Interview: Ross Brawn on why 2020 was “one of our best years” in F1 despite pandemic

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It was no great surprise when Ross Brawn was appointed managing director of Formula 1 in 2017, with the primary task of steering its new American owners Liberty Media through the various commercial, political and sporting chicanes that had evolved during the 40-year Bernie Ecclestone era.

Cool, calm, collected and with impeccable technical and management credentials in various motorsport categories – Le Mans wins with Jaguar, record-setting stint with Ferrari during the Michael Schumacher years and leading his eponymous team to both 2009 world titles – Brawn proved well-versed in corporate politics, having survived Ferrari, Honda and Mercedes-Benz. In short, there was nobody better qualified.

Once it became known that F1 chairman and CEO Chase Carey was retiring from his executive role at end-2020 Brawn’s was one of the names variously listed as replacement despite his age – 65 last October – being viewed as an impediment by some financial analysts. Forget not that Liberty is a listed company, and that share prices – not lap times – rule supreme.

After RaceFans revealed last September that Stefano Domenicali (55) was replacing Carey, paddock tongues immediately started wagging: Brawn would step aside, particularly as he had held the more senior role while working with Domenicali at Ferrari. Plus, Brawn had come out of early retirement to join Liberty, so a return to quality time with his family – and more time for fishing – would surely be welcomed back home.

Brawn and Domenicali are reunited at Formula 1 Management
However, no sooner had Domenicali slid his feet under his metaphorical Liberty desk – due to Covid restrictions he is home-officing, near Monza – than they discussed continuity. Domenicali needs someone he knows well while getting to grips with running F1, and their time (and serial successes) at Ferrari surely established just that.

During an exclusive interview with RaceFans on Tuesday Brawn confirmed he will remain in the role for the foreseeable future. As reported here, Ross retains the same broad remit – “it’s pretty flexible” – with particular emphasis on overseeing F1’s transition to ‘new era’ regulations, due in 2022 after being pushed out a year due to Covid.

Thus my opening question: what valuable lessons have F1 learned after operating for a season under the unpredictable pandemic?

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Brawn makes the point that the vast majority of fans were forced to watch the sport on a variety of platforms after only three of the eventual 17 rounds admitted spectators (in reduced numbers), which was in itself a valuable lesson. However, one of the most interesting aspects was fans’ enthusiasm for new additions to F1’s roster of circuits.

Esteban Ocon, Renault, Autodromo do Algarve, 2020
Calendar rotation could see F1 return to tracks like Algarve
“That’s something we’re taking into consideration: should we think about a rotation of [venues] to get a little bit more variety?

“Another popular aspect was the different winners,” he says. “It wasn’t quite so metronomic, which really gives us encouragement for the future with our ambitions to make for more competitive racing [which is less] dominated by a specific team.

“We still want it to be a meritocracy – don’t get me wrong – but we want to see different teams succeed. The fact we had more of a range of winners and races really came across very strongly; it was one of our best years in many areas of the measurements we take. In terms of digital [media] it is one of our strongest shares; in fact, our strongest year ever.”

Squeezing 17 races into 23 weeks forced F1 into a two-day weekend format for the Imola round – there was insufficient travel time after the previous weekend’s round on the Algarve. Will F1 adopt this format in order to facilitate its much-vaunted calendar expansion?

“We have to balance the right circuits, the right events,” Brawn says. “A promoter likes to have a three-day event; it helps their commercial model. Last year the commercial model was turned on its head, so having a two-day event wasn’t such a problem. We’ve kept it in our pocket for when we need it, but for a season as a whole it would be a massive change to make, and not one we’re considering.”

“F1 is not WWE”: All 20 drivers give their views on reverse-grid qualifying races
Efforts to introduce reverse-grid qualifying races at a limited number of rounds have so far been unsuccessful. But Brawn remains keen to experiment with further changes to F1’s race weekend structure.

“What I’d like to see is some weekends where we do run a different format, and we can judge what the responses are, so we don’t commit the whole championship to a new format.

