The untold stories of Brawn GP: How close the fairy tale came to never happening

It was Formula One’s last great fairy-tale story. A story that nearly never started amid a global financial crisis, saw half of a 700-strong team made redundant and could have been derailed by a single chassis-cracking accident at one of the first four races of the season. Never before or since has a team won both the driver’s and constructors’ world championships at the first time of asking, but that’s what Brawn GP achieved in 2009.

Ten years on and the fairy tale is well worn. World champion Jenson Button, team owner Ross Brawn and team CEO Nick Fry have all written books based on the experience. But those that designed the car, engineered it to victory and were behind the scenes have rarely told their stories.

Theirs are stories of redundancy notices coinciding with half-built houses and pregnant wives; stories of falling asleep on garage floors at 3am; stories of victories and a metres-long bar bill once the championship was won; ultimately, a story unlike any other in F1 history. In recent months, ESPN has tracked down engineers, mechanics, truckies, designers and back-room staff to tell their favourite stories ten years on from Brawn GP’s victory.

It starts with the news that Honda, the previous owners of the team, were pulling out of F1 and leaving the jobs of an entire factory in the balance.

A race for survival

Nicole Bearne, Executive assistant to Ross Brawn
“Ross had a call from somebody high up in Honda and they said they were coming over to the U.K. and they wanted to get a meeting in the diary. I seem to recall it was a couple of days beforehand that we knew that they were coming and at that point the speculation started.

“OK, results hadn’t been brilliant, the economic situation was not great, we thought there might be some kind of change, but still, they didn’t give us any advance warning or any kind of indication as to what was happening.

“They literally flew into Heathrow and all we knew was that Ross and the senior management would need to meet them. Ross was supposed to be chairing an FIA Technical Working Group [TWG] meeting on that morning, but obviously he had to cancel.”

Andrew Moody, Manager of paint and graphics
“I was based at the factory and I guess two or three days before the news came out, you felt something was about to happen. Don’t ask me how, but something was uttered somewhere and because I had been here a long time, I knew a lot of people and I just had this feeling that something was coming. But never to the extent that it was…”

Nicole Bearne, Executive assistant to Ross Brawn
“After the TWG had finished without Ross in attendance, I drove round to the Heathrow hotel that they were meeting in and sat outside and he came out. I handed him the documents from the TWG and said, ‘How is it going?” He just said, ‘It’s looking really bad.’

“At that point I remember just thinking, ‘Oh…’ and he just basically said, ‘They want to shut the team down,’ as we stood there in the carpark of an airport hotel. I didn’t hear anything more from him for the rest of the day. I came back up to the factory and carried on doing the bits and pieces I needed to do. We had the children’s Christmas party the following day for the families of the factory staff and I remember thinking, ‘God, this could be the last one’.”

Peter Hodgkinson, Car build operations manager
“I remember when we first got a whiff that Honda was going to pull the plug, we were downstairs doing a lot of KERS work with the Honda engine in preparation for 2009. We had been working around the clock firing the car up and trying to measure currents and stuff and we recorded on the wall how many engine starts we had done: we were up to 126 engine starts as we worked through various issues.

“Then suddenly the news came out that the Honda F1 team, as we knew it, was going to end and I remember the Japanese guys from Honda crying. Sky News were outside on the truck apron the day the news broke and then we had this horrible period where we didn’t know what we were going to do or what was happening. It was really uncomfortable, and then the discussions around redundancies started…”

Derek Herbert, Truckie and tyre man on Rubens Barrichello’s car
“We had loaded all the trucks up to go to a test in early December and just as we were about to leave when we were told there was a big meeting in the factory. So we unloaded the trucks again and joined the meeting. We didn’t know exactly what was going on, but we had a feeling it wouldn’t be good.”

Andrew Moody, Manager of paint and graphics
“It was announced to the whole factory in the race bays. They got the whole company together, and by that point we knew. I think you’d be naive to think it wasn’t bad news, but the actual news that we might be shut in the next weeks was still a bit of a shock.”

Redundancies and false dawns

Amid a global economic crisis, Honda announced to the world on December 5, 2008 that it would be pulling out of Formula One. Initially the Japanese company wanted to exit in the fastest way possible, but Brawn and Fry managed to convince the board that finding a buyer would be a more cost-effective and PR-friendly method of walking away. Several suitors toured the factory, but none had what it took to buy and run the team.

Simon Cole, Trackside engineer
“When Honda pulled out there was a massive reset. We were just thinking, ‘Right, now we have got a major problem’ because we had nothing — not even an engine to power the car! Honda just wanted the whole F1 programme to go away, they didn’t want to pay everyone off, they just wanted to hand it over to somebody and make it go away as a problem.”

James Vowles, Chief strategist
“It really hurts you to the core when something you love suddenly gets pulled from under your feet. It’s very difficult to explain, but that’s how I felt at the time. I remember that whole process, I was fortunate enough to be involved in bits of it because I have languages and there were a number of people calling to try and buy the team — a huge number. “So with my Spanish I had to speak to a number of Mexican investors – shamsters, all of them! But you still had to listen to them saying they would fly over the next day in their helicopter, which sometimes never showed up.”

