How Brawn is banning F1’s Brawns of the future

Ross Brawn putting a stop to future Ross Brawn's
Ross Brawn putting a stop to future Ross Brawn's

What do you remember about the 2009 Formula 1 World Championship? The dawning of Red Bull's soon-to-be utter dominance? (Probably not). The fact that a struggling Kimi Raikkonen would soon swap his Ferrari for a NASCAR? (Oh, was that '09?) The return of slicks? (Nah).

No, what you undoubtedly remember is Brawn GP. Or, more accurately, the double diffuser.

Over the preceding winter, Honda had suddenly and completely pulled the plug on Formula 1, leaving the three Bs – Ross Brawn, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello – with a mighty car on their hands but no money and no engine.

And you don't go very far in your Fiat Punto, let alone around the manicured circuits at the pinnacle of motorsport, without a few truckloads of cash and a few more motors.

I'll save you the details, but basically Ross and a supporting crew of innovative individuals – who knew the incredible secret of the as-yet unlaunched BGP001 – would rather have pushed the 2009 car around the track than pack it up into mothballs. So they performed an impressive and high-risk management takeover, bolted and hammered a rented Mercedes engine to the back, and high-tailed it to Silverstone and then Barcelona to see if it fired up and worked.

Oh boy, did it work.

So stunningly quick was the white and fluro Brawn that the team had to rapidly add fuel, more fuel, even more fuel, and then actual ballast to hide from the competition how gosh-darn fast it was.

Many were instantly reminded of 1978, when a Bernie Ecclestone-run Brabham team turned up halfway through the season with a bin lid (yes, an actual bin lid) half-attached to the back of the car. What lay beneath the bin was an enormous fan that generated so much suction that it risked doing actual damage to the top layer of asphalt.

The FIA was powerless to ban it, and Ecclestone only agreed to a gentlemanly withdrawal because of his considerable political ambitions. But it is perhaps the most memorable example of what many consider Formula 1 to be best at:


And so it was a similar story all those years later in 2009, when after freaking out the FIA and every other team with the huge advantage of the 'double diffuser', the governing body's appeals court had to admit that it had been out-smarted by people much smarter than the very smart people who wrote the 2009 rules. The double diffuser, which made ingenious use of a few gaping holes in the rules (and then strategically and actually cut those holes in the underbody instead), was fully legal, and Button went on to win a popular title.

Why was it popular: just because the likable Button broke through, or because the almost interstellar ingenuity of designers and engineers, all inspired by the boldness of their boss Ross Brawn, had triumphed in a true David vs Goliath moment against complacent and risk-averse giants like Ferrari?

But it's no longer 2009, double diffuser-sized holes in the rules have been plugged, and F1 'ingenuity' these days is still David vs Goliath – only in reverse. Ferrari found a huge advantage in the nauseatingly complex hybrid 'power unit' regulations last year, but no one could really applaud. Why not? Because while you could get a smart, bespectacled boffin in your local pub to explain the double diffuser and marvel at the creativity, Ferrari had found an advantage that many suspect even Ferrari itself can't fully explain. The other teams, and even the FIA rule makers, certainly couldn't.

Think of it like this: you build a supercomputer and then feed in a question that no human being could possibly answer. The answer may be amazing, but it's not exactly inspiring. The 'supercomputer' here is a team of men at Maranello who are powered less by grease-stained, Brawn-like, 4am innovation, and more by mountains of money. It's not so much impressive as … unobtainably expensive.

However, while the current regulations are no longer churning out truly innovative ideas that the cash-strapped Brawn GP of tomorrow might exploit, 2021 is (or was) set to be a very different story. Rarely have the regulations changed so markedly from one year (2020) to another (2021), and the conventional wisdom is that a valiant little guy like Racing Point, or a once-great marquee like McLaren, or an up-and-coming giant like Renault, might come up with another double diffuser-sized brainwave and take on the current Goliaths of the pitlane once again.

Or … not.

You may be stunned to learn that it is Ross Brawn himself, no longer a Ferrari, Mercedes and Brawn GP genius but F1's sporting boss under Liberty Media, who is drawing a line under the 'fan car' and 'double diffuser' era of Formula 1. Ahead of 2021, the message is "don't you dare".

In F1's fan car and double diffuser past, once the bin lid has been lifted and a fourth and fifth re-reading of the regulations loophole has been done and re-done, rival teams simply had to suck it up. Technically legal is properly legal, so get over it – that was Formula 1's innovation-inspiring mantra.

Until now. On Friday last, Brawn said this:

"If you exploit a loophole in the future, you can be shut down at the next race. If one team stands out there with a solution that has never been conceived, and has never been imagined, and destroys the whole principle of what is trying to be done (with the regulations), the governance would allow, with sufficient support from the other teams, to stop it. This is a whole different philosophy."

It sure is. The inventor of the double diffuser is killing all future double diffusers.

Now, he may be imagining that any threat to the unspoiled efficacy of the 2021 car concept is very bad for Formula 1, and the 'Mario Karts'-style show that his Liberty Media bosses may be imagining. But according to Gunther Steiner, boss of the small and daring Haas team, it is moves like Brawn's bland latest that may actually be the threat to the sport – and an existential one at that.

"Our sport is not only a sport, it's a show," Steiner acknowledges. "There is politics and celebrities and racing and all of that attracts people. The races have to be interesting, but that's not the only point.

"That's why I advocate that Formula 1 stays at a high technological level. If it turns into a mono-class, with all the teams with basically the same cars, in ten years it will not be interesting to anyone. There may be a lot of good races, but no one will be watching them. People follow F1 but only 30% of that is because of direct interest in the races," he added.

Hear, hear.

Brawn – who will go down in history as a truly innovative F1 pioneer – is setting himself up to also go down in history as the slayer of true little guy-style F1 innovation. That's sad, weird, but above all else, just plain dumb.

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