Nick Fry book extract: How Brawn GP almost joined the Manchester United empire
In late 2008, Honda shocked the motor racing world by announcing they were pulling out of Formula 1 with immediate effect.
Chief executive Nick Fry and team principal Ross Brawn led a management buyout of the company to create Brawn GP, which went on to win six of the first seven races of the year.
But both Nick and Ross knew they needed outside investment if they were to keep the team afloat in 2010 and beyond.
In our fifth exclusive extract from Nick’s new book on the Brawn story – 'Survive. Drive. Win. The inside Story of Brawn GP and Jenson Button's Incredible F1 Championship Win' – he explains how the team almost became part of the Manchester United sporting empire...
Our finance director Nigel Kerr and I had flown to Germany for one of our regular meetings with Norbert Haug, the head of motorsport at Mercedes Benz, our engine suppliers. This was a run-of-the-mill update session with Norbert.
We opened the meeting by running through where we were in terms of getting sponsors and the general financial shape of the company. It wasn’t the focus of discussion, but we also intimated that there were several people who were interested in investing in the company, and that was when Norbert piped up out of the blue: ‘Well, Nick, we might be interested too.’
‘Oh... OK... well, that’s certainly an interesting idea,’ I offered rather meekly in response as my pulse quickened. It became clear to both Nigel and I that they had come to the meeting with a mandate from the very top to go after us.
Norbert Haug pictured on the podium, celebrating Mercedes' first win of the modern era as a constructor at the Chinese GP in 2012
It was an exciting moment, to put it mildly – we had been dealing with some flaky would-be buyers up until then and there we were, at the heart of one of the finest automotive engineering companies in the world, being told they might be interested in investing in us.
There were two other parties looking at us. The first was the Glazer family – the American owners of Manchester United and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL. In March we began discussions with Ed Woodward, who was then running Manchester United’s commercial and media operations. Woodward is now executive vice-chairman and the top operational executive at Old Trafford.
While our negotiations with Mercedes Benz were time-consuming, analytical and detail-orientated – exactly what you would expect in a big corporate organization – our discussions with Woodward at his office in London’s Pall Mall were more casual. He was someone we could quickly see was on our wavelength, and he was smart and financially orientated.
Even at that stage the commercial organization of Manchester United was very impressive, with about forty people in London alone working on sponsorship projects.
The deal would have seen Brawn join the same portfolio as Manchester United Football Club
Ed was fun to work with and he had a strong vision for the team and how it could work alongside the football part of the Glazer portfolio, which we found attractive. His idea was that if you already have a big sponsorship team and management structure at Manchester United, why not use that to run a Formula One team too? He was excited by the prospect of having Ross Brawn, a Formula One legend in his prime, alongside Sir Alex Ferguson, then still very much at the top of his game, as two icons of British sport in the same stable. It also just so happened that Ross is a big Manchester United supporter, so that fitted nicely too. Indeed, at one point Ross went to Old Trafford to see a match and met members of the Glazer family to discuss this proposition.
Another person showing interest was Tony Fernandes, the ambitious and impressively successful owner of the no-frills Malaysian airline, Air Asia.
The next step with Mercedes was the announcement and signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in early August, summarizing our plans to sell the team and their plans to buy it. This was not a legally binding document but it moved the deal closer to reality. In fact by that stage Ross and I and our fellow directors were clear in our minds that Mercedes was by far the best option.
It was interesting because we all felt much happier with Woodward and the entrepreneurial Glazer culture and, in one of our final board meetings at Brackley to discuss our options, we held two votes in a semi-serious spirit.
Ross Brawn as team principal was a big draw for the Manchester United chief Ed Woodward
‘Who in our hearts would we prefer to own the team?’ asked Ross. ‘All those in favour of Mercedes raise their hands.’
There was no response.
‘And those in favour of the Glazers?’
All five directors raised their hands.
‘OK, so who in our heads do we think should get it? Those in favour of Mercedes?’
Once again, all five hands pointed skywards. It was clear that, although we all wanted the team to go to the Manchester United stable, it was a no-brainer in motor racing terms that it would be owned by the people in Stuttgart.
Mercedes was prepared to pay a decent price but it is likely that we would have got even more money from the Glazers. That was because Ed Woodward was offering a much more performance-orientated deal that would have paid out handsomely as a result of the team’s subsequent successes.
The Brawn team's success could have led to an even bigger purchase price when the outfit was sold
We never got into this level of detail with Woodward, but what was clear was that he and his team at Manchester United were more interested in working with us than us working for them.
These things always take much longer than you ever anticipate or want. We couldn’t let ourselves get over-excited until it actually happened because there were so many hurdles in the way. Ultimately it could rest on whether we won the championship or not – it wasn’t a requirement of the deal but we were well aware that people can change their minds. And on that score our fortunes were about to change quite dramatically...
To read more, you can purchase the book – which is out now – by tapping this link.
Though Mercedes would eventually buy the team, it could have ended up with a very different owner. This is the story of the day F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone asked Nick about buying the team himself:
Nick also took time out to answer YOUR questions about the Brawn team, that 2009 season – and what it was like to work with Michael Schumacher. Watch here: