Have Brawn also made a big mistake?

November 18, 2009

Is Ross still smiling?

So it looks like Jenson has decided to go down the well paid number 2 retirement plan option, from which he’ll make a lot of money, but won’t become world champion again – it’s a big shame. However what about Brawn or rather Mercedes GP? Have they messed up? It looks like they’ve gone from a strong driver line up (Button/Rosberg) to two drivers who have yet to win races, one of which (if it happens for Heidfeld) is very much in the latter stages of his career.

Well, as ever, I have a theory on this. The first part is that Mercedes (unlike McLaren) do not have any deep pocketed sponsors lined up that would give them the flexibility they need in extending driver packages. In 2009 with the exception of the opportunistic Virgin tie up, Brawn seemed to be very much hand to mouth in terms of sponsors including using the signature characteristic of struggling F1 teams – race by race sponsorship. BAR/Honda had never had an acquisitive commercial department, as they had never needed one. Until 2009 they had always been working with their owners’ marketing strategy and have never had to go out and get sponsors. So it will be interesting to see if Mercedes GP are now able to get any topline sponsors, other than the Mercedes suppliers who have their arm twisted to put some money into the F1 Team. Current signs are that, apart from the nice payout to the management team in exchange for their shares, there isn’t a lot of cash washing around in Brackley.

The second part of my theory is that Ross is following the strategy of his old boss Frank Williams; that it is better to spend an extra few million on improving the car rather than spending it on the driver, and although driver salaries are outside the cost cutting targets that have been mooted, cash is cash and if it is limited (see first part of my theory) then saving a few million and getting some ‘good’ drivers as opposed to a world champion is a good tradeoff. It also means that if things go well for Mercedes in 2010 it will be seen as being the team and the car that are the basis of success rather than the driver. This follows very much in the Williams philosophy. When Damon Hill left Williams at the end of 1996, as they were unable to agree terms, Patrick Head made the following comment in the Sunday Times: “We are an engineering company and that is what we focus on. Ferrari are probably the only team where you can say the driver is of paramount importance and that is because [Michael] Schumacher is three-quarters of a second a lap quicker than anyone else.”

This approach underlines a number of interesting factors: first it suggests that Ross and the team do not see Jenson as being in the M.Schumacher category of being three-quarters of a second quicker, the only two drivers that are close to this would be Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, who are both tied into contracts with McLaren and Ferrari respectively. Second, it makes sense for Mercedes GP to focus on bedding down the new relationship in 2010 with a couple of drivers who, if they don’t win anything, nobody will be particularly surprised, and if they do win we will attribute to Ross Brawn working his magic once more, and drivers will be beating a path to their door. Of course there is always the possibility of a M.Schumacher comeback (health permitting) – now that is probably something that would get Mercedes reaching into their pockets big time.

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