“That would be a sensible way to move forward, and find new avenues that would appeal to the fans and, and perhaps appeal to new fans. We don’t want to alienate our existing fans. We’re very loyal to our fan base. But if we can find ways of engaging with new fans, that would be for everyone’s benefit.”

However, he stresses again that: “It always has to be a meritocracy.”

“Turkey was a great example,” he explains, referring to a race weekend which was shaped by unusual and unexpectedly low levels of grip on the recently resurfaced track. “We had some negative comments about grip levels and the conditions, yet it was one of the greatest races of the year.

“Everybody took something away from that, and it was it was very interesting to see the more experienced drivers come to the fore.”

Brawn believes any new formats which are introduced would need to be tested over two or three races to gauge their effectiveness. “That’s enough to judge the impact of it without debasing the championship,” he says.

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“What you don’t want to do is have a championship that’s spoiled because you’ve done something which creates strange results.”

2021 F1 rules press conference, Circuit of the Americas, 2019
Delayed new cars for next year were presented in 2019
Meanwhile 2022 looms large: Teams have started preparing for the ‘new era’, and under budget caps, too, which demand that they race their (largely) carried-over designs after the incoming regulations were pushed out a year due to Covid. Are the regulations now fully sorted?

“In the bulk,” Brawn says before clarifying his response: “When you get some extra time, the engineers – I count myself in that category – refine things. With that opportunity, there’s been refinements, and as teams have looked at the regulations in more detail there’s some bugs which have been ironed out.

“There’s some things which we found which would be in everyone’s interest to make some modifications, but they don’t alter the primary objective and they’ve always been made with the support of the teams. There’s no fundamental changes.”

Historically, radical changes to aerodynamic regulations have resulted in some teams grabbing early advantages by exploiting unintended areas. I remind a grinning Brawn that in 2009 his team benefitted from the double-diffuser which played no small part in the team’s championship successes that year and sound him out on the chances of history repeating itself.

“Never say ‘never’,” he smiles. “We’ve been mindful of that. One of the things that’s different [under Liberty] is the resource we have internally and with the FIA to look at these regulations,” Brawn explains, adding that in 2009 such an infrastructure was lacking.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t overlook something, but it’s far less likely. We’ve stress-tested these regulations as much as we can.”

Ross Brawn, Honda, Shanghai, 2008
Money was no object for Brawn at Honda
However, he believes that the less restrictive contemporary governance process will enable the teams, F1 and FIA to impose changes more readily, so any exploitation may be short-lived. In addition, the imposition of budget caps mean teams are less likely to exploit ‘grey areas’ lest they need to backtrack at great cost.

“I think they are likely to be more prudent now that none of the teams have open-ended budgets and can’t go to sponsors or owners and say, ‘We’ve got this fantastic idea, we need 10 million more to go do it.

“When I was at Honda it wasn’t a hard ceiling, the budget, if you could justify it you could have it, but now you have to justify everything and balance it with everything else you want to do.”

Talking of budget caps, can these be tightly controlled? After all, a cut from the $400 million-plus (£291m) spent by the larger teams to the $145m (£105m) cap – which is due to reduce by a further $5m over each of the next two years – will require enormous efforts and could see some breaches.

“It will be tough, there’s no doubt,” says Brawn. “We’ve put in a lot of resources, the FIA put a team together and we’ve supported it,” he says, but adds that they have an experienced team headed up by Nigel Kerr, formerly financial director at Honda, then with Brawn and thereafter Mercedes as the Brackley operation evolved.

“The big teams are having to make some dramatic changes and they may not hit the sweet spot straightaway, they have to make adjustments, but I don’t see any other way forward.

“It’s interesting, because now we’ve introduced it on the [chassis side] we are getting feedback from the engine suppliers, they want the same, because the certainty of the cost is one of the most vital things.”

Apart from obvious cost savings there is another major benefit of costs caps: “If you want to enter [F1] by supplying an engine or being an OEM involved in Formula 1, you want to be able to take to the [company] board some certainty on what it’s going to cost. If you can [show] the board that the team is going to cost ‘X’ and an engine is going to cost ‘Y’, you can give you the board some certainty of what it’s going to cost.

“That’s invaluable,” he stresses.