Nicole Bearne, Executive assistant to Ross Brawn
“All the supposed investors were slightly seedy. I remember we had a Russian that came over and I think he had bought a football club or shares in a football club and suddenly decided he was an oligarch. So he came out at one point and brought his wife and his son with him and we had to do a factory tour for them. Nothing came of it. “And then we had Richard Branson [of Virgin] hovering on the edges of it all as well, possibly coming in with some money and possibly looking at buying shares in the team. We were just exploring all the options, but rapidly trying to weed out the ones that were just too dodgy. Some of them, they got quite far down the line, and we discovered through due diligence that these people had criminal records!”

Peter Hodgkinson, Car build operations manager
“We had this horrible period where we didn’t know what we were going to do. It was really uncomfortable and then the discussions around redundancies started and you had to elect a representative for the department in the process.

“It was around the time of a presidential election in the U.S., so we took American election posters and put people’s faces on them! So I remember Richard Moody, who looked after stores, we put his face on top of Barack Obama’s body! Gordon Vacher, who was an ex-serviceman, we put his head on John McCain’s body!

“We did all these things to try to brighten the mood and lift the tension, because there was a lot of tension and a lot of anxiety. You simply didn’t know how the redundancy thing was going to go.”

Rob Chant, Trackside electronics
“It was an emotional time, and Jenson talked about it the media at the time saying ‘I’m out of a drive’ and we were all thinking the same because we were all out of jobs! It was tough to deal with that, especially when you are committed to mortgages and so on or have just got married.

“So you are sat there with all these commitments in your own life and the company you work for is effectively going out of business.”

Andrew Shovlin, Jenson Button’s race engineer
“I had another job lined up at BMW-Sauber but in the end I had to turn down that job. It was a real job with real pay, but I turned it down on the premise that there might be a job at Brawn.

“That was all before we had even run the car yet, and at that stage I had a half-finished house and a fully-pregnant wife! It all just felt like a bit of a battle.”

James Vowles, Chief strategist
“Ross did a really good speech at one point on the steps downstairs in the race bays where he riled the team up to make them realise we have a chance here. He said that we were talking to people, but let’s be honest about it wasn’t working out — none of those guys were really serious about investing and he explained that he had started looking at other options.

“He didn’t explain there was a management buyout on the table and what the deals were, but he really riled the team up to understand that you would have to fight for it if you want this and that we would need to dig deep to make it happen.

“It was one of the turning points for me because I saw for the first time that the team was not flat, they just didn’t know what was going on. Suddenly they realised that we had a chance at this and, however small it was, it was worth working every day and every night to do it.”

Nicole Bearne, Executive assistant to Ross Brawn
“I think Ross held the torch for everybody. He had a poster in his office, which kind of alluded to that. It was actually a quote from Honda, Mr Honda, which said: ‘You can only lead if you hold the torch’ and I think he did that. He became very much the person we looked to, Ross very much became the person we all took our cues from.

“The fact that he was calm and pragmatic and measured and just methodically worked his way through the problem, I think we all sensed that and took that lead and did the same. So there was no sense of panic that you could have in that kind of situation. People were worried about jobs and things, but it was a sort of calm reassurance that he gave to the organisation.”

Brawn takes over the team

After failing to find a buyer, Brawn and Fry convinced Honda to agree to a management buyout. They took control of the team and secured a 2009 budget equal to the money Honda would have saved in redundancies by not closing the whole thing down: £92.5 million. However, roughly 350 redundancies still needed to be made.

Nicole Bearne, Executive assistant to Ross Brawn
“The redundancies were a big deal. I think it was a big deal for all of the management committee, but I think the bigger deal would have been to have shut the whole thing down –that was the last thing they wanted to do. That was the absolute worst scenario.

“So anything was better than that and it was a brave decision to go through with the management buyout. Ross and Nick put a lot of their own collateral in and took the step to sure up whatever was there, but I think the overriding thing behind it — and it was kind of in the back of our minds — was that we all thought we had a good car.”

Andrew Moody, Manager of paint and graphics
“We were well aware there was going to be some trimming. The difficulty with that was that we needed to build the cars first, so from the announcement that we were Brawn to getting to Australia, it became very obvious that a large amount of staff would be going and that could only happen once the cars were built and the trucks had gone down the road to Heathrow for the first race.

“So everyone was in that painful state of not knowing if you would be the one staying or going. And in the management it was the same: you knew you had to do a job to thin the numbers but you could also be the next one to have that done to you having done it to your staff.

Rob Chant, trackside electronics
“We had meetings throughout the whole period because there was a consultancy process you go into effectively. In trackside electronics, where I work, we had a meeting and everyone was in the same room and they made a decision about who would be travelling and who wouldn’t.

“Some people were quite vocal about not wanting to travel because they had families and wanted to be here, but they knew by saying those words that they were putting themselves at risk for redundancy, because when you are a downsized team, everyone has to travel because there is no work to be done back at the factory. They knew by saying that they want to be back here with their families that they were probably out of a job.”

