Last year, the motorsport boss made an estimated £35m from the sale of a majority stake in his For mula One racing team, Brawn GP, after it won both the constructors and drivers championships. This year, he has renewed his legendary partnership with driver Michael Schumacher, as principal of the Mercedes GP Petronas team, the new iteration of the team that Mr Brawn rescued when Honda pulled out of F1 in late 2008.
Mr Brawn, as an accidental entrepreneur, had more success in a year than some career entrepreneurs have in a lifetime. Last year was “thrilling” for both him and his management team. “We were working for ourselves and taking a risk,” he says. “But the way that I looked at it was that if we didn’t make a go of it we’d be no worse off in 12 months. We always kept sufficient funds to pay off our staff properly.”
At the same time, Mr Brawn discovered that running a business and racing team simultaneously was a difficult juggling act. “To perform in the best possible way, I’m happier not being the majority shareholder.”
Winning on the track matters more to him than making further millions as a team owner.
Talking in the London offices of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a charity that he supports, Mr Brawn is fretful at the team’s lacklustre performance this season. Mr Schumacher was fourth in last weekend’s Barcelona Grand Prix, for example. “Michael’s competitiveness is not at the right level. He hasn’t lost his talent, but we’re not shaping the car correctly,” says Mr Brawn, who won seven championships in partnership with the German driver, first at the Benetton team and later with Ferrari.
Brawn’s 2009 car, by contrast, was the correct shape. It featured an aerodynamic underside or “diffuser” that some rival teams claimed contravened the sport’s rules, even as they scrambled to copy the innovation. But they could not move fast enough to stop Brawn GP’s top driver, Jenson Button, winning the F1 championships.
The sale of a three-quarters stake in Brawn GP to Mercedes in November for an estimated £70m represented a commercial coup for the normally understated Mr Brawn in the wake of that sporting triumph.
In an abrupt turnround, Mr Brawn had switched from his role as troubleshooter recruited in 2007 by Honda to head of a management buy-out at the start of 2009. At the end of 2008 Honda announced it wanted to close its underperforming F1 team. Participating in the glamorous international motorsport series had become an unaffordable luxury for a carmaker badly affected by the recession, and it set a deadline of a couple of months into the new year, almost up to the start of the new F1 season.
Closure of the Northamptonshire-based team “would have been a tragedy”, says Mr Brawn. “All we would have been left with was the legacy of an unsuccessful team.” All the effort that Mr Brawn and his staff had expended in creating a world-beating car for the 2009 championships would have been wasted.
Mr Brawn persuaded Honda that the 700-strong team would attract a buyer. But the economic crisis meant that the big automotive companies the “safe hands”, as he terms them were not interested. When less substantial bidders came forward, hoping to take a punt on the team’s performance in 2009, Mr Brawn decided to take that gamble himself. He bought the Honda team in collaboration with fellow team executives for just £1 in March 2009.
Mr Brawn, an imposing figure in a well-cut suit and a blue check tie, says: “I owned a team by default.” Normally, he points out, he would have been leading a team backed by a big sponsor. “You’re working to a budget that is guaranteed two to three years ahead,” he says. “But here I was in a situation where there was no budget. You had to do as well as you could [on the track] and make the company as viable as possible while spending the minimum amount of money doing it.”
Brawn GP survived financially thanks to a £2m gift from Honda and sponsorship revenues that swelled as the team began to perform on the tarmac, as well as savage cost-cutting.
The team’s racing performance was bolstered when Ferrari and McLaren agreed that Brawn GP could use the same Mercedes engines that they did, in an example of bitter rivals burying their differences for the good of the sport. Daimler, owner of Mercedes, was so impressed with the results that it bought the Brawn team in conjunction with Middle Eastern investor Aabar.
Mr Brawn, who retains a 13 per cent stake, now focuses on team management, where his success has allowed him to develop a parallel career as a leadership guru (see left). One fruit of this is The Brawn Lifeboat Challenge. Teams from businesses such as Bar-clays bank, retailer John Lewis and Zurich Insurance are competing under Mr Brawn’s supervision to make the largest profit possible on £1,000. The proceeds will pay for a new lifeboat for the Tower Lifeboat Station on the Thames.
As a boss, Mr Brawn is determinedly low key. It makes a change from those motivational managers who shout and bang their desks. “He is an exceptional leader with a genuine touch of humility,” says Chris Aylett, chief executive of the Motor-sport Industry Association, the governing body for the sport in the UK. “His genius is a kind of outstanding common sense.”
Mr Brawn’s strength is that he can analyse how team members mesh together as cannily as he can assess how the components in a racing car function.
He attributes this skill to his early years as a general dogsbody at the Williams Formula One team, where he worked after an engineering apprenticeship at the UK Atomic Energy Authority. The job at Williams involved doing a bit of everything in many areas of the business from machining to van driving giving him invaluable experience and insights into many areas of operation.
“I have some authority on most subjects involved in motor racing,” he says. “People know that they can’t pull the wool over my eyes.” Track-side, he is known by the team as “the bear” or “the owl”, because of his stature and spectacles. Employees have worse nicknames for their bosses.
Mr Brawn grew up in an industrial district of Manchester and remains a fervent fan of Manchester United Football Club. But these days he lives in Henley-on-Thames, a wealthy town 40 minutes’ drive from his team’s headquarters.
His main leisure activity is tropical fly fishing, a form of angling that is active enough to suppress all stressful thoughts of F1 rankings, he says. He admits that he once caught a 100kg marlin in Mauritius. “Size is not the factor that drives me in my fishing,” he notes, understated as ever.
It is curious to reflect that Mr Brawn’s boyhood hobby of racing model electric vehicles paved the way to the personal fortune that facilitates this flashier adult pastime. Did his childhood Scalextric rivals back in 1960s Manchester ever complain that he had stuck the equivalent of an illegal diffuser on his car?
“No,” he muses. “But if you didn’t comply with the regulations, you could get kicked out of the race. The consequences just weren’t as serious as they are in my current position.”
The comparison amuses Mr Brawn so much that he cracks a fleeting smile.