Posts Tagged ‘Brawn’

There seems to be a division of opinion about what is going on between Brawn GP and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

There are stories that a deal has been done for this year and next, while there are strong suggestions coming out of the team that other parties are interested and Branson should pony up some more serious money if he wishes to go forward.

Branson was in the Bahrain paddock at the weekend, holding a press conference to announce that Rubens Barrichello and Niki Lauda had both paid €200,000 to fly into space on the Virgin Galactic spaceship. Lauda, who is on crutches after a hip replacement, is due to take a turn at flying the craft.

The Real Honda website, which has close links with the Brackley team, is reporting that a deal is done for Virgin to sponsor the car for the season at less than £1 million.

However in the Times today, Brawn CEO Nick Fry gives a very interesting quote,

“Richard has made an offer. The issue for us is whether or not it is the best offer we can get.”

Fry goes on to say that,
“We’ve got between 20 and 25 companies talking to us either about sponsorship or some wanting to buy into the team. Ross and I need to come to the correct decision, not the quick decision.”

Branson has a track record of getting the maximum exposure for the minimum spend. Already the media value to his brand of the exposure from the first four races plus his appearances in Australia and Bahrain is estimated at £10 million. That proves to him on the one hand that F1 and Brawn in particular, is a great way to get exposure, but it also shows him that he can do it very cheaply.

But this is not going down very well with the powers that be in F1 and Brawn is now coming to the point where they are asking him to invest serious money for the long term.

They have a ‘budget to impress’ in Ross Brawn’s words, from Honda to get them through the 2009 season, but they need more money to develop the car to stay ahead of the rest and win the world title and they also need money to get started on next year’s car.

The word I heard in Bahrain is that Brawn are looking for a three year commitment from any prospective partner. The discussions with Virgin have revolved around the rest of this year and a commitment to fund the development of the 2010 car.

Discussions will of course have been hanging in recent weeks, waiting for the FIA to set the level of the budget cap. Many teams are nervous about sponsors’ reactions if the budget is set at £30 -50 million, as they fear the sponsors will be asking for the price to come down proportionately.

However the price they pay is not related to the team’s needs, it is related to the media value of the exposure they get, based on camera time, press cuttings and so on, something Branson and his team will be all to aware of given their success in that area in the last month.

The budget cap will redefine the business model of F1 and if the price is low enough it may make it attractive for Virgin to consider more than a sponsorship, but to buy an equity stake in the team. F1 teams are set to become profitable under a budget cap, so as an owner/partner you still get your exposure and you make money too. Time will tell.

As Honda the team was very close to a deal with Emirates airlines, a deal which was linked to the Earthdreams concept. But it never happened. The team has not been the market leader in attracting sponsors at any time in its history. As BAR they didn’t really need sponsors as the whole thing was bankrolled by a tobacco company. When it became Honda and BAT pulled out, the same attitude continued.

Fry and his new commercial team are under pressure to deliver a full roster of sponsors to take the Brawn team forward and make sure that this year’s championship leading performance is not a flash in the pan.

An announcement about Virgin’s ongoing involvement is expected at the Spanish Grand Prix in a few weeks time.

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3 minutes with… Ross Brawn

Ross Brawn’s team has been in the eye of the storm lately, what with the protests over the double diffuser and the criticisms of people like Flavio Briatore. Brawn is a thick skinned individual, but he will have felt the personal attacks of Ferrari’s lawyer in the appeal court hearing last week.

Of course he’s been around long enough to know that you take the heat when you are the team to beat, he’s been in that situation at Benetton and Ferrari and controversy has been in the air in those times too. He’s a big man, he can take the heat.

In Shanghai, the Brawns did not go all that well in the low fuel 2nd part of qualifying and then did not take the front row of the grid, mainly because they chose to run more fuel than their opposition.

The two Red Bulls and Fernando Alonso’s Renault opted to run a lighter fuel load and got in front of the Brawns as a result. In the race, however, the Brawn is still going to be the fastest car and should be able to hit the front by staying out 6 laps longer than Vettel and Webber at the end of the first stint. That is when we will see the mega lap times as we did from Button in Sepang. Either of the two Brawn cars could win this race as Barrichello has more than matched his team mate this weekend so far.