Derek Herbert, Truckie and tyre man on Rubens Barrichello’s car
“It was an awkward moment. We got to the point when we realised some would be made redundant and some would be kept on, and all of our department, which was at the time 14 guys, were gathered together.

“Our team manager, Ron Meadows, came into the office and went around the room, saying ‘you’re going to Australia, you’re going to Australia … you’re not, you’re not’. And then we knew where we stood.”

Simon Cole, Trackside engineer
“There was a feeling that everyone wanted it to work. The whole organisation was distilled down to a smaller and more streamlined and determined organisation. I have to be careful what I say, but some of the people we lost were perhaps a bit ambivalent about the success of the team and maybe thought, ‘This isn’t going very well, I’ll just go somewhere else’.

“But there was a handful of us left who were more tied to the success of the organisation, either geographically or because we had been there a long time. We knew we had to make it work because we knew we would only get one go at it and it would be a disaster if it didn’t go well. We were thinking maybe we can get a top three or top five car, but then when we made it and ran it, it was unbelievable!”

James Vowels, Chief strategist
“As we progressed through and things became clearer, if I could have invested my house in our success, I would have done. The deal Ross got was the deal I would have taken as well: £1 effectively to buy the team plus cash input to equal what Honda would have paid to close it down.

“I would have done the same thing because you knew you had a car that would be very, very quick. You also knew you had an entity at the end of it that would then be worth a lot.”

Brawn supremacy

With redundancies hanging over half the factory, the team continued to work towards getting two cars ready for the first race of the season. The first point of order was finding an engine. Honda’s V8 was recognised as the worst on the grid in 2008, but would leave the team along with the Japanese manufacturer. Engines from Ferrari and Mercedes were both options, but one soon became the favourite….

Simon Cole, Trackside engineer
“Initially there was a lot of consideration about a Ferrari customer engine, which we rapidly concluded wouldn’t be a good idea. If we’d gone that route, Ferrari would always be in control of our performance and, our feeling was, in control of where we finish because they weren’t going to let a customer team beat them.

“We didn’t have aspirations of championships at that point, but we did want to be competitive and so, very last minute, we started looking at the Mercedes engine and amazingly managed to get it in the car in some world record amount of time. It must have been four weeks from getting the engine from Mercedes to getting it in the car!”

Andrew Moody, Manager of paint and graphics
“At the time, we didn’t have any sponsors. So Ross and Nick and the management decided the car would be white, a neutral colour, because the theory was you could attract any sponsor on to white and work with anyone. So that was the decision made on the white.

“But then it dawned on Nick Fry that we would be white, Toyota would be mainly white, BMW was going to be white and Williams could be white and, based on the assumption that we would be in the middle somewhere, we would actually have a very non-descript car in among the throng of other white cars. So then we had to come up with an idea to make it stand out.

“Of course, other teams had previously had fluorescent colours on their car — orange or red is the obvious one with McLaren — so we went down this yellow fluorescent route and that got worked into the logo and it grew from there. We just had a basic white thing and we were simply trying to figure out how we make it stick out.

“We tried to do it in a way that meant we had something identifiably bit that still left all the main areas free of anything so that we could fit pretty much any brand that came along. So it was like a 200mph billboard with blank spaces saying ‘your name here’.

“We hit on the yellow quite quickly and we manufactured the paint ourselves from a powder. Normally, you would purchase the paint, but a six kilo bag was £150 as opposed to a litre of paint, which is now about £250! That bag lasted us a season and I’ve still got three kilos left in the cupboard!”

Peter Hodgkinson, Car build operations manager
“I remember when it first fired up, it was a bit — as they all are when we put them together ahead of the first test. The build was kind of OK, but it was still all last-minute stuff. I remember we worked until 9am and then went to Silverstone’s tiny Stowe Circuit [in the infield of the Grand Prix circuit] for the shakedown.”

Andrew Shovlin, Jenson Button’s race engineer
“The Stowe Circuit is not a place to run a Formula One car, but it’s the only place that we could get at short notice. I think the cost of everything was a big deal as well, but it’s really not a proper track.

“As a result, we didn’t really know anything about the performance of the car from the test, only that it worked. And when you’ve changed engines at very short notice, you are mainly hoping that it functions and cools. As it happened it was our most reliable car ever — maybe not as good as this year’s Mercedes — but the design brief was very much: make it work first time and make it reliable.”

James Vowels, Chief strategist
“I remember the shakedown well. Our clothing sponsor Henry Lloyd turned up with team kit that just about had a Brawn logo on; but we didn’t quite have enough jackets, so I was freezing my arse off! But I have never seen a bunch of happier people in my life — just the emotion that you have of everything you have worked towards suddenly making it to track. And it just ran and it ran and it ran and it ran.