Talk of engines leads us neatly into the next topic, namely future power units, but before these can be nailed down we require clarity on the current regulatory window: the intention had been for the ‘new era’ framework to have a 2021-25 shelf life; with the start having been pushed out a year, has the expiration date followed suit?

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“There’s some discussion at the moment about what’s ideal. We’re keen to introduce a new power unit at some point in the future; we think there’s opportunity with the power unit to set new targets and new objectives, which could be extremely relevant, extremely appealing to existing suppliers and new [manufacturers].

Renault power unit, 2018
F1’s hybrid power units are extremely expensive
“So, it’s a question of whether we do that for 2025, or ‘26. The [regulations] will align with that, because when we do the new power unit we need to do it in step with the car because one of the things we want is to be able to demonstrate another major step in efficiency in terms of fuel consumption.

“That will come partly from the technology of the car as well as the technology of the power unit. So, it could be 2025 or it could be 2026,” he says, adding that a decision is due to fall this year “because we’ll need to start getting ready and we’re already in discussions with our existing power unit suppliers. We hope to start having discussions with prospective suppliers in the near future.”

Clearly one of the targets for the new power units is some form of carbon neutrality. Does that mean these engines would tailored to whichever direction F1 plans to head, fuel-wise?

“The key thing is sustainable fuels; we want to be able to use a fuel which completes the carbon cycle and comes from renewable sources to demonstrate that having a carbon-neutral fuel is viable, and that it can be another option – another alternative [to electrification] – certainly for the next 20 or 30 years.”

On that basis, what are the chances of additional engine suppliers in the near future?

“The acid test is that we meet our objectives; if we don’t meet them we’re not doing it right. One of the primary objectives is sustainable fuel. The second is to have an engine that’s affordable for a manufacturer.

Formula E’s manufacturer contingent is larger than F1’s
“Too often in the past, we’ve set technical objectives: it will be ‘X’ capacity, it will have 1,000 horsepower, it will do this, will do that. But we’ve never mentioned cost. We now have engines with a unit cost in excess of a million pounds – they used to cost £100,000!

“That was a consequence of a technical objective-led formula, rather than having a business case as well. A business case is just as big a challenge as having a technical case. We want to make sure that the new power unit has the business model around it, as well as the set of technical objectives.

With Honda due to depart at the end of the season, many would like to see new manufacturers showing an interest in F1. On this crucial point Brawn is cautiously optimistic.

“They’re waiting to see data,” he says. “I think it’s appealing; the feedback we’re getting is manufacturers want to talk, which is encouraging, particularly in this environment. I don’t want to say anything further than that, but we’re not meeting many closed doors when we explain what we want to do.”

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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  • 18 comments on “Interview: Ross Brawn on why 2020 was “one of our best years” in F1 despite pandemic”

    1. The sporting product has been *poop* since the current regulations were introduced in 2014.

      To call the complete lack of competitiveness that was 2020 anything other than dreadful is putting lipstick on a pig.

      1. I agree, only mercedes fans like that I suppose, yes, there were interesting races, but it’d be nice if they were the majority, not so rare.

        1. @esploratore there have been quite a few commenting on the midfield scrap being far more competitive and interesting than it has been for years, and how the action there is often pretty good.

          Furthermore, I know of a number of McLaren fans who would strongly object to your comments, given they were on tenterhooks for the entire season over the scrap between themselves, Racing Point and Renault in the WCC – try telling them that there was no competition in 2020…

      2. To be fair it’s been poop since 1950 except for maybe 10 competitive seasons interspersed.

    2. Thanks for this @dieterrencken informative interview. Interesting how he talks of pu alternatives using synthetic fuels ‘for the next 20 to 30 years’ which falls in line with my opinion that the push for EV cars domestically is going to go slower than many people seem to think, and that hybrid and alternative fuels are the reality for the near and not so near future.

      All in all, one more year of these BE cars not meant to race closely with each other, and then it’s onward and upward with Liberty and Brawn’s (and the teams’) wholly new chapter. Super exciting times for F1.

      1. @robbie Exciting times ahead indeed, especially if the changes intended to improve racing succeed, which isn’t a given, but hopefully will indeed be the case.

