Ferrari have enjoyed a phenomenal run of success since the turn of the century and have dominated the sport like no other team in history. Since 2000 the Scuderia have scored a mind-blowing tally of 1496 championship points, just 21 less than Renault and McLaren put together. During this period they claimed 76 Grand Prix victories and wrapped up an unprecedented sixth consecutive constructors title. No other team has ever been able to boast such a sustained level of performance.
All of that would have been hard to imagine just eleven years ago when the team was struggling for points let alone wins and championships. Before Michael Schumacher joined the fold at Maranello the last man to give Ferrari a title was Jody Scheckter in 1979. For over twenty years the team failed to match the pace and consistency of Williams and McLaren who often embarrassed the Italian squad. No one could have predicted that Ferrari were about to turn the tables on their rivals so convincingly.
There are many reasons why the red cars became regular Grand Prix winners again. One of them was that Michael Schumacher joined Ferrari and developed into one of the greatest drivers of all time. The superfast German was able to win races in awful machinery and it became his mission to make the team champions in Formula One. His focus, talent, and determination were very big factors in Ferrari’s recent domination of the sport.
Another reason why the Scuderia became so successful was the restructuring that took place in their technical department. Ross Brawn was responsible for that process after joining the team in 1997 and he changed the way Maranello approached Grand Prix racing. The bulky Englishman can take a lot of credit for turning Ferrari into a winning team from nowhere.
Now he will be looking to do the same again at Honda.
Interestingly, Honda are currently in the same position that Ferrari found themselves in when Brawn joined them.
In 1996 Ferrari had one of the biggest budgets in Formula One but built a decidedly average car. Not only was it slow but it was grossly unreliable. The team recorded DNF’s in all but three races and Irvine failed to finish eight times in a row. At the French Grand Prix Schumacher’s engine did not even complete the warm up lap. Getting both cars to the finish was an effort for the team and getting them into the points was even harder.
Michael may have taken three wins in 1996 but he needed plenty of luck. Irvine wasn’t a bad driver and had beaten Barrichello at Jordan, but struggled to ring any pace out of the F310. Throughout his career Irvine was able to race well in fast cars but awful in slow ones, so his results are a good measure of the team’s performance.
Irvine scored just 11 points in 1996 and qualified in the top five only twice. It is even worse when you consider those statistics are greatly boosted by his efforts in round one at Australia where he qualified and finished third, albeit over a minute behind the winner.
Ferrari were in the doldrums so when Ross Brawn joined them he immediately got to work.
Brawn’s influence was obvious from the very start of his technical reign and he instantly closed the team’s British office. Ferrari thought they would attract more engineering talent by having a factory in the UK but this ended up hampering their efforts. By bringing everyone under one roof at Maranello, Ross Brawn made it quicker to discuss and develop ideas. He also made it much easier for the engine men to work closely with the chassis men, something which was very important to Ferrari.
With the entire technical team in the same building Brawn was able to remodel it and change their construction processes. He made Ferrari more focussed and was able to direct the teams energy into the areas where it was most required.
Some of the changes he made to the car were evident from the beginning as well. Ross arrived after the 1997 car had been built, so although he could not redesign it his team were able to improve it. They made it lighter, more reliable, and increased the size of its fuel tank which provided more strategic flexibility. They were also able to introduce a new front wing by the end of the season that cured the cars chronic understeer.
Ferrari were improving noticeably under Ross Brawn’s guidance. Within eighteen months they had overthrown Williams and it was not long before the Italian team could match McLaren on outright pace as well. The most impressive thing about their development was that it did not stop and Ferrari soon became the dominant force in Grand Prix Racing.
Their ascendancy peaked in 2004 when they claimed 15 of the 18 races and doubled the number of points scored by the team who finished second.
Ross Brawn can take a lot of credit for that success, and for building it form almost nothing.
Now it is time for him to try it again at Honda.
The Japanese manufacturer had an abysmal time this year and became one of the sport’s biggest embarrassments. At the end of 2006 they were genuinely fighting for race victories but could not even score regular points this season.
From 34 starts in 2007 Honda could only manage 9 top-ten results. It took them eight races to score their first solitary point and another five races to score their second. In the end Honda finished the season with just six points to their name which was eighty less than what they scored in 2006.
By comparison, Super Aguri scored four points and regularly out-qualified the works team. Honda only got ahead of their junior outfit in the second last race of the season and did so because they stunted Super Aguri’s development. For example, Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson tested a new and improved aerodynamic package at Spa Francorchamps but were not allowed to race with it during the actual Grand Prix.
Essentially, Honda were beaten by their old car.
Responsibility for that failure must partly fall at the feet of Shuhei Nakamoto who replaced Geoff Willis as Honda’s Technical Director partway through 2006. He has struggled in this position and has admitted as much saying “To be honest, I don’t have enough development experience in Formula 1 cars. Everyone knows my background is as a motorcycle chassis designer. Motorcycles never use downforce. In F1, aero is maybe seventy or eighty percent of the performance. In this area I have no experience. Everyone in our team knows this”.
It would seem Nakamoto’s appointment to the top of Honda’s technical tree was not a wise decision. Now he will have to report to Ross Brawn and that will hopefully put the team back on track.
Jenson Button certainly thinks it will. During this weekend’s Autosport Awards the Brit said “As a team we have been good over the years. Nick Fry and co have done a good job of managing the team but on the technical side we have been missing something and Ross fills that role”.
However, Brawn is going to find it a lot harder at Honda than he did at Ferrari.
Firstly, Honda does not have Michael Schumacher. Ross Brawn used to be able to instruct his lead driver to build up a twenty second lead in twenty laps to make a particular strategy work. He won’t be able to do that anymore. Jenson Button is great, but he is no Michael Schumacher. Simple as that.
Secondly, Honda do not have Ferrari’s budget. The Scuderia had millions of dollars pouring into the company thanks to Marlboro, but Honda have no such luxury. In fact they do not have a title sponsor at all. The myearthdream concept on the cars this year was very clever, but it only existed because the team could not put Vodafone or ING on there instead.
When Ross Brawn joined Ferrari in 1996 he did so because he had achieved all of his goals at Benetton and sought a new challenge. Eleven years later he is joining Honda for exactly the same reasons. It will be a much tougher road for Brawn this time around, but that is probably why he is looking forward to it so much.
One day we might look back on Honda in 2007 the same way we look at Ferrari in 1996. There is no doubt the team can only improve, and how far they rise will have a lot to do with Ross Brawn’s influence.