“I watched it, and the Stowe Circuit was a pretty shitty circuit if I’m honest, but I just remember the delight. I remember the expression on the faces of the Mercedes engine guys because we literally had one tent and one truck with the tail lift down and that was it! It was a long way from the usual standards of modern F1, but we were like, ‘Welcome to the new world!'”

On track

In the week prior to the Silverstone shakedown, the rest of the paddock had been testing in Jerez and Brawn’s engineers had been monitoring their rivals closely. A major regulation change over the winter had forced all teams to come up with a completely new car design, but it soon became clear that very few were anywhere near as advanced as Brawn GP’s. Toro Rosso was the only team still running a 2008 car due to delays with its own build and the performance of the Red Bull junior team gave cause for serious optimism in Brackley.

Andrew Shovlin, Jenson Button’s race engineer
“We knew how we compared to that Toro Rosso because we had been racing it throughout 2008 and we could see from our numbers that we would be closer to that Toro Rosso than any of the 2009 cars, which were a lot slower. So that kind of gave us a way of linking up the two sets of rules and when we made a comparison we realised, conservatively, that we would be a second quicker than everyone! And then we thought, ‘Oh, well we must have got our maths wrong!'”

John Owen, Principal aerodynamicist
“We looked at the new cars and we were just shocked at how slow they were. We were aiming to be as fast, if not faster than we had been in 2008 because we now had slick tyres, and these cars were 3.5 seconds off the pace of the Toro Rosso. We were just thinking, ‘This is incredibly slow’.”

James Vowels, Chief strategist
“Yeah, it was about 3 seconds at the first stage and I remember when the other cars first ran, we looked at them and said, ‘That’s how our car looked in the wind tunnel about six months ago!’ We were never sure about our own pace because we had cut the back of the chassis off, installed an engine that we’d never used before and it was a bit of a Frankenstein, but the early signs were very positive.”

The first test against the opposition confirmed the team’s optimism. Despite running heavy fuel and the same 50-lap-old tyres used at the Stowe Circuit shakedown, Jenson Button returned from his first run as the fastest driver. But controversy over Brawn GP’s novel interpretation of the rules with its double-diffuser at the back of the car — a concept also being run by Toyota and Williams — was just around the corner…

Simon Cole, trackside engineer
“Jenson’s time appeared on the board and the circuit officials excluded it because it looked faulty and as though he had cut the chicane. Then there was a bit of discussion among the other teams because it soon became apparent that he hadn’t actually cut the chicane! “All the other teams were saying, ‘They obviously have no ballast on the car’ and it went on and on like that. Everyone was in denial and we were just simply amazed! “We weren’t being smug about it because we were still in extraordinary lucky circumstances, but everyone else was in denial and all the interviews with other team principals were saying, ‘Of course, if you don’t have any sponsors you remove all the ballast from the car to make the times look good’.

James Vowels, Chief strategist
“Every time they deleted our time, we looked at it before it was wiped off and we were a couple of seconds quicker! So immediately we put more fuel in the car to bring the times up. We should have done it before, but the problem is you are not going there thinking the car is quick you’re just thinking that we’ve got to survive and you stick to the normal procedures.

“As soon as we saw it delivering those lap times and that other people were not even close to touching it, we literally tanked it up, put more ballast on and then ran it that way for the rest of the week. The others then settled into the mindset, because humans are like this, that we were just trying to attract sponsors by running underweight early on. For them it was the only thing that made sense.

“I remember McLaren guys saying, ‘You took all the ballast off didn’t you? Well done to you guys — I know you need the sponsors and we’re just glad to see you running’. Ferrari were the same way and a lot of people just came to the conclusion that we were doing glory runs, not knowing that actually we were running every bit of metal we could on the car to slow it down!”

Nathan Divey, No.1 mechanic on Rubens Barrichello’s car
“There was lots of talk within the team that if we took out the fuel we should be this far ahead or that far ahead, but you also just thought that we can’t be — surely we couldn’t be that quick! But also there was the controversy brewing with the double diffuser, so we needed to be fast enough to win but not fast enough to show how quick the car really was!

“Because by the time we got to Australia we knew there was probably going to be a protest over the double diffuser, so it was a case of whatever you do, don’t go and win the race by a lap! I think the instruction for Jenson was win by five seconds — get to the front and stay there — but don’t humiliate everybody by disappearing off down the road because that won’t do us any favours!”

Peter Hodgkinson, Car build operations manager
“We got everything done, we got everything to Melbourne, but we were still saving money hand over fist back at the factory. You weren’t even allowed to print in colour back then — all the printers were taken away except one, which printed in black and white. That’s how it changed overnight.

“I remember the carpet in my office had worn through to the concrete, so there was a great big concrete hole there under my desk. So I said, can I at least have new carpet? The answer was always no, you can’t have new carpet until we win the championship.

“I also remember walking down the race bays with our aerodynamicist John Owen before the first race, we got to the door and he said ‘Hodg, if we do a good job with this, Mercedes will own us by the end of the season’ “I laughed and said, ‘But they’re with McLaren, John!’ He said, ‘You never know. If we kick arse and have a good season, Mercedes will own this place’. And I laughed, but at the end of the season, there it was.”

