When Ross Brawn was technical director at Ferrari, during the golden era when he, Michael Schumacher, chief designer Rory Byrne and team principal Jean Todt formed the brain trust of that team, he proved to be a master at allocating team resources. He was generally able to find an ideal balance between upgrading the current year’s car, and developing the chassis to be used during the following season. It was no fluke that the Scuderia won five straight drivers’ championships, and six manufacturers’ titles during that period.
Clearly, Brawn has brought that same acumen to the Honda/Brawn GP squad. In his first year with the team, he early on decided that the car was irreparably bad, ergo there was no point in carrying on with further upgrades. Continual upgrades are essential if a team means to stay competitive, so this is a decision not taken lightly so early in the season.
The object, of course, was to pour all available resources into the 2009 car. At one point, three separate wind tunnels were simultaneously testing three different chassis mock-ups, in order to find the most effective development path. This was a costly measure even for a team as well-funded as Honda was at that time, and it certainly wouldn’t have been feasible if Honda had been forced to divert part of their development budget to upgrades on the 2008 car.
While the 2008 season went miserably for the team, 2009 would be a different story. The first half of the year seemed rather surreal, as Jenson Button seemed to glide effortlessly towards six wins and a podium in the first seven races. The Brawn package appeared to be coated with Teflon. Then, beginning at the British Grand Prix, which everyone expected Button to win standing on his head, the Brawn package faltered, as if it had been exposed to its own peculiar brand of Kryptonite.
While Button’s team mate, Rubens Barrichello, was able to score wins during the second half of the season, Jenson Button didn’t win another race, and never seemed to recover his form from the first half of the season. Many observers began to whisper that Button was choking, that he had developed a case of competitive nerves, the kind that cause an athlete to become marginally inhibited at all the wrong moments.
If Tiger Woods chokes, he misses a critical putt. If Alex Rodriguez chokes, he strikes out. If a Formula 1 driver chokes, he either becomes a bit too cautious, or he overdrives the car, both of which have the same net effect: crucial increments of speed are scrubbed from the driver’s lap times.
Ross Brawn himself indicated that he thought Button’s own psyche was proving to be as much of a problem as any supposed handling issues with the car. Naturally, Button denied this, but the fact that Barrichello outperformed Button in the second half of the season seemed to validate Brawn’s theory.
Howevever, Brawn also admitted that the development path of the 2009 car had resulted in the car’s being prone to oversteer, and Barrichello, the most experienced driver on the grid, was better able to cope with this than Button was. Button is known to have an extremely smooth driving style (note his in-car camera shots – his hands are rarely seen making corrections), but he doesn’t like a nervous set-up, and he can’t drive around a handling problem.
Brawn has remarked that it is this quality that separates a driver like Button from Michael Schumacher. The German ace probably could have snagged pole position at Spa driving a wheelbarrow.
Comparisons to Schumacher aside, it must also be said in Button’s defense that part of the fall off in his performance was the result of Brawn’s famed balancing act. During Brawn’s Ferrari years, once the team seemed certain to win the titles, development on next season’s car would begin in earnest. And so it was at Brawn, this year.
As reported in The Telegraph, Brawn said, “We are in good shape for next year. We were fortunate to get a big lead early on and that allowed us to start on next year’s car early. We could consolidate and concentrate on finishing races and picking up the points to wrap up the title and our design team have been working flat out on the 2010 car since the summer.”
This is the Brawn strategy in a nutshell. Rather than emptying the team treasury on the current battle, Brawn took the gamble that they could minimize ongoing development of the 2009 chassis, and still maintain a sufficient points margin to clinch the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles. The secondary goal here, of course, was to get a jump on the development of the 2010 car. Obviously, the strategy has paid off – at least for 2009.
It remains to be seen what the pecking order for 2010 will be. Ferrari, taking a page from the Brawn playbook, halted development of their 2009 at about mid-season. McLaren, on the other hand, introduced upgrades throughout the year, and were rewarded with significant leaps in performance. It should be assumed that both of these teams will return to the front of the grid next year. Ross Brawn knows this better than anyone, and he is determined that Brawn GP will not be a one-season wonder.
Image by Depista, licensed through Creative Commons.