Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Brawn Spring a Surprise

The grid that confronted us in Melbourne wasn't quite the surprise that the qualifying order for the opening race of the 1990 season in Phoenix had been. Nothing quite so downright bizarre as an Osella in the top 10, or Andrea De Cesaris' Dallara ahead of Senna's Mclaren, both Ferraris and both Williams.

Still, a month ago, you'd have got very long odds on the remnants of the old Honda team locking out the front row. In fact, many, myself included, were far from convinced that the team would even be on the grid, and the bookies were offering 100/1 on Jenson Button winning the opening race.

The odds didn't really shorten much when it emerged that Nick Fry and Ross Brawn had brokered a deal to put the stillborn Honda on the grid as a Brawn, with Mercedes supplying the engines. A car with next to no testing, hastily adapted to take a different engine from the one it was designed for, built by the guys responsible for the awful RA107 and RA108? It sounded like it would be making up the numbers and no more.

The picture began to change when the new car started topping the times in winter testing, but still there was a nagging doubt - Was the pace real or were the team running the car underweight to set headline grabbing times in the hope of attracting sponsors? As time went on, the doubters began to change their minds - Alonso talked of the Brawns being the favourites for victory, and ahead of last weekend, the bookies had had a radical change of heart and installed Button as favourite to win.

Qualifying in Melbourne gave us a definitive answer. Sebastien Vettel, in third, was six tenths away from Jenson Button's pole time, despite being fueled lighter. The Brawn appears to have at least half a second on its rivals at the moment, at least around Albert Park. On race day, they brought the cars home one-two, so completing the most remarkable turnaround I can remember seeing in the sport. The word miracle seems inappropriate - there are no miracles in the real world and Brawn's success was down to a lot of hard work from some very clever people in difficult circumstances. Still, it makes for quite a story.

I do wonder, though, whether their very success might make life more difficult for them later on. The sport's financial structure and deal-making remains as opaque as ever, but it appears that Brawn are on the grid only thanks to the FIA, FOM and FOTA having all put aside any differences to make sure that they got there. The FIA agreed to waive the $30m bond required of new teams, FOTA and FOM are thought to have agreed to treat Brawn as being entitled to Honda's share of the prize money and Mclaren waived their right to veto a supply of Mercedes engine for the Brackley team.

They might have been happy to do this when it was assumed that they were ensuring the survival of a team that would struggle at the back of the grid, not giving a helping hand to a team that had stolen a march on all of them in terms of understanding the new regulations and built a car which, at least for now, seems to have every bit as great an advantage over its rivals as Ferrari's F2004 did. And of course, after Robert Kubica and Sebastien Vettel did for each other's weekends and Jarno Trulli picked up a 25 second penalty for passing under the safety car, it was only the two Brawn cars that stood between Lewis Hamilton and a shock victory from the back of the grid! I do wonder, too, how Brawn's success is going down at Mercedes. Sure, the Brawns have the German car-maker's engines in the back, but you'd have to be a fan to know it - there's no Mercedes logos on the cars, and the casual viewer might have had no idea that their engines were actually in the back of all of the podium-finishers' cars.

Can Brawn get by without moral support from FOTA and Mclaren? Perhaps, after all, the deals are done now, but there is still the problem of money. The team are getting by for now with a dowry from Honda, but the Japanese car giant's support was almost certainly a one-time payment, and running a racing team is an expensive business. The more so if the team want to match the likes of Ferrari and Mclaren in the race to develop their 2009 car. The victory in Australia will be bittersweet for the 250-odd employees at Brackley who look set to lose their jobs. Can the team shed a third of its workforce without adversely affecting their performance? Only time will tell.

Fundamentally, the problem the team face is that in these straitened economic times, it may be hard to attract significant backers even to a team which is out in front and winning races. Maybe I'm being cynical, but I can't help but wonder whether Richard Branson didn't pull of a tremendous publicity coup for his Virgin brand without actually signing any cheques last weekend. Certainly if a major deal had been signed, it was a little odd that the team were sporting only a few small Virgin decals as they set about dominating the weekend's sports pages.

Perhaps the team's best hope is that, if the new, supposedly cheaper F1 is more than a mere mirage, the idea of picking up a well-run team with a car might just appeal to one of the car manufacturers not currently involved in the sport. One of the Korean car makers might be tempted by the opportunity to raise their profile worldwide, and perhaps Volkswagen-Audi Group might finally tire of toying around with diesel sportscars and join the party. They'd have a lot of work to do - Mercedes is unlikely to provide engines to them - but on the other hand, Cosworth have a pretty effective 2.4l V8 sitting around gathering dust, that they could probably be persuaded to sell for the right money.

The trouble is, for all that it might make a lot of sense, especially compared with the way some car-makers have gone motor-racing, it still looks unlikely given that the motor industry has been amongst the hardest hit by the current global recession. Discretionary spend, of any kind, is unlikely to be on the agenda when the fundamental problem facing car makers is the disappearance of the market for their primary product. Maybe, after all, Brawn's best bet is to "do a Williams" and try to run the team according to the conventional business model of selling sponsorship as was once the way almost all F1 teams operated, before the appearance of the car giants, billionaire soft drinks magnates and India's richest businessman changed the rules of the game.

I'd like to believe that if the results come, then one way or another, the team will survive. If a team can win races but still not raise the money needed to survive then something really is wrong with the sport. Can they go on winning races? If you believe what some are saying, much will depend on the outcome of the appeal against the Brawn's diffuser which Renault's Pat Symonds reckons is worth half a second a lap. For all that I'm sure they'll want to win their case on 14 April, it might not be the end of the world if they do lose the appeal though. For one thing, even if it is worth half a second a lap, the scale of the Brawn's advantage at Melbourne suggests they will still be amongst the front-runners. Secondly, I'm not entirely convinced by Symonds' claim anyway. Brawn's closest challenges last weekend were not the other members of the so called 'diffuser gang', Toyota and Williams (though both teams ran well) but the more conventional Red Bull and BMW.

No, I reckon what might swing it one way or the other for Brawn is the question of whether KERS will turn out to be an expensive dead end, or whether once teams have gotten to grips with it, it will turn out to be every bit as essential for anyone running at the front as semi-automatic gearboxes, active suspension or traction control was when first perfected. So far, the evidence is mixed. Only one team ran their cars in both KERS and non-KERS spec, and it was Kubica's KERS-free BMW which went quicker. But on the other hand, Kubica was quicker than Heidfeld last year too. In fact, the two men giving Button pause for thought last weekend were running cars with no KERS and conventional diffusers. It was noticeable though that those drivers running KERS, and in particular Lewis Hamilton, appeared to have an easier time overtaking people than the rest of the field around Albert Park, and Ferrari might have been up there too had they not dropped the ball in terms of strategy and then encountered reliability woes.

If KERS turns out to offer no advantages, at least when configured to the current rules, then I wouldn't be surprised if Brawn are able to remain among the front-runners all year. If, on the other hand, it turns out to offer a significant advantage, the team are likely to be in trouble. For reasons best known to themselves, Honda didn't leave their KERS system with the team when they pulled out of the sport and Ross Brawn say they are very unlikely to run the system in the car this year.

Ross Brawn has already achieved something any life-long racing afficionado would surely dream of - scoring a one-two in his first race as a team owner with a car bearing his own name. Whether his team can mount a tilt for the world title, and whether they can ensure their long-term survival remains to be seen, but the fact they've got this far surely augurs well.

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