Illustration by Minnie Leaver
In 2008, £1 could buy you one song on iTunes, seven Freddos, or the Honda Formula One team.
Having endured a torrid two years trundling around at the back of the grid, in a curious blue and green livery that looked like it had been designed by candidates on The Apprentice, Honda pulled the plug on the sport when the financial crisis struck. No more F1, just like that. But the team had spent the last year designing the 2009 car, and laying off hundreds of people as the world entered the Great Recession would have an obvious human cost. So the Honda Team Principal, Ross Brawn, agreed to buy the team for £1 and rename it Brawn GP. They had no sponsors, no engine, and no prospects, but it would give people more time to find new jobs. It would be, at least, one final hurrah.
Little did anyone suspect that while Honda had been languishing in last in 2008, they’d made a bloody good car for 2009. The best on the grid, actually. They’d found a loophole in the new car regulations that gave them much more grip, and their season would be extraordinary.
They showed up to pre-season testing and set some quick times, but that could be explained away: less fuel than other cars, or trying harder to set a quick lap to attract sponsors. What couldn’t be explained away was qualifying first and second on the grid in the first race in Australia. And their first and second place in the race the following day. And their win in the race after. In fact, Jenson Button would win six of the first seven races for Brawn GP.
Their unexpected success was plain to see in Monaco, one of the most prestigious races on the calendar. After winning the race, Button was meant to park his car on the pit straight, a short hop from the podium. But he was still so unused to the success, as was his team, that he pulled into the pits at the end of the race like everyone else. Realising his mistake, he then had to run the entire length of the track to get to the podium, with the King of Monaco standing, waiting to present the trophies, somewhat bemused that his winner had gone missing. But royalty could wait for Brawn GP. Button bounded around the track on foot, waving to the crowds. A victory lap for the people’s team. They were on top of the world.
Of course, it didn’t last. How could it? They just didn’t have enough money to improve the car throughout the season. They were treading water while other teams caught up. After those six wins in seven races, they could only manage third and sixth in Britain, fifth and sixth in Germany and seventh and tenth in Hungary. They were in a nosedive.
The rest of the season was characterised by one question: not whether Brawn GP and Button could regain their form from the start of the season — that was clearly gone — but whether the gap they’d amassed in the first seven races was enough.
This was, I must admit, a traumatic time to be a Button fan. One particularly brutal qualifying session saw seven-year-old Jacob, who would, at the time, not be seen dead without his Jenson Button cap, run upstairs in floods of tears, his head capitulating into his mattress. So I’ll spare you the details of the second half of the season. Enjoy these graphs instead.
Ultimately, Brawn GP and Button did hold on, winning both the team and the drivers’ championship. The fairytale was complete.
I chose to start this column (welcome, by the way) with the Brawn story because, besides being a great sports story, there are several parallels between 2009 and 2022. For one, both years have seen large car regulation changes that have shaken up the running order. For another, 2009 showed that brains can beat (excuse the pun) brawn; money isn’t everything. That’s an important thing to remember this year, the first season with a cost cap. And just as Honda pulled out of F1 in 2008, they did so again in 2021 (having rejoined as an engine supplier in the intervening years).
But in truth, it’s wrong to talk about the parallels to that magical Brawn year. What they achieved was extraordinary. It may never be done again.