The first win

The revival of the team had come together so late and the chances of making it to the first race in Australia had been so slim, that there wasn’t even a Brawn GP team profile in the official programme in Melbourne.

Yet when the car hit the track, it was the class of the field and Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello locked out the front row of the grid in qualifying before taking a memorable one-two victory in the race.

Simon Cole, trackside engineer

“We went to Melbourne and still this myth was being perpetuated among the other teams that the car wasn’t quick. We knew it was quick, but we also knew we didn’t have many spare parts and we were not that familiar with what we were doing, so there was also a lot that could go wrong. It turned out to be an emotional rollercoaster that you just couldn’t imagine going through before it happened.”

Andrew Shovlin, Jenson Button’s race engineer
“All the optimism after testing didn’t feel real unless we went to Melbourne and stuck it on pole position and won the race. This was an organisation that had won one race in its history [the Hungarian GP in 2006] and that had reliably over-promised and under-delivered for years — that seemed to be all that we were good at! There was a desperate sense that you wanted the proof and only when you did that were you convinced that you had a good car.”

Simon Cole, trackside engineer

“When got on pole position, we all got together back in the engineering office and thought, ‘Wow, we have really done this!’ because we did not have a long history of poles at Honda and British American Racing. Then suddenly we had this pole position with Jenson and we sat down and said, with massive pressure on us, ‘Right, how do we turn that into a race result?’

“I think everybody was still being dismissive of our ability to do that, thinking that we got pole but it was still down to luck. And we thought they were probably right! We thought maybe we had got lucky, so we better go out and have a beer!

“I remember we had a pizza and a bottle of wine at the bottom of the park in Melbourne, with all the boys getting there in a van — in those days the whole engineering team fitted in one van!”

James Vowels, Chief strategist
“I remember the Melbourne race itself — we did our best to lose it! As part of the redundancy process we had lost our refuelling guy, a guy called Gary — a really tall big bloke, but he wanted to be a plumber and asked to leave the team. And with redundancies, if someone wants to go you let them go.

“So we had another guy come onto the fuel rig who had done it in practice a few times, but of course he had only done pit stop practice on a static car, so when the car came in to the pit lane at full speed he got stage fright and he couldn’t do it.

“The first pit stop I think was about 12 seconds slow, the second one about 20 seconds slow. It was big numbers and it looked like we were trying to throw this race away as best we could.

“Anyway needless to say we paid the Gary to come back and do just race weekends for the rest of the year and he used to fly out to arrive on Saturday, just did the refuelling and then flew home to his plumbing job. He was as happy as anything, he was ecstatic, but that was Melbourne: Melbourne was luck and that is what formed a big part of that year — we were very lucky as well.”

Nathan Divey, No.1 mechanic on Rubens Barrichello’s car
“Rubens made a bad start from second on the grid, but towards the end of the race he was running fourth, with Sebastian Vettel and Robert Kubica in second and third. Then Vettel and Kubica took each other out with only a few laps remaining! It was the most bizarre thing, watching them battle each other so hard and then take each other out, but we just thought there is a God after all! So we ended up with that one-two, which was the absolute fairy tale.

“And then, the bit that I will always remember, is that the top three cars had to drive all the way down the pit lane to get to the podium and we were running down with them because our garage was at the other end of the pit lane, and every team came down and lined the pit lane applauding us.

“They were patting us on the back as we ran down and that was the most amazing feeling, that everyone was so happy that we had gone through all the uncertainty of the winter, made it to the first race and still got a one-two!

“But maybe by the time we had won six of the first seven races, that goodwill started to disappear It was more like, ‘Hmm, you again? Give everyone else a chance!'”

Peter Hodgkinson, Car build operations manager
“Of course, with everything that was going on back at the factory the Melbourne win was very bittersweet. I remember lying in bed, watching the race — and it was a fairly chaotic race — and we finish one-two and I was just sitting in my bed crying.

“My wife walked in and said ‘What’s the matter? You just finished one-two!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but next week’s going to be a huge deal to sort out’. And sure as hell it was.

“It’s the hardest thing I have ever had to sit and do. I had to sit there and say to these people that your job is under consolation for redundancy and just watch guys you’d worked with for ten years just go.”

Rob Chant, trackside electronics
“We got the one-two in Australia, but it was a difficult moment. We were a company of about 750 people and of that 350 people had been put on redundancy notice. So you knew in your office you were losing nearly half the people who were in it.

You knew that people that were your friends were losing their jobs, because we all knew that if you were out in Australia you were keeping your job and if you weren’t then you would likely be leaving.

“But as soon as we crossed we started getting messages to say, ‘Don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine — go and enjoy it!’ And it took that sting out of it — it was a relief that then turned into very strong emotion. A lot of us were crying because of what we had just achieved and what we had been up against. Up until that point we hadn’t realised what it was, but finishing a race in first and second, which had never happened to pretty much everyone who was out there, for us it was an incredible experience and people were emotional about it.

“What was lovely was Ross came down from the podium, soaking wet with champagne and just bear hugged everyone so that we were also covered in champagne! It was just a lovely moment, because he didn’t often show emotion but he did that day. It rubbed off on everyone and we were all feeling a sense of huge achievement.”

On a wing and a prayer

Button went on to take six wins in the opening seven races, which formed the basis of his and the team’s championship success. It was hard earned on a shoestring budget, but also involved a degree of luck. Above all else, the team could not afford a major accident as it simply didn’t have the parts to replace a wrecked chassis.

James Vowels, Chief strategist

“At the second round in Sepang we were leading the race and there was a downpour that red flagged it. We stopped on the grid, took the steering wheel off the car, tipped it upside down and water came out of the bottom! It was finished! We didn’t have a spare and the car would never ever have fired up again if the race had restarted, so we were lucky it was called off. “When you look at the first six wins, apart from Melbourne, we could have thrown them all away. Of course, we had a fast racing car, but to be truthfully honest, it was a little bit of luck and everything coming our way that made it work. “

John Owen, Principal aerodynamicist
“We only had time to convert two of our three chassis to the Mercedes engine ahead of the start of the season and so, obviously, we were quite at risk because with only two chassis if we had any problem, potentially one car wouldn’t be able to compete.

“Quite early on we realised that if the other teams knew we had no spare chassis it would be quite useful for them to tangle with us in a Friday practice and ‘accidentally’ put us out of the race. So we had the third chassis travel with the race team, left in the truck for everyone to see, but with the engine mounts facing backwards. It could never have been used, but it was purely there for everyone to think we had a spare chassis!

“After all, no one would assume we were carrying a completely redundant chassis around the world, but indeed we were to avoid anyone thinking they could take us out.”

James Vowels, Chief strategist
“So we went through race by race, and normally these days you would repaint a car, you would touch it up; you would put new bits on it. We didn’t do any of that so when we got to the Bahrain race, the car was as tatty as you like: loads of stone chips on it, broken bits that had been repaired … it wasn’t in a good state.

“So by Bahrain we weren’t the fastest car anymore and that wasn’t down to the development rate, that was literally because the condition of the car had deteriorated so much across those first few rounds that we had lost performance.”

Simon Cole, Trackside engineer
“I can really remember people working at 3am in the morning trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and trying to get a car together. It was the same for people at the factory, trying to support us and trying to scratch around to find enough carbon fibre to make another wing.

“We had the people, we just didn’t have the money to spend on it and buy the material. It was about getting people together to work and pull in the right direction. We are still good at that now [as Mercedes] but we were pretty stunning at that in 2009.”

James Vowels, Chief strategist
That was the year where you were allowed to adjust your front wing angle each lap with electrical motors. Our system did not work very well at all and, in fact, when the electrical motors arrived they came in a box that said ‘under no circumstances get this motor wet’! You think if this thing is exposed to the elements we are in trouble and we always had a situation where one of them didn’t work and we had a lopsided front wing — it was a nightmare.

“We barely had a front wing adjuster all season long and I remember it was a lot of pain we went through. It wasn’t that much performance to be fair, but it was still performance you wanted and we just never resolved it properly.

“I remember in Bahrain it got to 2am trying to fix this wing and I was done — I fell asleep and just slept on the garage floor and that was it. That was where I spent my night because you had no choice but to get it working. Evan Short, bless him, did everything he possibly could to get the wings working in the best way he could, but we all stayed through the night because it was about the solidarity of the team.”

Rob Chant, trackside electronics
“At one race the front wing was even assembled incorrectly. The flaps on the wing were made of a load of bits and they turned up in kit form and one said ‘left side’ and one said ‘right side’, and as you walk up to the front wing obviously you’d put the left side bits on the left side and the right on the right — but as you are looking at it face-on it is actually the right side on your left! But the guy doing it only made the mistake on one wing, so one car was as it should be — as it was designed — and the other had the parts the opposite way round!”

Andrew Shovlin, Jenson Button’s race engineer
“That front wing mistake was on Rubens’ car in Barcelona on Saturday morning — it was the flaps that had been put on back to front that gave a lot more front end aerodynamic performance. It wasn’t better overall because you had an awful lot of front end grip and it unbalanced the car, but there were a few of those incidents…

“The wheel shields on Jenson’s car in Monaco were put on back-to-front because they had a slash cut across them and the hole should have been at the front, but when the guy was building them he thought that it needed to be at the back!

“The thing was, there was no documentation for it because there was no spare capacity in the factory to write the manuals for them. There was a drawing there, but the drawing didn’t make clear the orientation on the car.

“We realised the mistake after qualifying and we asked the FIA technical delegate, Joe Bauer, if, because they were the same parts, we could take them off and put them back in the right way, but he said no that’s the way it has to race now. I later saw a model of the car from Jenson’s Monaco win and it was reproduced accurately to our incorrect build!”

A tense finish

After the first six wins, the better funded teams closed the gap in the second half of the season, meaning Button and Barrichello were often fighting from mid-grid positions to add to the team’s points tally.