But Ross has to make sure his cars don’t lose track position at the start and that they are within a few seconds of Vettel when he pits around lap 12 or 13. If Webber holds them up that strategy could be tested.

What happened to your pace in the second part of qualifying?
“We had a bit of a problem with some settings on the car, it’s not quite right in some parts of the track. We have a problem with the suspension topping out and as the grip has improved it’s been getting worse because we haven’t got enough rear suspension travel. It’s a legacy of fitting the Mercedes Benz engine because we had to lift the gearbox up to fit the engine and it’s causing a few problems.

“So when we went out on low fuel with new tyres in the middle part of qualifying, we didn’t get the temperature in the tyres. It wasn’t particularly critical but I think we got a bit confused in where we really were because Red Bull were really quick and we weren’t.”

Did you underestimate the likely speed of the Red Bulls in Q3?
“No our view is that we can run a good race on a two stop strategy, a three stop has higher risks, there was no point in doing a three stop strategy in our position. The problem will come as we get caught up at the start, there’s no doubt some risks. Three stops is a little quicker than two, but you need a clean race, no safety cars at the wrong time. That’s why we were a little more conservative.”

So how do you feel your tactics will work out in the race?
“If you take fuel into consideration we still look the quickest, but the difficulty will be getting in the right place at the right time. I imagine that the light fuelled teams will start on the option [soft tyre] and the last 6 or 7 laps of that will be interesting to see what happens.

How tough is it to manage the soft tyre here?
“There is an issue to get it up to temperature and get it working, but once you do the tyre is very stressed here, there are some corners here that give the tyre a really hard time, so it seems to be a compund which is hard to warm up and then is not durable. The other one takes a couple of laps to get warm then its fine, really durable.”

What have Honda said about your success this season?
“They have been very complementary. I have had some really nice letters from Fukui-san since the start of the season. They are frustrated they can’t be part of it.”

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The International Appeal Court has ruled that the diffusers used by Brawn, Toyota and Williams are legal. So now we have clarity and we move on, although there will be rumblings from the other teams, they can do nothing more and have to bring their own versions of the double decker to their cars as quickly as possible.

But bad feelings remain. The hearing yesterday certainly got nasty, it seems, as it dragged out into yesterday evening, Paris time.

It was a bruising encounter for the protagonists, with some real niggle between former colleagues and lawyers getting stuck in to others’ reputations. But some of the things said yesterday will surely come back to haunt those who said them.

The impression the protesters are keen to give is that they are unanimous in their feeling that the three diffuser teams have not only been crafty, but have violated the spirit of sporting competition.

Certainly I’m told that all the teams are backing the protest, with the exception of Toro Rosso (no point in paying twice if Red Bull have already paid) and Force India, for political reasons.

One argument, advanced by Adrian Newey and Flavio Briatore, is that the diffusers should be banned on safety grounds, the Brawn car in particular, because they make the cars too fast.

Although three teams are in the dock, only one team owner seems to be getting the flak and that is Ross Brawn. He had to sit there, while Nigel Tozzi, Ferrari’s lawyer and a man who was on the same side as Brawn until two years ago, described him as a ‘person of supreme arrogance,’ because he sees things one way when everyone else sees things a different way, “Only a person of supreme arrogance would think he is right when so many of his esteemed colleagues would disagree.”

Instead, Brawn is now looking like a person of supreme intelligence.

Tozzi then went on to say something which a lawyer representing an F1 team in an FIA hearing really should have thought twice before saying, because the words will surely be used against him one day,

“Anyone with a command of English will tell you it is a hole, so do not let someone attempting to be clever with words defeat the express purpose of the rules,”

Being clever with words to defeat the purpose of the rules in F1 is what getting an edge in F1 is all about. It happens every time someone comes up with something the others haven’t got and every time there is a protest and an appeal into some genius device, or loophole.

