As underdog sporting tales go, the story of the Brawn F1 team’s unlikely triumph in 2009 has it all. From down and out, the team bought for £1 became title favourites overnight, were hunted by their rivals but held out for a last-gasp dip over the finishing line. They were an anomaly and their feat, one surely all but unrepeatable, is captured in an aptly titled new, four-part Disney series Brawn: The Impossible F1 Story.
The Formula One racing world is currently experiencing a surge in popularity, partially due to the success of the Netflix show Drive to Survive. However, this success also coincides with a period of dominance by Red Bull and their driver, Max Verstappen. This follows a previous era of supremacy by Mercedes, the team that acquired Brawn at the conclusion of the 2009 season.
Starting this Wednesday on Disney+, a captivating story will be told over four hour-long episodes. It all begins with the unexpected withdrawal of Honda from the sport, and the subsequent purchase of the team for £1 by Ross Brawn, the team principal.
This discusses how, under the leadership of Brawn and CEO Nick Fry, the team not only survived with limited resources and staff, but also found a way to take advantage of a loophole in regulations meant to decrease downforce. They implemented the double diffuser design, which greatly increased the car’s downforce and surprised other teams during pre-season testing.
Jenson Button was victorious in six out of the first seven races. However, as the other teams created their own diffusers, they caught up and surpassed the financially struggling Brawn team. This led to a highly intense end of the season, but in the end, Brawn and Button were able to secure both titles at the penultimate race at Interlagos.
Although it was promoted as an F1 fairytale, it remains true to the harsh reality of a highly competitive sport. Actor Keanu Reeves takes on the roles of host and narrator, guiding us through the story and interviewing key figures such as Brawn, Button, and F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone. While he may not seem like an obvious choice, his evident enthusiasm and expertise in the sport is undeniable.
Additionally, he has access to exceptional material for his work. This includes previously unseen footage and unheard radio transmissions that were discovered in F1’s Biggin Hill archives. He also has a variety of individuals from that time period to interview, not just the main figures involved. This includes Gary Holland, who initially left his job as a fuel man to become a plumber, but was later brought back due to his invaluable skills during pit stops. Brawn’s wife, Jean, also contributes her perspective on what was seen as a risky endeavor. These interviews provide a well-rounded account of F1 stories, which are often only told from the perspective of a few prominent individuals.
Not that the leads are not compelling. Button is honest in his reflections as he describes the mental difficulties that beset his driving and the intense pressure as the season reached the business end and as Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel loomed large and the title looked to be slipping from his grasp. “I felt like the whole world was watching me fail,” he says.
Luca di Montezemolo, the previous leader of Ferrari, remains displeased with what he believes to be the dubious legality of the Brawn car. Similarly, Christian Horner of Red Bull is also frustrated as his team later excelled with the diffuser technology, led by Vettel in subsequent seasons.
The impact of Drive to Survive cannot be disregarded, but this is a unique entity. The intensity is not fabricated, but rather emerges from the narrative and a pace that skillfully balances both specific details and broad strokes to engage all audiences, not just those interested in sports.
Although F1 is primarily focused on racing, politics also plays a role. In 2009, the formation of the Formula One Teams Association and their conflict with Ecclestone and then FIA president, Max Mosley, sparked the possibility of a breakaway championship. The controversy surrounding the use of double diffusers also caused court protests. These events were significant in the season, but may have lost the interest of casual fans. However, the fact that they were included in the narrative shows a dedication to providing a comprehensive story without sacrificing context. This goal is commendable and could be considered a success by the producers.