Nick Fry book extract: How we signed F1 legend Michael Schumacher for Brawn GP
And it all started with a few beers at a party in Abu Dhabi...
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 both the constructors’ and the drivers’ championships in 2009.
After this success the team was bought by Mercedes, but with Brawn's world champion Jenson Button leaving for McLaren, Nick and Ross needed to find a new driver.
In this 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 they managed to sign perhaps the greatest F1 driver in history...
I had never been a Michael Schumacher fan. Probably like most people in England who followed motor racing, I was brought up on the caricature of him as a dastardly German who beat Damon Hill in an unfair way to win the world championship in 1994.
But as our 2009 championship-winning season drew to a close and we prepared for life under Mercedes ownership, we were short of a second driver. Jenson was jumping ship to McLaren and we had already decided to replace Rubens. We had Nico waiting in the wings, but who else could we get?
Nico Rosberg (L) was already signed up – but the team still needed another driver
By then, most drivers were already committed for the following season and we were really stuck. We looked at Nick Heidfeld, then with BMW Sauber, but he had not won a race in ten seasons and he was hardly the superstar that Mercedes were looking for. It was pretty clear to both Ross and I that we were being asked to find a potential world champion or an existing world champion, and Heidfeld didn’t fit that bill.
People often assume that there was some sort of grand plan to bring Michael back, harnessed to a returning Mercedes as a full works team in Formula One for the first time in fifty-five years. But the truth of it was that we never anticipated ending up with two German drivers and nor did Mercedes particularly want that. There was no pressure on us from them to hire Michael.
The key moment came as Ross and I were celebrating our championship win with everyone else at the after-party at the Amber Lounge in Abu Dhabi. Both of us had had a few beers and we noticed that Michael was there, enjoying meeting old friends and looking very relaxed. It occurred to me, then and there, that he might well be interested in driving for us – after all, we had just won the championship and we had a new and ambitious team owner on board.
Brawn had just won the championship and had been bought by Mercedes – but both 2009 drivers were leaving
‘Why don’t you go over and have a chat and see what he says?’ I shouted in Ross’s ear over the din of the music on the dance floor. Ross and I hadn’t discussed it before; it was just one of those things – Michael was there and we thought ‘let’s talk to him’.
Ross returned to the dance floor from Michael’s table with a big grin on his face.
‘He’s interested,’ he shouted.
‘Wow!’ I said.
It was from that encounter that the deal to put Michael in a Mercedes Formula One car for 2010 and the two seasons following was done. Getting Michael would dig us out of a huge hole. Looking back, I regard it as a coup to rank alongside saving the team, winning the world championship, selling the team to Mercedes, or signing Petronas.
The first time he came to Brackley was to sign his contract. The difficult part, for Ross and I, was working out what to offer him. We couldn’t decide.
It will be bigger than this, right? Michael checking out a mock-up of the new car at the Brackley factory
We didn’t want to insult Michael but we didn’t want to upset Mercedes either by giving away the shop. I remember sitting with Ross and having quite a jovial discussion about ‘where the hell do we pitch this?’ On the one hand he was a multiple world champion who, in his pomp, would have commanded the highest salary on the grid; on the other hand, he had been out of the sport for three years and this was really his swansong. In the end we settled on a figure that was around two-thirds of the £30 million top-end benchmark that Fernando Alonso was reputed to be earning.
There was no doubt that Michael was still quick during those final three seasons at Mercedes, even in his early forties. The unfortunate thing was that we were never able to give him a car that was competitive at the front end of the grid.
One of the things I regret in all my motor racing career is that we never won with Michael. That would have been the icing on the cake. He drove fifty-eight Grand Prix for us in three years and managed only one podium.
Michael back on the podium with Mercedes
Michael may have come back hoping to add to his incredible tally of race wins and pole positions, but it was not to be. For the first time in his career, he was outdriven in 2010 and 2011 by his teammate in almost every category that he and Nico could be compared.
We wanted to win so desperately and Michael had been used to winning with Ross, so there was an expectation that the combination of Ross Brawn, Michael and Mercedes would dominate, but we didn’t.
The stats show that Michael was still quick right to the end and that he could take Nico on and beat him. Of course, Nico then turned out to be as quick as Lewis on occasion, even if Lewis was clearly ahead overall in the four seasons that they raced together. But I believe to this day that Michael would have been more than a match for Lewis if they had been around at the same time and in the same car.
To read more, you can purchase the book – which is out now – by tapping this link.