I remember in 1999 sitting in a steaming hot Ferrari office in Sepang after the race as Ross Brawn showed us with a ruler why the barge-boards had been ruled illegal by the stewards. And yet a few days later, through using words at a hearing in Paris, Ferrari’s lawyer managed to get the judges to agree that by viewing the car from a certain angle and by applying tolerances mentioned elsewhere in the rules, the barge-boards were legal after all.

Brawn may forgive and forget, maybe not. But I was very surprised to hear Tozzi having a go at the FIA for inconsistency. The FIA denies that other teams had applied to use a similar diffuser design and were knocked back. In any case I was surprised to see Tozzi using the terms he used,

“The position of the FIA is totally baffling. We urge you to save the FIA from itself,” he is alleged to have said, according to Press Association.

That is strong stuff. Whatever you may think of the historical relationship between Ferrari and the FIA, this line shows you that as of right now, they are at loggerheads and that there is a huge amount of frustration on Ferrari’s side.

Ferrari are frustrated by the FIA’s position on this issue, by the way they have allowed this uncertainty and dispute to develop. The FIA say that their position is clear and as always been consistent; the diffusers are legal.

But also bear in mind that Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo heads the team’s association, FOTA and is more than a little frustrated by the way the FIA World Council ignored all of FOTA’s hard work and suggestions and instead voted in a £30 million budget cap for 2010.

These things work themselves through in the end and Ferrari and FIA will be friends again at some point in the future. But right now they are the focal point for the needle, which is central to this issue over the diffusers.

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It’s been a fairly quiet Easter as far as happenings in F1 are concerned. I guess Malaysia was such a momentous weekend, with the McLaren/stewards affair and the crazy race, it’s hardly surprising that the sport needed to take a breather.

But tomorrow (Tuesday 14th) things will get intense again as the international appeal court makes its decision regarding the legality of the diffusers of Brawn, Williams and Toyota.

This decision could well decide the outcome of the world championship, certainly that is the view of former world champions Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, who are on the wrong side of the debate. Ferrari, McLaren, Renault and Red Bull know that the first four races -a quarter of the season – will have been lost if the decision goes against them.

If the decision goes with the protesters, we will have to unpick the results of the first two Grands Prix, which will be very messy. We’ve already had a high profile reversal before the season started on the points system. To tell the world also that the first two races are meaningless would make neutrals wonder what the heck is going on in F1.

However that’s a risk we have to take because the important thing here is that we get the right decision, so everyone can move forward. The top teams all have their own versions of the ‘double decker’ diffuser in the wind tunnel at the moment and will be ready to run them either in Bahrain or Barcelona, depending on their manufacturing capability. This should give them a vault in performance.

The Brawn team hopes to keep its nose ahead and has some updates of its own to roll out in Spain, because the team has the luxury of being one step ahead of the rest. But it will be interesting to see whether these updates give anything like the returns that the diffusers will give to the rest. Meanwhile Toyota and Williams have benefitted from the diffusers and, for as long as it lasts, they are taking points off the top teams.

McLaren and Ferrari look out of sorts at the moment, McLaren because of a slow car and the strife they have brought on themselves. Internally there is some real soul searching going on and a threat that they may lose their lead driver over the damage done to his reputation. That is very destabilising.

Ferrari are on the ropes because they have made mistakes and had reliability issues. They need to get onto the right path as a team and I’ve no doubt that they will. This is not like turning an oil tanker around, an F1 team with a winning culture can adapt and change direction very quickly.

BMW should benefit greatly from the updated package they will bring out in Spain. They have combined the need to build a car with a trick diffuser with the need to make a lighter chassis for Robert Kubica, so he can use the KERS system and he will be driving essentially a B spec car in Spain. I expect him to start to feature in a big way after that. He’s been one of the few top team drivers to have given the diffuser cars a run for their money in the opening races.

Renault are coming from a bit further back, while Red Bull have a different concept to the rest and have been quick in the opening races. If forced to adapt to the trick diffusers, it will be interesting to see whether they gain or lose relative to the opposition.