Wins for Barrichello in Valencia and Monza were key to keeping Brawn’s rivals at bay and pushed the team within half a point of the constructors’ title with two races remaining, but there was still some doubt Button would seal the drivers’ title at the penultimate round in Brazil.

James Vowels, Chief strategist
“Jenson wasn’t performing at the end of the year and he was struggling a lot with the pressure. It was his first championship fight he’d been in and as the year went on we got into a situation where the car just was not fast enough to compete for wins. When it was very cold we struggled to generate the temperature we needed to turn the tyres on, but our competitors by this point had maybe more downforce than we did so it wasn’t a problem for them, and it troubled Jenson.

“He lost faith with it and he surrounded himself more and more with a circle of friends that said to him, ‘It’s not you, you are incredible, you are the world champion’. So then it was the team’s fault and it created this disparity and lack of trust.

“We kept saying to him, ‘We get your point, but you have to trust us, we are doing everything we can but there’s not much more we can do with this’. We told him he could still win the championship and Brazil was actually a turning point because he just snapped and suddenly realised he could lose it if he didn’t perform.

“I was telling him he still had a chance, but until that point, race by race, you could just see him getting less and less confident in what was going on, and that’s what can happen with a racing driver. Racing drivers perform at their best when they are in harmony with themselves and with the team and that’s not what was happening with him.”

Andrew Shovlin, Jenson Button’s race engineer
“There was a lot of worry there. He was worried about things going wrong: ‘What if we lose this, what if we are not quick enough etc.’ and the development of the car by that point was practically nil. So you’ve got that horrible feeling that you have got a lead but everyone is chasing you down and it won’t be long until they are with you. That’s quite an unpleasant pressure.

“But saying that, Jenson tended to put good races tigether — there weren’t many bad races that year — and he was good at recovering positions. But it was a lot of pressure for him and he didn’t have a lot of support because we were all in a championship battle for the first time as well.

“I’d never done it before, so back then I didn’t know if we were going to have a happy ending … and we thought, probably, we wouldn’t have a happy ending because we just couldn’t compete with the others by that stage

“We were very keen not to go to the final round in Abu Dhabi and have to win it, because history tells you that championships can take some funny twists and turns when they go down to the wire in a final race. I had a sense, and I think Jenson shared it, that if it went to Abu Dhabi it would go badly for us. There was just this real concern and it didn’t feel like that was going to work for us.”

Simon Cole, Trackside engineer
“Brazil was interesting because by that point in the championship we had run out of performance and we were running on empty. We were not quick anymore. We were obviously getting close to winning the drivers’ championship with Jenson, but he had a terrible qualifying session and started the race way out of position in 14th and he was a bit despondent before the race.

“But I remember saying to him, this could be a great race for you because you are massively out of position and it will be easy to get past people — it might rain, whatever, it will be alright. And it was, it was a great race and he just kept making up positions and of course the cameras were following who was leading, but in the background there was the story about us actually consolidating a championship.”

Martin McCracken, rear end mechanic on Button’s car
“From the second that Jenson crossed the line in fifth place to secure the title, it really was amazing. It’s hard to describe, that feeling, that you’ve been trying for a year to do it and now it’s over. It was quite amazing.

“The celebrations started soon after and it was the first time ever I had a couple of tins in the garage after the race and it went on into the evening. A great way to celebrate properly.”

Andrew Shovlin, Jenson Button’s race engineer
“I remember the feeling because I keep wondering if I’ll get it again and I haven’t quite. It’s just such an enormous relief. We were all out the back of the garage celebrating and our CEO Nick Fry was busy reorganising people’s flights because we were all due to be going off on the Sunday because it saved money on a night in a hotel.

“But the sense of relief was enormous. When you have never really wanted anything more in your whole life and you achieved it, it’s an enormous weight off your shoulders, especially when you knew the whole thing was resting in such a fragile position.”

Simon Cole, Trackside engineer
“For the Brazil race we had a sponsorship deal with the beer brand Itaipava, which was basically: ‘Give us a fridge full of beer and we’ll put your name on the side of the championship-winning car’ — that was where we had got to! Even now people must be wondering what Itaipava is because it’s a tiny Sao Paulo brewery — I mean, I could say something about the quality of the beer, but I won’t.

“So we got about two cubic metres of beer, drank about one cubic metre and put the other one in the sea container and divided it among the employees back at the factory. Everyone got about three cans each, I think!”

Rob Chant, trackside electronics
“We were in the garage and I’ve never been ordered to drink while at work before, but we did! I don’t think it’s a very safe thing to do, but we did it anyway and all that stress from the year just disappeared from everyone and we had a massive party that evening.

“They kicked us out of the nightclub at 4:30am and a collection of us tried to give Ross ‘the bumps’ on the way out. We managed it, but he is a big man — lots of places to hold him, I guess — but we were giving him bumps in the night club.”

Nathan Divey, No.1 mechanic on Rubens Barrichello’s car
“I have a video from that party, which was from the very end of the night. All the race team, mechanics and truckies, were downstairs on the dancefloor in this nightclub and Ross was stood up on the balcony with his wife and Shov and Simon Cole.

