for the team receiving so much goodwill at first was to keep the number of teams from dropping below 10. Bernie made noises about putting money into the team but it was a PR stunt only - in the end, he invested nothing. And I certainly do not recall him saying that he wanted Button to be WDC.

If you think Button is "no great driver", you will have to support that assertion before I will take what you say seriously. It is easy enough to prove that he is as good as he looks this year: Barrichello, when Schumacher's team mate, was occasionally quicker than him; Button is beating Barrichello regularly this season; ergo, Button is better than Barrichello and may be as quick as Schumacher.

I think that the spirit of F1 is still alive in spite of the damage done it by Max and Bernie over the years. It would be worth hanging on as a fan until we see whether FOTA's attempt to get rid of the terrible two succeeds. If it doesn't, I would agree that F1 is probably doomed as a watchable sport.
Date Added: 27/05/2009

The FIA have been an utter failure in applying there own rules and regulations.

Spa 2008 was nothing short of a scandal...

The duffuser situation was 100% intrumental in reordering the grid, and entirely intentional.

BrawnGP is being used by Bernie and Max, as a stick, to beat Ferrari and the other teams into compliance.

Ruben's strategy was intentionally put out of sync with Button's, to ensure Button could continue to be sure of the free WDC... Ruben seems to be the faster driver, right now.

Button is no where near Michael Schumacher's level... it's just a farce, that may be good for the British fans, but globally it devalues the F1 heritage...

F1 is no longer about the best of the best - it's purely political and financial decisions that decide where teams and drivers end up...

Just look at all the secret privaliges Ferrari had, that no one knew about till now...

Max and Bernie have been notching up there interference levels in race results of the last few years, and the level it has reached now, is beyond my tolerance level.
Date Added: 27/05/2009

Fake: You weaken your case by making unsupported and wild statements. Whilst I agree with you on some of your points, others are completely groundless. No one guessed before the season started that Brawn BGP 001 was going to be so good so it is paranoid to suggest that Max and Bernie arranged things that way.

If Rubens is the faster driver right now, he needs to prove it by putting in quicker lap times in qualifying and the race. And no one is claiming that Button is as good as Schumacher so I don't see how it serves to argue against that.

Oh, and incidentally, I did know about Ferrari's allegedly secret privileges before they came out in court. In facr, I wondered why such a fuss was made about them, considering they have been common knowledge for years.

Max and Bernie can be accused of a lot of things, any of which are sufficient to see them gone, but it does not help to tag on to the list all sorts of unfounded accusations. Let's not stoop to their level, shall we?
Date Added: 27/05/2009

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Date Added: 19/08/2009

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