If the appeal court decision goes Brawn’s way it will certainly give Jenson Button a fighting chance of winning the title, as he will have had four ‘open goals’ at the first four races, a head start that it will take the big teams a lot of the season to catch up.

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It’s a shame that Jenson Button has yet to see the chequered flag at full racing speed at the end of a full race. Both his wins have been terrific, but this one today was really special and you have to pay tribute to the masterful way that the Brawn team, Button and his engineer Andrew Shovlin managed the changing conditions.

Others, like Glock and Heidfeld made greater gains by gambling on wet tyres, and Heidfeld gambled several times with the result that he made only one pit stop compared to Button’s four. But then Glock and Heidfeld had nothing to lose, while Button had everything to lose.

He said afterwards that the car wasn’t very well balanced on wet tyres, so it was a credit to him that he was able to keep his pace up in the wet conditions,
“The conditions we had today, it’s very unusual to drive the full wets in slightly greasy conditions, we had to go for that option because he thought it was going to rain and we were in the lead. It felt pretty terrible, the rear was always trying to break away. But that was more down to the conditions.

“When we put the intermediates on, the car felt pretty good I had a good balance for the car, because it was the right tyre for that condition, until it started bucketing it down and then no tyre was usable.”

So he did his bit. But the team did a brilliant job. If you compare his outcome with Nico Rosberg’s you’ll see what I mean, Rosberg had the early lead and was on a similar strategy to Button, just a couple of laps shorter on the first stop. He had the pace for a podium today. And yet he made stops on laps 27 and 30 and slipped from 2nd to 8th, with the fourth stop from inters to wets, a stop other cars didn’t make. This could have happened to Button, but he had kept the momentum going and at every stage the team stayed calm and did what was required.

Today’s other great revelation is that we got to see just how fast this Brawn car really is, when Jenson had to push hard in his two laps before his first stop, in order to leapfrog Rosberg and Trulli. He did a 1m 36.641, which is a second faster than the next non-Brawn car!!

That is quite some margin they have, greater than we imagined previously and it’s also impressive to note that that lap time was set at the end of a 16 lap stint on soft tyres, so the Brawn can be said to have fantastic tyre management ability.

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What Brawn needs to do in Sepang

The Brawn team moves on to Sepang this weekend with a maximum points haul in the championship so far and the chance to double that advantage.

With its huge downforce, excellent balance and thumpingly powerful engine, the Brawn Mercedes car should be even more superior to the opposition on the fast flowing sweeps of Sepang. But there are still a few areas the team needs to work on.

Because there were only seven days of testing before the start of the season, they had to focus on reliability and race performance work. There was no time to look at maximising their speed over a single lap for qualifying, nor for practising pit stops.

They nearly came unstuck in the pits on Sunday, the second stop of Button in particular, almost losing him the lead to Vettel’s Red Bull, which also showed that it is very fast over the single lap. Although they had a 1-2 in qualifying, both drivers felt that there was a lot more that could come from the car in low fuel running.

Ross Brawn has put out a message today about the team’s attitude going into the weekend and some other areas that need to be worked on. He highlights reliability in the hot conditions and being prepared on the strategy side for heavy rain as top priorities.

“We know that our competitors will not stand still however and that the challenge will become ever more difficult from here. We can rise to that challenge and we have a very good and stable car which should go well around the Sepang circuit. As in Australia, we will need to maximise the practice running that we have on Friday to develop the set-up, and we will be faced with the usual reliability concerns caused by the high temperatures that we expect in Malaysia. As the race is later than usual in the calendar and will take place later in the day, we are expecting some rain showers, which will make the strategy for the weekend very interesting.”

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A Brawn insider spills the beans

Very interesting piece on the Guardian site today, quoting a Brawn team ‘insider’ talking about how much faster the car is capable of going than we saw on Sunday.

It’s interesting because Ross will not like this very much at all. He didn’t get where he is today by giving anything away and this gives a bit too much away.

That said, it does deflect attention away from the diffuser, suggesting, as they used to do in Brawn’s Ferrari days, that the thing everyone thinks is the key to speed, isn’t and that the key lies elsewhere.

