Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Cinderella Story of Brawn F1

Something truly remarkable happened this weekend, and very few people in America are aware of it.

A team that was all but declared dead six weeks ago (Honda) was resurrected as BrawnGP, and then proceeded to qualify 1 & 2 and then sweep the front row of the Australian Grand Prix. The last time a new team finished 1-2 in their first grand prix was 1954. The mere fact that it has been 55 years displays how incredibly difficult it is to be at the front in F1.

Jensen Button went from being out of work, and almost certainly retiring from F1 with a career that never lived up to its promise and only a single race win, to winning the first race of the season and driving what is, for right now, the very best car on the grid.

How we got here is an interesting story. Honda decided to get back into F1 racing with the formation of the British American Racing team, something that really had very little to do with America other than being sponsored by British American Tobacco (Lucky Strike). After a number of unsuccessful years, ProDrive was brought in to manage the team, and by 2004 they were genuinely successful, finishing second in the constructor's championship with a good car, a good driver in Jensen Button, and a fantastic engine in the Honda RA004E. Flush with success, the BAR team, now owned 45% by Honda, bid ProDrive farewell and prepared for the 2005 season on its own.

The 2005 season was a disaster, and Honda bought the remaining 55% of the team and became a full fledged constructor. Under the control of Honda the team started well in 2006, and then declined consistently through 2007 and 2008, with the last year being a total disaster. In the midst of all that, the car went to a very odd "earthdream" livery that did not include sponsors names and logos. This probably meant that Honda was shouldering nearly the entire cost themselves. It is difficult to pinpoint where the problem was, but Honda was clearly lost in the wilderness. In April they announced that they were not going to continue to develop the 2008 car, but would instead focus on the 2009 car.

But by December of 2008, in the face of worldwide financial losses due to the economy, Honda decided to call it quits on the very expensive sport of F1. For all of January and most of February, it looked like the Honda team would be shut down for good on March 3. There were rumors of various buyouts, but none of them materialized until, at the very last moment, the team was sold to Ross Brawn, the team principle of the Honda team.

Thus, Brawn GP was born on February 27, 2009. This team started with a car already designed for the 2009 season, but they needed a new engine as Honda was exiting altogether. The team secured Mercedes engines, and began testing. Out of the gate it was clear the car was fast. Very fast. But many fast cars in winter testing have failed to perform come race day.

Not this one. The BGP 001 was clearly the class of the field this weekend, and in the hands of Jensen Button was on pole, and then on the top spot of the podium at the end of the weekend. Cinderella had found her glass slipper and it fit very well indeed. As I think about this weekend the one thing that keeps running through my mind is how close we were to never seeing this car race. This amazing car could have been a footnote of history with a big "what if" attached to it. Instead, we got to see it race in all it's glory.

The cars have very little sponsorship, something I expect to see change by Malaysia next week. All is not well at Brawn; however, as they have to significantly cut back on the workforce even with their victory. They will drop about 275 people in the coming week as they try to bring the costs into a level that they can sustain. While this will be hard, it is necessary to ensure the long term survival of the team.

Will Cinderella have a solid sophomore outing? We sure hope so. Tune in next weekend on Speed Channel (or set the tivo, the race is at 2am pst) to see the next race in this amazing F1 season.


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