The efforts of Brawn GP at Albert Park in the team's inaugural race at the first round of World Formula One Championship on March 29, 2009 will surely go down in the pantheon of spectacularly successful first-up sporting efforts. A month ago they were all unemployed, but in just 28 days they put two cars on the track, tested them over a normally-inadequate 2000 km and qualified them 1-2 for the first race, at the same time announcing a heavyweight backer in the form of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Next day, more of the same with a 1-2 finish for the team, and engine supplier Mercedes.
Branson made what could become a far more significant announcement almost in passing during the announcement of the sponsorship – he foretold of a green petrol-replacement fuel preparing for launch which has been funded by the Virgin Green Fund and in typical Branson set-your-goals-high fashion, he aims to have all Formula One cars running on it by 2010. Next afternoon Brawn's Jensen Button dominated the race from the start while Barrichello got involved in a first corner crash, got as low as tenth, than drove through the field to complete a fairytale 1-2 finish. Only one other team has ever gone 1-2 first up in motor racing's highest court – the Juan Manuel Fangio-led Mercedes Benz team of in 1954. Mercedes is supplying the same engines to Brawn that powered the McLaren of World Champ Lewis Hamilton into third, giving Mercedes 1-2-3, before Hamilton was excluded and Trulli regained third. Brawn was in tears after the race, as no doubt were Honda.
A week is a long time in motorsport. Last December Honda terminated its F1 involvement, putting the entire ex-Honda F1 team including drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, all on the market in the worst financial climate in history. Though a few buyers, including Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group examined the opportunity, no buyer could be found, so Team Principal Ross Brawn put together a management buy-out. No-one stopped work in this period, and when the Brawn GP team was announced just a month ago, it was thought that it would struggle to get its car out of the garage and onto the track, fit a new motor from Mercedes Benz into the different sized hole, with gearbox complication, that the Honda donk has come out of, and though a competent showing was expected, experienced observers had them pegged as mid-field at best with a period of time where they would be playing catch up.
Not so, as we detailed a few weeks back, there was a fairy tale brewing, because the Brawn had been lightning quick every time it hit the track, right from the first session, and had run several race simulations at astounding pace. They had built a good one!
Branson has been eyeing Formula One's massive stage with envy, having seen some major success marketing stories for the likes of RBS, Benetton and Red Bull in building international brands in recent times. Branson is a showman and F1 is the world's biggest commercial stage, so it was really only a matter of time before he decided to challenge Red Bull's reputation for putting on the most outrageous parties. As he told the TV cameras, “we're gonna have a lot of fun in this sport!”
The deal was done at the eleventh hour, and may well have been concluded on the strength of Brawn's initial practice runs on Friday morning. Branson confessed to a camera crew that it had all been a bit sudden – from the time he concluded the deal to the time his flight left was four hours. He is believed to have come straight from the plane, and arrived at the circuit, some 20 miles from the airport on mid-afternoon Saturday. Do the math!
The enormity of Brawn's effort cannot be overstated. The world's largest auto company, Toyota, decided a few years ago to win the World F1 title, attempting to build both the chassis and the engine. It reputedly spent a billion dollars in its first year creating the team and premises, and the best part of half a billion dollars every year since - all just on F1. It has a 700 strong workforce, has competed in 122 races, and its cars have completed 61,000 racing F1 kilometres at a cost of roughly $6,500 per racing kilometre. It might have shared some victory champagne with a few podium appearances, but it has not yet had a win.
Brawn might have well done the deal of the century with Honda – it sold him the car and the 700-strong team, which it has just announced will be revamped with several hundred positions made redundant, with the car development 90% done and paid for.
For Jensen Button and Rubens Barrichello, the world has changed dramatically – had Brawn rolled over, the team would have been dispersed, Button's chances of getting another chance in a good car severely dented and the career of Rubens Barrichello would almost certainly have been over.
Now they are the hottest team in town, with Button leaving Australia with outright favouritism for the driver's title and Brawn just shaded for constructor title favouritism by Ferrari. All that happened between 12.30 pm on friday when the cars first hit the circuit, and 7pm on Sunday when Red Bull's excited new talent Sebastien Vettel barged kamikase-style into BMW's desperately unfortunate Robert Kubica, thereby gifting Barrichello second when he would already have been delighted with fourth. Jarno Trulli initially got the nod for the third podium spot, but when a penalty was applied, he dropped out of the equation, giving World Champ Lewis Hamilton third place and six precious points to keep him in touch while his team sorts out his car.
Probably the biggest winner of the weekend was Bernie Ecclestone, who saw stocks in F1 raised again by a plot that reads like pulp fiction and brings more new star performers to his stage. Such was the success of the Brawn team that tears were shed in the garage several times over the weekend. Branson's arrival on Saturday afternoon must have bouyed spirits incredibly – in landing a deal with the seemingly omnipotent Branson, whose marketing expertise adds enormous value to the whole equation, Brawn has secured the ideal partner. Brawn went to Albert Park a hopeful new constructor and by halfway through the weekend had a champion by his side painting him as the Burt Rutan of the automotive field. Burt is Sir Richard's partner in Virgin's space commercialisation efforts, Virgin Galactic.
Ross Brawn is now the likely innovator who will be used to champion the creation of another global brand. No wonder Branson wanted to get into F1 if he has the imperative of launching a global eco-petroleum brand coming up. He now has a winning F1 team at his disposal which guarantees him a lion's share of the audience. When Schumacher dominated F1, a large proportion of his worth was dictated by the share of the global TV time he commanded – roughly one third of all that audience time was spent looking at Schumacher, his car on track, or the associated commercial brand-bearing curtains behind him.
So a healthy share of a big audience is what has been purchased, and we suspect the canny Branson will regularly update the livery of the Brawn cars to reflect the commercial message he wishes to communicate. “I have always said I would love to have a Virgin car on the circuit,” he said, and there's no doubt the master publicity choreographer sees a big future with the global television audience of Formula One at his disposal 18 times a year. His showmanship on a stage as big as Formula One will be worth watching. Look at the list of brands he might choose to market here.
He continued, “I am thrilled to be involved with people as skilled as Ross Brawn and his team. Over the years Virgin has had the great honour of partnering with technical geniuses – I truly believe Ross Brawn is to F1 what Burt Rutan is to space travel with Virgin Galactic. We are very confident that the Virgin Car driven by Jenson Button and Reubens Barrichello will go from strength to strength this season and look forward to a great future for the Brawn GP team.” Ross Brawn, Team Principal of Brawn GP wrote on the Brawn web site: "We have worked incredibly hard for the victory in Melbourne and to see the dedication, commitment and sheer hard work come to fruition with Jenson and Rubens bringing home a one-two finish for Brawn GP at the first race of the season was immensely rewarding. After everything that our team has been through over the past four months, it was quite simply a sensational result.
"It is just the beginning for us and it wasn’t a perfect race by any means so we will learn and continue to improve. We have to keep developing the car throughout the season if we want to challenge for further wins and the championship.
"I would like to express our sincere thanks to Norbert Haug and Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines who have been so supportive over the past few months and have worked closely with the team to ensure we were in a position to go racing this year. Thanks also to Virgin, Henri Lloyd and all our team partners for having the vision to see what the team could do and wanting to be a part of it. It’s difficult to put into words what this win means to our team but I’m sure that I speak for every single one of them, here at the track and back at the factory in Brackley, when I say it was a wonderful weekend.