March 23, 2009 The first cars were unloaded onto the pit apron at Albert Park yesterday in preparation for next weekend's first Formula One Grand Prix of the 2009 season. It already shapes up as the most intriguing F1 season ever. Technologically, despite a raft of changes this year, the wild card not yet fathomable is the implementation of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), a fancy name for regenerative braking, and a technology that will ultimately force all F1 cars to use hybrid power sources, most likely during 2009, but not necessarily. Only a few teams will arrive in Melbourne ready to race with electronic KERS systems that offer approximately 80 bhp extra for six seconds a lap, but we're not even sure which teams they will yet be. The biggest intrigue of the weekend though, will be the performance of the newborn Brawn F1 team. Everyone always knew Ross Brawn was a special talent, but no-one saw this one coming. Brawn is poised to deliver one of the greatest motorsport fairy tales ever.
Honda's shock announcement on December 5, 2008 that it was pulling out of Formula One due to the economic crisis was, like that of thousands of companies the world over, the announcement of a restructuring that had been awaiting a plausible excuse. Several years prior, it had effectively been shanghaied into purchasing the British American (Tobacco) Racing F1 team it had been supplying engines for, and forced into reentering F1 to save face. It did not really wish to go racing at the highest level as its corporate culture was heading in an entirely different direction.
Honda produced the world's first commercial hybrid automobile and although it has lost ground to Toyota in hybrid development for the road, it intends to catch the ecology wave about to break on the world's automotive markets. It's conflicted directions resulted in the ludicrous decoration of its F1 cars with a planet earth-focussed ecologically-inspired livery and a prominent web address in recent times, plus a mountain of scorn being quite rightfully deposited upon it. It didn't take long for Greenpeace and others to call Honda to task for its hypocrisy - F1 cars consume 75 liters of fuel for every 100 kilometers of racing (that's 1.3 km/litre), with exhaust and sound emissions that would be about as legal as rape in any context other than Formula One. The sound of a Formula One car is awesome, not to mention almost certainly damaging to one's hearing, but such is the influence of the sport, everyone turns a deaf ear to the problem.
F1 is not green, and despite the introduction of KERS this year, will remain one of the world's most flagrant wastes of resources when viewed from a non-petrolhead perspective. Honda knew it could not build ecological cred with the masses while competing in such an obscenely extravagant sport and there seems little doubt that the global financial climate was a convenient excuse to restructure its interests, just as it has been for companies across the globe.
We'll have a far more detailed rundown on KERS later this week, once we can see who has turned up with what, and what they have to say about them once the teams start turning wheels in anger. What is already known is that all those who will run regenerative braking next weekend will use electrically-based systems. Williams is developing an electro-mechanical system with more promise than any electric KERS system, but it won't be ready for battle until mid-season. As General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said recently, “racing is one of the few things that can foster innovation faster than war” and its unfortunate that economics are forcing teams to look to survival rather than developing KERS at this point in time. But we digress ...
For F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, the instability caused by the first Honda-toppled domino must have given him a few sleepless nights, despite his standing as one of the least risk-averse businessmen on Planet Earth – Honda's withdrawal could easily have precipitated a meltdown for the world's foremost television sporting event and Ecclestone is known to have examined several scenarios to keep the team alive and the numbers on the starting grid viable. In the end, he no doubt helped orchestrate the outcome to some degree anyway.
Virgin's Sir Richard Branson has often found commercial and promotional advantage in unlikely places, but despite his considerable financial resources, he examined and eventually decided against playing the world's most expensive game. It must be remembered that some of the world's foremost automobile companies, most notably Ford, have found Formula One just too expensive in the past. Toyota spent a billion dollars in its first year and the best part of half a billion every year since for almost no worthwhile result. If it doesn't get results this year, it will almost certainly pull the pin also. So Brawn is stepping into financial territory that is scary indeed.
Honda, it should be noted, had binding contracts worth a LOT of money in place and hence its best scenario was to find a buyer who would maintain their place on the grid, pay the team and fulfil those contracts with the minimum of financial penalty.
It must also be pointed out that Honda's F1 record as a constructor is terrible. It scored just two wins and a third place during its first stint at the highest level back in the sixties and despite its technological heritage and development resources, it fared little better this time around.
Indeed, since it purchased the remaining 55% share of BAR in late 2005, its results have been downright embarrassing.
In its first full year as a constructor again, 2006, it scored three podiums (including a win) for 86 points, its best result ever, putting it fourth in the constructors championship, ahead of Sauber-BMW, Japanese rival Toyota and former frontrunner Williams. At the same time, the RA106 showed too much brand-damaging fragility, often retiring when Button in particular was poised for a good result, and hence attention was focussed on the team.
From there, things went backwards dramatically - in 2007, Honda scored just six points and on the constructors table it finished ahead of just Super Aguri (also running Honda engines), Spyker and McLaren which had been stripped of its points for a few not-so-minor breaches of the sport's ethical code in the form of some astounding industrial espionage activities. Formula One is the closest sport comes to warfare, and the revelations of the court cases surrounding that affair leave little doubt that F1 teams regard accurate intelligence just as importantly as do the military. Honda need not have worried what the likes of Ferrari and McLaren were doing though because they were in an entirely different league. Honda's cars were neither reliable nor fast, and the malaise continued throughout 2008 with just 14 points and ninth place in the constructors championship ahead of newcomers Force India and the Honda-engined Super Aguris which withdrew from the championship after round four.
With the global economic outlook the worst ever, and a team with an appalling track record, buyers could not be found in the wake of Honda's announcement. No-one could legitimately see a future for the team.
