Exclusive interview - Hondas Ross Brawn 03 Dec 2007
It has been one of the biggest stories of the off-season - former Ferrari technical director Ross Brawns signing as Honda team principal. After being based at his new home in Brackley for exactly one week, how does the man who helped power Michael Schumacher to record-breaking success view his new challenge? And what has he been doing in those months away from the track? We caught up with Brawn to find out
Q: Ross, to start with, what have you done in your year off?
Ross Brawn: Surprisingly, considering the life you live in Formula One, I did a lot of travelling this year. I have realized that I've travelled to lots of places seeing only the airport, the hotel and the circuit, so my wife and I toured extensively, starting in South America at the beginning of the year, we then went to New Zealand and returned to South America - I even went to Russia on a fishing trip. You could say that travelling was the main thing I did in 07. And it was a totally new experience. If you don't have any deadlines, you start to enjoy the trip. Before, the trip was just a headache before I got to where I wanted to do my job. You know that cliche that the journey is more important than the destination? I experienced that when you are on that sort of trip - without time pressures - it is often true.
Q: How long did you last watching races on television before the withdrawal symptoms started?
RB: The first race was very difficult because I've been to all the races for so many years. It felt really strange. I was in New Zealand in that period and as it's the same time zone as Australia I watched it during the daytime on TV. It was a peculiar experience being so close and not being involved after 30 years of motor racing. And honestly, I missed it all the time - sure not all of it - but the racing and being part of a team, the technical side of developing a car and making it successful - that I missed. So obviously it's just a question of finding the right balance between what you enjoy and what you don't. And my desire to get involved again in all those things that I enjoyed grew over the year - just as I thought it would.
Q: Was not returning to Formula One ever an option?
RB: It certainly was a possibility. But I gave myself some time turning my mind off and not thinking about those things, and then in late summer/early autumn I started to reflect on what I would do. I am not too old yet, so I knew I would get involved in things again. Yes, I have looked at some other options outside of motor racing, and some were really interesting, but I don't think they held the challenge that Formula One does. So a return was almost inevitable.
Q: Honda is a great new challenge, but the question that puzzles everyone is what turned you away from Ferrari? Everybody expected you to return there
RB: My departure form Ferrari was a well orchestrated undertaking that was running over a three-year period. At the end of 2004 I signed a new two-year contract with Ferrari, knowing that this was the last contract that I wanted to do as it was then the end of a ten year period. So gradually we started to build a (new) structure in the areas I was responsible - and this years result has proved that this structure works, and that Ferrari remain a very strong team.
Q: Was the spy scandal an influencing factor in your not returning to Ferrari?
RB: No, that was not an issue.
Q: Before signing for Honda you no doubt did some analysis of their situation. What do you think were the root causes of their tough 2007 season?
RB: It is too early to say. What I would like to say is that I had some expectations, or rather some hopes, of what I would find at Honda when I was discussing my move with the Honda executives and (team CEO) Nick Fry. They gave me a picture of the situation and I must say that what I found here is even better than they described. I am very happy about what I have discovered in my first week at Honda. For sure there is a huge challenge in front of all of us, but all the resources, all the tools are in place and the people are incredibly enthusiastic and committed to try and succeed in the future. Even with all the tools the most important thing you have in a team are the people. I came here and found people who are very keen and very ambitious for the future. Their enthusiasm was almost palpable. I did not have to face a demoralized workforce - that would have been disappointing.
Q: What immediate measures do you plan to stop the drought at Honda - on a technical and human level?
RB: Again it is too early to say, but what I want is that people come to me and tell me their ideas so that we discuss technical possibilities and give a consistent direction to the company from an engineering perspective.
Q: Bernie Ecclestone was quoted in a recent interview as saying that the problems the two Japanese works teams face may stem from the fact that they are governed from Japan, suggesting that they are happy to bide their time rather than take big risks and that hence their way of going about things is rather conservative. How will you try to overcome those obstacles?
RB: I have some experience in working with Bridgestone. It was a very nice partnership between Bridgestone and Ferrari. Of course the culture is different. It's not better or worse, it's just different. You have to understand the culture, you have to understand the objectives of Honda and its executives, and you have to work with that and marry the two cultures. I don't see it as a major problem. In many ways I see it as being positive for what we want to achieve. I as an Englishman went to Italy and worked with an Italian culture which was different to what I was used to. You have to understand what the strength of your culture is and what the strength of their culture could be and bring the two together and make the best out of it. Honda is a large organization and you have to understand how to marry the needs of Formula One to the needs of that large organization.
Q: 2008 will see more rule changes, like standardized ECUs (electronic control units) and no traction control? Will those new rules make it easier for midfield teams to catch the frontrunners?
RB: I don't see that as a major area of performance gain. You might argue that the top teams are more sophisticated in that area, but I am sure the top teams will find a solution to the problems caused by the traction control ban - and probably find a solution more quickly in terms of the car performance. I don't think it necessarily levels the field, so I don't think it helps us a lot. The major area influencing the performance of the car is the aerodynamic performance, the engine performance and the chassis performance, and these are the areas we have to progress if we want to compete with the top teams.
Q: And what is your stance on the fact that some team principals have argued that this standardized ECU - developed in part by a McLaren Group company - privileges one team?
RB: I would say that is a very short-term situation. Okay, the electronics are based on the McLaren system so they have more experience, but I see that as very temporary because once things have stabilized, which will take a few months, there will not be any difference.
Q: What will be the distribution of tasks between yourself and Nick Fry?
RB: Nick and I have split our responsibilities. Predominantly my responsibility is engineering and racing. Obviously this has been a little bit instable in the last couple of years and I want to bring stability and then take the benefits from all the resources they have here.
Q: What about the drivers? You know Rubens Barrichello very well from your time together at Ferrari. Will he stay with the team? And what about Jenson Button? How familiar are you with him?
RB: First to Rubens: Rubens has one year remaining of his contract. I think the past year was very difficult to judge either driver because of the problems with the car. Personally I think there is no reason not to continue with them as both have proven that they can win races and they are both on very high standards. I don't have any concerns about the drivers. There are much bigger challenges for the team overall and for me than the drivers. I am very much looking forward to working with Jenson. I have never worked with him before. He always impressed me from a distance. He has a nice reputation in the team. The people like him here. So it is up to us to provide both with adequate material.
Q: Will you attend this weeks Jerez test to see the team in action?
RB: Yes, I will be there on Tuesday. I just want to have a look at the team, to meet them and have a first picture of how it all works.