        1. @jerejj Not a given for sure, but for me, taken at it’s most basic level, I don’t see how simplifying the wings, and completely changing the cars to have ground effects tunnels underneath, won’t make a huge difference. Put in the context of how even just changing any one small thing on a car makes a big difference and can send the designers and engineers back to the drawing board, I’m confident these changes will improve the racing. The two-car nose-to-tail unprecedented wind tunnel R&D that included input from the teams, has me convinced that these cars will indeed be able to race closely together and keep their performance level at the same time, and also at a bare minimum, if somehow the teams found loopholes or what have you, and started heading the cars back towards being too clean air dependent, at least these cars could have that dialled back out whereas that would be impossible to do with the current cars. I can’t see how these massive changes to the cars and the philosophy won’t have massive implications to the type of racing. The thought of the new cars only being no better, or slightly better in terms of performance in dirty air and processions and needing DRS for example, seems to me silly to even contemplate given what they have all put into the new chapter.

          1. @robbie running wind tunnel research and development with two cars running in tandem and with input from the teams is not unprecedented – that was something that the sport did back in the late 2000s when developing the 2009 regulatory package.

            As for the comment about simplifying the wings – actually, there have been some individuals who have been running their own aerodynamic research projects at university that have raised questions about the effectiveness of that.

            I recall one individual noting that there was a tendency for some to complain about overly complex front wings since, as a very visible aerodynamic device, people tend to naturally focus on visible aerodynamic devices; furthermore, there was the assumption that, if drivers are complaining about a lack of front end grip, the problem must be with the front wing.

            However, what those researchers found was that the wings tended to lose a similar amount of performance, such that the overall handling balance of the cars tended to stay comparatively neutral. Instead, it was more stalling of the front of the floor that was an issue, as that had a tendency to shift the centre of pressure rearwards and cause the issues with front end handling that so many drivers have complained about.

            1. @robbie, It may not be synthetic fuel that closes the loop and is carbon neutral, (Rose tinted Specs alert) last century the Indie500 ( and other) races were run on pure ethanol (from sugarcane), a carbon neutral fuel, no idea what they are using nowadays. Whilst I have my RTS on I recommend an F1 on youtube short vid “Nigel Mansells 10 greatest races”, showing Nige in Ferrari and Williams mostly racing Senna, Prost in McLarens and his team mates, most notable is the physical closeness of the cars even though they had front and rear wings of a similar size to today’s cars.

            2. https://www.google.ca/amp/s/amp.formula1.com/en/latest/article.first-look-formula-1s-2021-car-in-the-wind-tunnel.6ye3S7Pb8NRX1K7PjTBxtS.html
              anon as you can see from this article much of the research into overtaking and the way it is being conducted by Brawn and his team is indeed unprecedented. I was not picking that word out of a hat. It is what Brawn claimed early on when we first learned of their objectives in studying cars and overtaking. And reading this article reveals several things that are unprecedented in the studying of things like the wake cars make, using 50% models, and science that simply wasn’t as advanced even just 12-14 years ago. I think one only has to look at how F1 still has cars that are too negatively affected in dirty air, and needs a device like DRS, to see that nothing meaningful nor lasting happened from the 07-09 overtaking working group.

              Your comment about front wings as studied by a university and one individual’s opinion to me pales in comparison to an actual F1 body run by Brawn and a team he has assembled, and is irrelevant in terms of how that relates to the work Brawn and his team have been doing. Unless of course you are claiming the university and the one individual has the budget and the inside knowledge of F1 and the access to the latest greatest wind tunnels and they have a few 50% models nose to tail that look similar to what they are proposing the cars be built like for 2022? What cars and wings were they using? What size models? What technology to achieve their findings?

              I think I’ll trust Brawn and his team over a university and an individual any day.