No-one that is, but for the captain of the seemingly sinking ship, team principal Ross Brawn.
Self-belief is a two-edged sword. Without it, you cannot succeed. Too much blind faith and inaccurate self perception though, can sabotage a career, and undermine, perhaps even destroy a good name. Brawn's self-belief in taking on the massive risk that goes along with the mantle of constructor is to be applauded, particularly when international auto companies couldn't stand the same financial bleeding.
Success has followed Ross Brawn throughout his career – his technical direction has yielded a world sports car championship for Jaguar, seven F1 constructors titles (two for Benetton, five for Ferrari), and seven drivers titles, all to Michael Schumacher. In each case he has been part of a larger team. Though much credit has been given for the role he played at Jaguar, Benetton and Ferrari, he was not required to take the risk personally.
Announced as Honda F1 team principal in late 2007, Honda's results in 2008 were not his fault as the team was using a car designed and finished before he arrived. Accordingly, he focussed his efforts on building a car for 2009 and those efforts were due to hit the grid this year, and he was reportedly floored by the early December announcement.
Brawn subsequently led a management buyout, did a deal to get Mercedes engines and finally pieced the jigsaw together exactly four weeks before the first race when it was announced that he would lead the new team. The Brawn car was the last of all the team cars to be shown to the public, the last to hit the track, and since then, things have taken a completely unexpected course.
The BGP 001 had its initial shakedown at Silverstone on March 6, and its first full day of testing on March 9 at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain amidst a group test session. Jenson Button had driven at Silverstone, and set out to fit in as much as he could at Catalunya. In addition to completing a reliability and set-up programme with the new chassis, he worked through new tyre evaluations using the Bridgestone Potenza slicks and completed a race start simulation, covering 82 laps over the course of the day. Remarkably, he set the fourth fastest time of the day, nearly two full seconds faster than the McLaren of Heikki Kovalainen, and just two tenths of a second behind the Ferrari of title favourite, Kimi Raikkonen. Brawn GP got everyone's attention the first day it hit the track, for all the right reasons.
The fourth day of the Barcelona test saw Rubens Barrichello back in the car for his second drive, and just as his team mate had done the day prior, he smoked the field by nearly a full second. The day was shortened by fog, which delayed the start of proceedings. Once the heavy fog cleared, Barrichello successfully ran through a full 66-lap race distance with pit stops and using both compounds of the Bridgestone Potenza slick tyres. The car proved reliable once again with Rubens setting competitive lap times over the three stints. The afternoon saw Rubens complete a series of qualifying simulations during which he set the fastest time of the week - a 1:18.926.
Brawn, in characteristically understated fashion, said, “We are extremely pleased with the inaugural test of the BGP 001 car in Barcelona this week. The team made a very late start to our pre-season testing programme with only seven days in which to run the car before the first race in Melbourne, therefore our focus has been on reliability and achieving as much mileage as possible. Both of these aims have been successfully achieved this week. That the car has run so reliably ‘out of the box’ is a tribute to the strong team that we have at our factory in Brackley and they have done a great job during a very difficult period. The car is performing to our expectations and the feedback from Jenson and Rubens has been positive with both drivers completing full race distances. We have three further days of testing in Jerez next week to complete our preparations for the first race and I look forward to seeing how the car progresses from here.”
Brawn commented after the test, “The conclusion of this week’s test in Jerez brings our short pre-season testing programme with the BGP 001 to a successful conclusion. Our programme to date has been dominated by the requirement to prove the car’s reliability however we are also pleased with the competitive lap times that we have seen from the car over the past two weeks. The test in Jerez has been particularly useful and allowed the drivers to complete valuable chassis set-up work and evaluate the Bridgestone Potenza tyre compounds which we will use in Melbourne. I would like to thank the team and our drivers for all their hard work over the past few weeks as we look forward to the first race and the opportunity to finally see the car in action in a competitive environment.” Now we all know that F1 teams purposefully generate disinformation, right down to their lap times in testing, and seasoned racewatchers will caution you not to place too much credence in pre-season testing, but it's a massive understatement to say that the front-runners have not been absolutely shocked by the race pace of the Brawn team, let alone its qualifying simulation pace – everyone is suddenly acknowledging that the team is the real deal.
Perhaps the best diviner of the likelihood of a fairytale beginning to the season for F1's newest team are the odds on offer from the bookmakers. A month ago, Jenson Button was long odds to even have a drive for the season, and prior to Honda's withdrawal announcement at the beginning of December, was being quoted at 66/1 and beyond for the driver's title. With just days to go, the best odds you'll find for Button are 9/1, with many European bookmakers having slashed his odds to 5/1. There are just four drivers ahead of him in the odds table: Kimi Raikkonen 4/1, Fernando Alonso 9/2, Felipe Massa 11/2 and Lewis Hamilton 11/2. Button has moved ahead of BMW's Robert Kubica – the driver who almost stole the entire show last season with a late charge at the title.
Perhaps even more pointedly, the odds for the constructors championship put Brawn GP, a team that has yet to compete in a Grand Prix, at 4/1, behind the power teams of 2008, Ferrari (11/8), McLaren Mercedes (7/2) and BMW (19/4).
We like happy endings and when the flag drops next Sunday evening in Formula One's first ever twilight event (another concession to attracting an incrementally larger global television audience), we're sure there will be a lot of people joining us in watching the progress of the new white and yellow Brawn team.
POSTSCRIPT: The above article, written before the 2009 Formula One season had started, forecast the fairytale that saw the Brawn F1 team win both the drivers' title in the hands of Jenson Button, and the constructors' title. Fairytales do come true.
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