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Playboys, playgrounds and separating the good from the great: Ross Brawn on the magic of F1

Best-known for an incredibly successful time at Ferrari alongside Michael Schumacher, the Formula 1 genius on hangovers and Hamilton.

ROSS BRAWN AFFORDS himself a wry smile.

The brains behind some of the most special Formula 1 moments of the last twenty-five years probably wasn’t expecting the first question to be about the 1999 championship and Eddie Irvine’s remarkable battle for the drivers’ title.

“Eddie’s challenge within Ferrari was that he was driving against Michael Schumacher,” Brawn says, speaking to The42 in Toronto. 

“That year, Michael was out for a long while because of injury and Eddie stepped up to the mark and he could’ve been world champion. He came very close. If, from the beginning of the year, it had just been Eddie (rather than Schumacher as the number one) then he would’ve done it. That tells you he was capable – in the right situation – to win the championship.”

“He was matched with certainly the greatest driver of that era and he did a massively respectable job. He turned up every weekend determined to try to beat Michael. And I think he described the situation as being like beating your head against a brick wall. I must say, I liked Eddie very much. He was very popular in the team and professional. He had this sort of playboy image but in fact, behind the scenes, he was very serious. He worked hard to get the most from the car and worked with the engineers to find the right solutions. I still see him occasionally at events and we have a good chat. I’m still fond of him.”

formula-one-motor-racing-canadian-grand-prix-practice Brawn pictured with Eddie Irvine during their time together at Ferrari. In 1999, after Michael Schumacher broke his leg during the season, Irvine stepped up and chased the drivers' championship. But, he was unable to reel in Mika Hakkinen who finished two points clear at the end of the season. Source: John Marsh

Brawn is a heavyweight F1 figure. Technical director with Benetton-Ford when Schumacher won back-to-back drivers’ titles in 1994 and 1995, he moved to Ferrari two years later and reignited his relationship with the German driver. Together, they enjoyed a spectacular time as both the team and Schumacher dominated. With another former Benetton pal, Rory Byrne, and Ferrari team principle, Jean Todt, Brawn oversaw six constructors’ championships while Schumacher claimed an unprecedented five drivers’ crowns in a row between 2000 and 2004.

Later, there was the self-described ‘fairy story’ as Brawn guided his own team – rescued from the ashes of Honda’s abandoned F1 project – to the 2009 constructors’ title in their very first year with driver Jenson Button securing the double.

Despite that success, Brawn is forever tied to Schumacher’s career and the astonishing run at Ferrari. Inevitably, that era dominates the conversation and although Brawn admits there was plenty of glitz and glamour, he’s quick to point out how Ferrari’s cultural approach – their team identity – differed majorly from the general perception. It was the late-1990s and to many outsiders it probably seemed Ferrari built a playground of wild parties, supermodels and general carousing. But, Schumacher was a workhorse, married and pretty monastic and that almost set the tone. When Brawn arrived there, Ferrari operated like a big corporation.       

“In terms of different cultures within teams I worked with, it was perhaps most dramatic between Benetton and Ferrari,” he says. 

Benetton originated from a fashion company and Flavio Briatore was leading it – another playboy, another iconic figure you’d see in the gossip pages. And the team was a little bit like that. They could party hard, enjoy themselves and occasionally went a little bit over the limit in my view. I was part of it so I’m not exactly criticising. When I went to Ferrari it was the opposite. It was very structured, very corporate, very constrained. I saw a different way of approaching the job. But what Benetton did was create a great team atmosphere. And Ferrari was lacking that internally when I got there. Michael had been part of Benetton and when he went to Ferrari he recognised that too. Between him, myself and Rory [Byrne], we raised it without going too far. There was a good organised structure, good team spirit but I never saw a Ferrari mechanic with a hangover, for instance. And that wasn’t unusual at Benetton. In some ways, some took it a bit too far. But Ferrari was very well structured. So every team – because of their country, culture, history – had a different feel about it but the biggest contrast was between Benetton and Ferrari.”

Having worked with elite talent in his F1 career, Brawn – who now serves as Formula One’s sporting director – is a definitive voice when it comes to separating the good from the great. As well as that hugely-lucrative time with Schumacher, he was also still in charge of Mercedes (who bought out Brawn GP in 2009) when Lewis Hamilton arrived from McLaren in 2013. So, when it comes to the two most-successful drivers in the history of the sport, what did they have that others lacked?  

“They all have to have the talent to drive a car quickly,” he begins. 

motor-racing-formula-one-world-championship-brazilian-grand-prix-race-day-interlagos Brawn celebrates in 2009, after an incredible 'double' of constructors' championship and drivers' title following Brawn GP and Jenson Button's respective triumphs. Source: Martin Rickett

“Some of them have just a little bit more than others. And the guys that have that and also the application, the professionalism and intelligence to go with it…well, that’s when you get a Michael Schumacher or Lewis Hamilton. As opposed to an Eddie Irvine, who was very talented, very professional but didn’t quite have that final 1%. And, let me point out that it wasn’t for want of trying. And however hard you try or hard you practice, you can’t create that. It’s just in their DNA.”

“Michael was exceptional in the spare capacity he had when driving a car. I never met anyone that had it. Someone who could drive a Formula 1 car and also be so aware and observe everything else that was going on. Normally, you’re just so focused on driving the car.”

But one of the fascinating things about motorsport and particularly Formula 1 is that drivers have to be extremely well-motivated regarding their training, preparation and their work away from the track. Unlike a football team, which has a group of trainers, physios, specialists, that doesn’t exist in F1. A driver has to do it himself. He can get some support from the team but it’s not typical for them to be that involved in what the driver is doing when he’s away from the track. The drivers have to develop their own training regime, have the discipline to eat properly, not to drink too much, to behave well. And in the case of Eddie, he knew he had to do that and he did. He was fit, never turned up unprepared, never turned up in a state that prohibited him from driving a car. So he was very professional in that respect. There was the playboy image, and I’m sure there were times he deserved that, but in terms of driving an F1 car, preparing, training and putting it all together, I can’t criticise him at all. He was first-class.”

Brawn has also learned – from Hamilton – that off-track behaviour doesn’t necessarily have a negative impact on a driver’s performance. He’s previously admitted to having been ‘slightly nervous’ of Hamilton’s approach when the pair worked together at Mercedes and how it contrasted so much with Schumacher’s. However, he came to realise that though their personalities were different, their greatness was the same and they both carried the ’1%’. 

“His lifestyle was a bit different to what I’d experienced,” Brawn says. 

gp-brazil-f1-preparation Lewis Hamilton - chasing Michael Schumacher's record of seven drivers' titles - is 'pretty special' according to Brawn, who worked with at Mercedes in 2013. Source: Paulo Lopes

“Lewis was quite engaged with the music and fashion scenes and that was a bit unusual for me. In retrospect, it didn’t affect him and it probably helped his career. It was his passion, his escape from the stresses and strains of Formula 1 so that’s what worked for him and he delivered on every front so you can’t criticise.”

“Is Lewis under-appreciated? I think so. Because he’s not very controversial, because he doesn’t make many mistakes, and because he’s very good at building his race weekend. He puts in great qualifying laps, the team does a great job, he starts at the front, he doesn’t do anything silly and he wins the race. So it’s very easy to underestimate how good a job he does. But he is pretty special.”        

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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