“Everyone just started singing ‘Champione!’ to him and this went on for over five minutes with everyone bouncing around down below. In the end Ross put his hands up in the air and we all stopped as he gave a speech. It was something along the lines of: ‘What an amazing year, we’ve all had a good night but now we should probably go home!'”

Rob Chant, trackside electronics
“I remember the bar receipt at the end of the night — it was several feet long when it came out of the till and the barman was picking it up like a streamer! People were just drinking to celebrate what we had achieved because we hadn’t really celebrated much that year. But when we did, they were the memorable nights — as well as the memories of helping your roommate out of the hotel and onto the airport transfer the next morning because you’d had a such a good time!”

The aftermath

The season ended with Brawn GP becoming the first team in F1 history to win both championships in its debut year. The story was a remarkable one, but in the background the team management had been in discussions with Mercedes about a buyout, reported to be worth £110 million.

Despite the fresh investment from one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world, newly-crowned champion Jenson Button had already made his mind up to leave the team for McLaren. The absence of the reigning world champion left a big hole in the driver line-up for 2010, but it was a hole big enough to tempt seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher out of retirement…

Nicole Bearne, Executive assistant to Ross Brawn
“We were all talking about 2010 and what was going to happen and obviously Jenson had just disappeared into the sunset. We actually found out from McLaren’s press release that he was leaving and it was on the same day that Jenson was at the factory signing autographs for the whole team.

“So he came in for this afternoon of signing and then somebody walked into the room with a copy of the press release and put it in front of him and said, ‘Would you sign that for me?’ I was like, ‘Oh! We didn’t know McLaren were putting that out’.

“I don’t know whether McLaren jumped the gun a bit, but it was funny that one of our team members handed it to Jenson and asked him to sign it. So the feeling was kind of like: ‘We just lost our world champion what are we going to do now?’

Nathan Divey, No.1 mechanic on Rubens Barrichello’s car
“It was the week before the Christmas party in 2009 and all of a sudden we were told we needed to do a seat fit. So I said ‘Right, OK … when do we need to do it?’ and it turned out it was the Saturday afternoon before the party. We thought that it was an odd time to do a seat fit, but we got some people together and got the mock-up car ready for whoever was coming in.

“Jenson had already said he was leaving by that point and I think most people had felt a little bit hurt by that because we had gone through so much and it felt like he had just taken the money and run — even if that wasn’t the case. But more than anything else we just felt a bit disappointed that we wouldn’t get to race the car with No.1 on our car in 2010.

“Then we turned up for the seat fit and I was like ‘Ah, I see why that is such a big deal now!’ I remember walking in and someone said, just have a look in that helmet bag over there, so I opened the zip and was like ‘Wow! I recognise that!’ A couple of hours later we met Michael and he’d come out of retirement, which was an equally special feeling because Ross had managed to tempt Michael to come back.”

Nicole Bearne, Executive assistant to Ross Brawn
“We pulled a bit of a stunt with the staff because we didn’t tell them straight away. So we got everybody together in our auditorium and we had Michael arrive and get dropped off around the back of the factory. I went down and met him when everybody was already in the auditorium and brought him up the back stairs and we loitered outside the door until Ross got to the point where he was ready to announce our new replacement driver for Jenson … he did a very good job at underplaying it.

“And then eventually he just said, ‘I would like to welcome to the team our new driver, Michael Schumacher.’ We opened the door and Michael walked in and the roof went off the top of that auditorium! The place just erupted with cheering and screaming.

“You know, Michael was kind of blown away by it, but again it was definitely one of those moments throughout the year where the steam got let off. At various different times we let the steam off and those were the moments where you just go, ‘Oh my gosh!’ You could feel that there was this tension underneath and then all of a sudden something would happen and it would just go.”

Andrew Moody, Manager of paint and graphics
“The Brawn year has stayed with me massively for years and years; in a positive way and in a I-really-hope-we-don’t-have-to-do-that-again way. That’s because when you still had a job and you’d won the two races you’d be ecstatic, but then you’d bump into someone at Tesco’s who’d been made redundant and you’d want to say how brilliant things were but you couldn’t. Because although the company were very good and looked after people that had to go, it was very difficult. That stayed with me for a couple of years.”

Peter Hodgkinson, Car build operations manager
2009 taught you a lot about how quick you could adapt and go from being one sort of racing team to another sort of racing team. It taught us what we needed to do to survive and the decisions we needed to take and how you needed to park up your own personal feelings and do what you needed to do 100 percent for this deal you are involved in.

“Because after the summer you realised, crikey, this is really special — if we do this, no one is ever going to forget this. Ever. At time we knew it was something pretty special and those of us that are still here have a really tight bond to this day.”

The Mercedes team of 2010 went on to become the Mercedes team of today, which has just secured its sixth consecutive double world championship. All of the people interviewed for this article were working for Brawn in 2009 and are still working at Brackley ten years later.

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