            3. @hohum I’m quite sure the size of wing isn’t nearly the only factor. In the era of which you speak, with close racing, the wings were far more simple and therefore would have been far less negatively affected in dirty air. I think we all know by now the more complex the wing, and the more the whole car has so many little added carbon bits here and there that shape the air around the car, the more that makes the car tuned to and therefore dependent on clean air. I think we have all seen by now that aero cars that are so clean air dependent that they lose 50% of their performance while trailing a car, are good at single lap pace such as in qualifying, or when 2+ seconds back of a car, but not good for close racing.

      2. Forecasting world transportation trends based on how RB see’s F1’s PU roadmap is either a long bow or total validation for road relevance fanatics.

    3. I’m not sure about all this “range of winners” stuff he’s going on about. We had two races where the leaders had issues and it allowed others to take a win as well as the final race where Hamilton was recovering from Covid…. The top 3 drivers won 15 out of 17 races with a Mercedes driver winning 13 of them… If we reliant on the leaders having problems for anyone else to win, it’s not really a fair measure of improvement. They’re just outlying results.

      In 2019, we had Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari competing for wins whereas this year, it was just Mercedes and Red Bull.

      Similarly, if you look at qualifying, in 2019 the score was Mercedes 10, Ferrari 9, Red Bull 2 (Mercedes on pole 47% of the time)

      This year it was Mercedes 15, Red Bull 2, Racing Point 1 (Mercedes on pole 88% of the time)

      I appreciate Brawn’s job is in part, to sell the sport these days so I expect a bit of positive spin but this year was no where near their best in terms of a competitive formula. It was as uncompetitive as 2014 and 2015 but made worse as we didn’t have a decent driver in the 2nd Mercedes to compete Lewis.

      1. Exactly, I like brawn, but this was nowhere near a fair assessment of 2020.

        1. @esploratore In fairness, he was asked specifically about lessons learned from the pandemic season, and then about F1’s future. As if, if he had been asked to evaluate the teams and their performances, he wouldn’t have started off with admitting yet another season of utter domination by Mercedes, and the lack of competition within the team to boot. Those kinds of assessments are a dime a dozen, and we don’t need Brawn to repeat what we have all seen and read about ad infinitum. I’m glad he didn’t waste space and time talking about the obvious and I’d rather hear him talk about some inside stuff since he is as engrained on the inside stuff as any.

      2. @petebaldwin I agree with you but at the same time I think Brawn gets that too. Note that he is indeed shading the fact of Mercedes’ domination, and trying to accent some positives, as he likely should do and as you acknowledge. But Brawn has spoken before of the undesirable nature of having one team dominate so much and what that does for the viewing audience, and imho even if he diplomatically shades the reality of that, he and Liberty have at the same time taken actual physical measures (with the teams’ blessing I always like to add) to try to not have one team dominating again so much for so long, once the wholly new chapter ensues.

        He was asked mainly about takeaways from the pandemic season we just had, and I just wonder if in his mind, in answer to that, nobody needed reminding of Mercedes domination that is right in our faces at all times. “Range of winners” while I agree takes license with the reality, is I think not something he was shouting from the highest mountain, but range of circuits, and range of media coverage in the pandemic season is something he is obviously quite happy about.

    4. 66 last November, but close enough.
      Four out of seventeen had attendance formed out of the general public (Mugello, Sochi Autodrom, Nurburgring, and Algarve), while another four had frontline workers, but more relevantly, the above four.
      Imola’s case was also, or even more so, about the local noise restriction(s), which is why I expect it to have only a single practice session this year too, but we shall wait and find out. Perhaps some events could do without Friday running, and others have Friday running, a mixture of both. Bahrain and Abu Dhabi (Jeddah also after the inaugural race) could have FP2 as the only practice session since the afternoon ones are relatively useless for the race and QLF.
      Re the next engine concept, I hope for 2025, which already was the year at one point before shifting to 2026, although the very original target was this year. I wouldn’t even mind 2024, but 2025 is good.
      For next year’s aero changes, I (like others) hope that the intended outcome gets achieved so that following would be considerably easier (losing only 20 or 10% of DF at two car lengths distance behind than around 50), and therefore, a better quality of racing overall.

      1. Brawn is both 65 and 66 today it seems – on this site anyway…

        Oh and Jere, was getting worried there, as yours wasn’t the first comment posted…

    Comments are closed.