When a fledgling team was formed from the ashes of Honda Racing F1, nobody expected it to challenge the established players. Brawn GP had other ideas…
The Brawn team’s dream season rising from the ashes of Honda Racing F1 with Jenson Button behind the wheel
THERE WAS NO EXPECTATION THAT THE TEAM WOULD ACHIEVE ANYTHING
NEITHER JENSON BUTTON NOR HIS ENGINEERS COULD quite believe it. The new Brawn BGP 001 felt responsive and predictable around the Circuit de Catalunya, but as ‘Jense’ came trundling back down the pitlane, he was hardly jumping out of the cockpit with joy at the car’s raw speed. But the stopwatch told a different story: a most unexpected one…
That year – 2009 – remains the only time that a team in Formula 1 has won the championship in its debut season. Yes, you could argue there’s an element of semantics at work, given the Brawn team had already existed for three years as Honda Racing F1. Then again, if you wanted to play that game, you could say the 2009 double champion combination was really the ghost of Ken Tyrrell: British American Racing bought the Tyrrell team at the end of 1997, which became BAR-Honda, which became… well, you get the idea. In fact, a return to the Tyrrell name was even considered for 2009’s newest team.
What made this such a memorable moment was the unexpected nature of Brawn’s success. It was a rags-to-riches tale, by F1 standards at least, of unprecedented proportions. (At many points over the winter of 2008 it looked unlikely the team would even survive.) Even more so, there was next to no expectation that the team, based on its previous Honda-branded form, would achieve anything at all. After all, it was fresh off the back of two utterly miserable seasons, which included the schmaltzy, toe-curlingly naff ‘Earth Dreams’ livery that replaced virtually all external sponsorship and coincidentally marked a significant drop in form from the glory years of Button’s 3rd overall in the 2004 championship.
It began with the credit crunch. You remember: that moment when the world seemed to implode back in 2008 and, even in
F1, spraying the cash around no longer became prudent or even possible. For Honda, haemorrhaging money back home and unwilling to publicly be seen to pay a rumoured $300 million a year on something as frivolous as an F1 team, enough was enough. It wanted out, and so team principal Ross Brawn was summoned to a meeting at a London hotel and, without any prior warning, the announcement was made of Honda’s immediate withdrawal.
There followed a winter of teetering on the brink, with potential suitors materialising and then vanishing or discarded; for Button and fellow Honda incumbent Rubens Barrichello it was too late to realistically secure a top drive for 2009. They just had to sit and wait. Eventually, in March it was announced that a management buy-out by Brawn and CEO Nick Fry had succeeded, and that the team would
be known as Brawn GP, with the first car called the BGP 001. The team secured a Mercedes customer engine deal, although it required a number of compromises for it to fit in a chassis designed for the Honda V8.
What the opposition didn’t know was that far from being destined for another life of cannon fodder at the back of the grid, the proposed Honda RA109 for 2009 had been in gestation for a long time. Realising it had a turkey on its hands early in the 2008 season, and with significant rule changes for 2009 that included aero reduction, the return of slick tyres and the introduction of KERS, Honda – now with the mastery of Ross Brawn at the helm – had got down to work early.
The ace up Brawn’s sleeve was the so-called ‘double diffuser’. Instead of the top of the inverted U-section being the upper limit of the diffuser, Brawn used the crash structure to raise the height above the stipulated maximum. Was it legal? The rule-makers and lawyers eventually decreed it was, but only after other teams protested and Button’s early victories hung in the balance.
Oh to have been a fly on the wall when Button and Barrichello topped pre-season testing, first at Barcelona, and then at Jerez. It wasn’t just running light to attract sponsorship either: come Melbourne for the first race, and Button scored a historic victory for the debuting team, and he would go on to win six of the first seven races, leaving the established teams gasping in his wake.
Naturally, it couldn’t last. Brawn’s finances didn’t allow for much in-season development, and like a swarm of angry bees, Red Bull and McLaren were soon eating away at the
Brackley team’s advantage. Barrichello would score wins at Valencia and Monza, keeping him in the title hunt, but it was really whether Button and Brawn could absorb the pressure, keep scoring points, and hang on as Sebastian Vettel closed in. They could, securing both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles at the penultimate race in Interlagos, Brazil. It was the last time a privateer team would achieve such success, and unless there’s a significant redistribution of F1’s status quo, will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. F1’s very own fairy-tale ending.
THE ACE UP BRAWN’S SLEEVE WAS THE ‘DOUBLE DIFFUSER’
Top: Rubens Barrichello celebrates winning at Monza. Above: Button and Barrichello achieved 15 podium finishes between them during the 2009 season