Do not let Ross Brawn’s kindly, professorial air, or his partiality for the innocent pleasures of fly-fishing, deceive you.
This is the man who, in masterminding years of unanswerable dominance at Ferrari, once cut a journalist dead during a press conference by snapping: “Can you stop laughing?”
He is equal parts engineering genius, nimble negotiator, and a leader of relentlessly high standards.
As Formula One casts around for a fresh direction in this post-Bernie Ecclestone era, Brawn finds himself restored as perhaps the sport’s most powerful figure. Just like a pilot with 20,000 flying hours, or a surgeon with a string of letters after his name, the 62-year-old is one whose very aura makes him a reassuring hand on the tiller.
Where Americans Chase Carey and Sean Bratches, his colleagues at Liberty Media, have been implanted like artificial kidneys into the F1 body politic, Brawn commands universal respect. Long before he took this latest job as motorsport managing director,
Christian Horner, team principal at Red Bull, identified him as F1’s potential saviour.
Now, with an elegant office on St James’s Square to call his own and a sprawling global fiefdom to survey, he is seeking to repay the faith. It is quite the leap for Brawn, who, after a less-than-cordial departure from Mercedes in 2013, vowed to remain removed from any political rough and tumble.
“Yeah, that was a mistake, wasn’t it?” he laughs.
But he is persuaded enough by Liberty’s methods to believe that in the six months since Ecclestone was deposed, the culture of F1 has changed irrevocably.
“Politics can take the form of trying to strengthen or weaken people, and that’s the kind we want to avoid,” he explains.
“In the previous era, there was a lot of that happening. Healthy debate is the politics I like. We’re working on a new engine at the moment, and it will be the result of lots of meetings.
“None of us want to solve our problems by any Machiavellian campaigns. If people stand in our way, we’re not going to try to remove them from the equation. It’s a different approach.”
An excessively consensual one, some say.
At last month’s Canadian Grand Prix, the Liberty triumvirate faced sometimes hostile questioning about what, for all the smooth management-speak about “consulting our stakeholders”, they had really achieved.
The trade-off is delicate: where Ecclestone would operate like the used-car salesman he started out as, cutting the most lucrative available deal, Carey articulates the need for a grander philosophy.
Longer-term thinking is the credo, and Brawn is best placed to bring it to fruition. Cut him open and he bleeds gasoline. From the moment he machined his first cast magnesium upright at Williams, to his years of guiding Michael Schumacher to a record five successive titles with Ferrari,
Brawn has been a passionate racing purist. He is also convinced, having spent a precious three years outside the F1 bubble, that the sport needs to make itself more appealing to the non-aficionados.
Pointing to an incident in Barcelona this season, when a young French fan was see crying at Kimi Raikkonen’s first-corner crash and then introduced to his idol by the end of the race,
Brawn says: “Distraught young boy meets his hero - it brings a human side to racing.”
This is the soft soap, though. Far thornier challenges await, not least that of managing F1’s fiendishly complex calendar. Just yesterday, Silverstone confirmed that it would cease to host the British Grand Prix in 2019, but here Brawn drops his strongest hint yet that Liberty are pressing ahead with plans to expand to a record 25 races a year.
Lewis Hamilton suggests he would walk away from F1 if the schedule became so bloated, but Brawn feels little sympathy. “Twenty-five races - that’s one every other weekend,” he says.
“Not a bad working life, is it? It wasn’t so long ago that drivers were testing every week. At Ferrari, we had two test tracks, and rarely a day went by that we weren’t running on them. It’s the quality that’s going to be vital.
“We’re paying respect to our heritage, bringing France and Germany back, long-standing European races, and we want to mix them with exciting new ones - a race in New York, or one of the big US cities, and in one or two new continents. If we have 25, it will because they all deserve their place.”
So far in 2017, F1 has yielded precisely the entertainment value for which Liberty paid pounds 6 billion, with a ferocious duel simmering between Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, who between them have won six of the past seven championships.
The notorious recent incident in Baku, where Vettel pranged his Ferrari into his rival’s Mercedes in a fit of pique, was a highlight for Brawn, who had been growing sceptical of the pair’s mutual love-in to that point.
“I was amazed at how long the romance carried on,” he says. “Normally, in that intensity of competition, it gets fractious. Finally, that’s what has happened. It’s wonderful to watch.”
The one pity, in his view, is that the great Fernando Alonso is cast as a peripheral observer, nobbled at every turn by McLaren’s wretched Honda engine. Having watched Alonso end the Schumacher supremacy in 2005, Brawn regards it as a travesty that a driver of the Spaniard’s prodigious gifts has yet to add to his two titles. “Fernando is a fabulous driver, one of the best of his generation, but he has been neutered by an uncompetitive car. That’s extremely frustrating for us, as he cannot show his true potential. It’s the downside of a car being a factor in the competition. If the car’s not right, talents of the strength and magnificence of Alonso get wasted. It’s a fine line.”
There is, Brawn concedes, a polarisation in the paddock between behemoth teams and those that function essentially as vanity projects for their owners. It was a situation with which he grew well acquainted at Ferrari, who were so untouchable in the early Noughties - they won the constructors’ crown in only the 11th race in 2002 - that casual fans turned off in droves.
Mercedes are entering similar territory, with a fourth straight year at the top, but Brawn is wary of any attempts to curtail their reign by artificial means.
“Quite frankly, we at Ferrari were only defeated because the tyre rules changed. That demonstration of excellence, you shouldn’t spoil it with gimmicks.”
It is Brawn’s latest quest to find a fresh path for F1 today.
“F1 is a rich environment, which exists on many levels: human, drivers, racing, technical,” he says. “There is a whole sweep, far more than in any other sport I can think of. People are still fascinated by F1 because of what it represents. We should never lose sight of that.”
= The Daily Telegraph