“I think, basically, that if someone is two-tenths off us they can feasibly win the race but, if we’re half a second in front, which is probably where we are at the moment, although we don’t necessarily look like that, it is just foolish to just annihilate people all the time.”

I posted on this before the race and it makes sense, you never rub people’s noses in it in F1, that kind of behaviour will always come back to bite you.

“I think we have a little bit in the bag. We’ve got good stuff coming and I think we have reason to be confident.”

“The visual bits are not really the performance drivers, it’s all the surfaces you can’t see that give you the real performance.

“One of the good things about the Brawn car is that competitors will look at all of it and say, ‘That’s the bit that’s making it fast.’ But it is not necessarily one thing; they could be focusing on something that is not really a big performance driver.”

“We were looking at everybody else’s times asking why were they all so slow. Our research was telling us we would be the quickest car.”

And so it has proved.

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I’m sitting in Melbourne airport in the departure lounge waiting for a 1am flight to Kuala Lumpur. I’m not alone, there are plenty of F1 people milling around, rather bleary eyed waiting for the plane. Ferrari are on the flight, along with some French and English journalists, a few photograpers and others. It’s an eight hour flight and it will be tiring, but it’s not a bad flight to catch as it gets in to KL at 6-30am, so you don’t lose a whole day travelling.

I was rather surprised at the check-in to see Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali with both of his drivers, travelling as a team. I was quite impressed actually, I’ve not seen that before. I don’t know whether it’s just circumstance or whether there is some kind of edict that they should be together. Ferrari as a team has always been good at sticking together to travel, not for them the private jets for the senior management, there are no obvious signs of hierarchy. But the drivers are not normally a part of it.

Felipe Massa, his wife and his manager were together, while Kimi Raikkonen had one of his Finnish mates with him, the pair with their distressed baseball caps worn at an angle, making cracks in their own private language about people they saw, laughing like teenagers.

It was a shocking weekend for Ferrari, with reliability once again the problem. They also have to catch up to Brawn or hope that the appeal against the diffuser succeeds. I’m hearing that they have two parallel development programmes going, one with a copy of the new ‘double decker’ diffuser and with a new gearbox, the other a development of the car they have. McLaren are also flat out building new parts and they will be flying out packing cases full of kit to Malaysia this weekend. Both teams are chucking money at solving the performance crisis.

I’ve also heard of teams who were about to lay off staff from the aerodynamic department, who have delayed the move so that they can accelerate the development of their own ‘double decker’. It rather makes a mockery of the whole cost-cutting mantra we were hearing over the winter! Brawn has got the big teams on the run.

I bumped into Jenson Button twice today, at lunch and dinner. The Melbourne race winner was in a very relaxed mood, hanging around near the beach, just savouring the moment and looking forward to the next. He enjoyed a long lunch with his new girlfriend Jessica.

He was saying that his main emotion before the race was excitement, rather than nerves. He struggled to control the excitement, but now that he has the win under his belt he knows he can start to build momentum. He has to capitalise while the big teams are down.

He feels that the Red Bull is the biggest threat at the moment and certainly until Vettel crashed into Kubica, he had kept Jenson honest. Jenson added that the tyres were quite tricky on Sunday, especially towards the end as the temperatures dropped, but the Red Bull seemed able to stay in touch. I wonder if it will be able to on Sunday.

It is such a graphic illustration of the fact that in F1 you really are only as good as your car. Jenson was not a tosser last year, although he struggled with motivation at times and was outperformed by Rubens Barrichello.

He has the car to get the job done and the team has developments in the pipeline for Barcelona. He should have his nose well in front by then.

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An exhilarating hour spent in the pit lane during the first practice session. Strangely unfamiliar for me as it’s three years since I was last down there, having had to yield my pit lane pass to Steve Rider back in 2006. I used to live in the pits, back in the day, knew every nook and cranny, had eyes in the back of my head for cars coming in, going out, mechanics rushing. It takes me 20 minutes to get used to the rush and the energy.

I quickly get used to it again. The energy is always astonishing. You can feel the drivers who are on it, Massa is very aggressive straight away, Raikkonen looks committed.

The Red Bull mechanics were under pressure. Vettel stopped out on the track early on and they were unscrewing the floor of Webber’s car as I left the pit lane.

But what really caught my eye was three commanding presences in the pit garages.

At McLaren, Ron Dennis dressed in black, standing on his own in the middle of the garage. The mechanics move around him, respectfully, leaving a wide space around him. He looks very serious, has his aggressive face on. No longer the team principal maybe, no longer central to activities on the pit wall, but still a huge presence in the garage.

Next door at Ferrari an equally serious looking Michael Schumacher. An adversary of Dennis for many years, now a fringe player in a way, as a consultant to Ferrari, but they’ve built his part up a bit this weekend. With the switch to slick tyres and other new rules his eye and judgement are valued. He’s taking the role seriously, moving across the garage to inspect Raikkonen’s rear tyres when the car comes in from a run. He studies, them, runs his finger across the ruts and blisters. A young Bridgestone engineer, prodding his temperature guage into the tyre finds a stony faced seven time world champion grilling him about the tyre. Schumacher, like Dennis, is a competitor. No longer directly competing, maybe, but still engaged, committed.

Down the other end of the pit lane is the Brawn garage. The decoration is sparse, no frills, the cars sponsorless for the moment. If you didn’t know better you’d think you were looking at the Minardi of today. But these guys are the team to beat this season. And the reason is Ross Brawn, Schumacher’s old ally from Ferrari. His name is above the door, he’s more engaged than he’s ever been and he’s been smarter than everyone else in preparing for this year. Or is that craftier? Actually it’s both. Brawn cuts a massive figure on the pit wall, a radio on each hip, his face impassive.

Some work on the footwell of Button’s car is taking longer than expected, Brawn comes off the pit wall to inspect the work. The mechanics are aware of his presence, but not intimidated by it. Unlike his old colleague Schumacher and his rival Dennis, Brawn is competing directly, he’s at the heart of what is happening.

Three huge characters, authors of much of the sport’s recent history, competing in their different ways on day one of a new Formula 1 season

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There’s a strong story doing the rounds here in Melbourne that Richard Branson’ s Virgin group is going to announce a sponsorship deal with Brawn GP tomorrow (Friday). Branson himself is believed to be on his way out here to make the announcement.

It is well known that Virgin looked seriously at buying the team from Honda over the winter, but pulled out because, among other reasons, it felt the sport’s environmental credentials were not as strong as they need them to be.

I imagine also that they were put off by the uncertainty about the performance of the car and the cost control rules for this year and beyond. The picture has become a good deal clearer now and in some ways you could say that they probably realise that they might have missed a trick. The car is the fastest in the field and the era of the budget cap will soon be upon us. Brawn GP is a fantastic asset. As a business model it is starting to make a lot of sense for a company like Virgin, which would get a massive return on investment.

Ross Brawn is sitting on an asset which will be worth tens, possibly hundreds of millions of pounds in a few years time. The move to a budget cap and the stunning performance of the Brawn car are two reasons for Virgin to reconsider involvement in Brawn. Ross needs strong partners for the future, to consolidate the team and then take it forward as an established top team. Virgin may in time become more than a sponsor. It makes little sense in branding terms for the cars to be called Brawns. They are not using F1 to try to build a brand, like Mercedes or Renault or Red Bull. They might as well work with a partner with a strong brand.

And now clear, for the moment, of the regulatory hurdle of the diffuser row, the way is clear for a very opportunistic piece of sponsorship business.

The Brawn cars will totally dominate this weekend and the next few as well, until the others can catch up. Brawn has some development parts in the pipeline, which could keep their noses in front for the first half of the season, For a sponsor it is a golden opportunity, of the kind which does not come along too often. And Branson is nothing if not an opportunist.

Brawn will be the story here, looking at grabbing the front row and sealing a one-two finish in the race, provided they are reliable. And that means the chance for Virgin to get saturation coverage.

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