🏎️ Nick Fry Talks to OLBG

Updated: 76 Motor Racing

Nick Fry reflects on Brawn GP's unique F1 win, suggests sport innovations, and discusses working with Schumacher and current roles, highlighting F1's evolution and challenges.

🏎️ Nick Fry Talks to OLBG
Andy Powell Content Editor

Horse Racing stats man, Andy has contributed to OLBG for 18 years - An Ipswich fan and F1 fanatic, he also contributes EFL football and Motor Sport opinion.

Interview January 2024

  • Brawn GP triumph was bigger than Leicester City winning the Premier League, Verstappen would still win if everyone drove same car and I didn’t like Michael Schumacher before everything changed
  • Nick Fry was CEO at Brawn GP during their unlikely, fairytale triumph with Jenson Button, which was recently retold in Disney documentary, Brawn GP: The Impossible F1 story.
  • Fry, who currently serves as the non-executive chairman of McLaren Applied, stayed in his position after the takeover of Mercedes, guiding them to their first ever F1 and world championship.

He exclusively tells OLBG about what makes an F1 team successful, working with Michael Schumacher and his predictions for the new season.

Q. Your time at Brawn GP is well-documented and you appeared in a Disney documentary about it. Can you see a storyline like that happening to another team? If so, who?

NF: "I would say there's very little chance of the storyline featured in Disney's Brawn GP documentary ever happening to another team. I think the circumstances were unique. There was a combination of the financial crisis, the fact that the team rose from mediocrity to huge success, survived with little money and the political environment of F1 was very complex. 

“We had no right to exist at the start of the season and received great support from the other teams but quickly became quite unpopular when we started to win! We were ultimately successful, which played into the fairytale side of things. We were like Leicester City winning the Premier League!

“Formula One is so technical, and I think our achievement was even better than that. We had a large number of people involved, all of whom contributed to the success, and it's extremely difficult to see that being repeated. 

“There will be lots of other great stories, but I believe that Brawn GP will be the only team that will exist for a little over a year and win both the Team and Drivers F1 World Championships. Maybe I'll be able to put that on my gravestone!”

Q. Did you think having so many teams who haven't got a hope of getting to the top is bad for F1?

NF: "I have to sadly admit that the homogeneity of F1 races is unhealthy for the sport as a whole. I think it's a major issue. 

“Football is the most successful sport because games can change in a matter of seconds. That's why people watch games right until the very end. It doesn't matter if your team is 2-1 down heading into extra-time, you've still got a chance of winning. That's what keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. 

“The teams, from top to bottom, are so good at what they do that it's difficult to see unexpected situations occur, apart from when it rains, as that throws a curveball that can produce unforeseen circumstances. 

“Formula One has constantly struggled with this issue. I can't begin to count the number of meetings I've sat in where we've been asked how we can introduce the type of randomness you get with wet weather! It can’t be contrived excitement so it's quite difficult to find mechanisms to introduce competition through the field . 

“The teams are almost too good at what they do. When I started, you could almost rely on the fact that 20% of the field would drop out due to crashing or breaking down. Nobody does that anymore. It's very unusual to see cars stopped by the side of the track. 

“Refueling is dangerous for the people involved, but it did add another element of unpredictability. 

“Formula One has had a great run over the last few years and Netflix has massively helped that. I do, however, think the sport needs to come up with more variations beyond the location. The viewing figures are going down without a doubt, especially in the US, and they need to figure out ways to restore them. 

“People are hoping that someone can challenge Red Bull and Max Verstappen. It would be great for the sport if someone could, but if it doesn't, they'll have to find other ways of making it interesting. 

“Formula One is trying to compete for the public's time on a Sunday afternoon and they have plenty of other things to do, particularly in the summer." 

Q. What solutions do you think Formula One should come up with? 

NF - "There are two avenues F1 could explore if they're serious about making the sport more unpredictable. One would be to maneuver the technical regulations to provide a flatter playing field, but history shows that such strategies rarely work. That's been tried numerous times, and the reality is that a good big side will always beat a good little one and the teams with most or the best resource find the optimum solution first. 

“My view is that F1 has to do it through the sporting regulations. That means the format of the race and the number of pit stops, the way you use your tyres, and so on. I don't know what the answer is, but I think it's in that area. 

“The solutions have to be fairly radical. Think back to some of the interesting steps that have been made, like the knockout qualifying format. That was actually developed by the teams during the threatened breakaway in 2009. We were thinking about going our own way from the FIA. A lot of teams have taken credit for the qualifying process, but it was actually Red Bull's idea! It was the brainchild of Red Bull's marketing team and a person from the Honda team. 

“I think Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore claimed credit for it, but it wasn't them at all! It came from working-level people! I'd say that F1 has to implement similar ideas, but they have to enact them during the races, not just in qualifying."

Q. Johnny Herbert suggested having a one-off race where everybody drives the same car. Is that a good idea? Who would win that race?

NF - "Johnny Herbert's idea of having a one-off race where everybody drives the same car would be a good one if it was practical!

“Those kinds of ideas have been toyed with in the past, but the issues lie in the sponsorships, which are so closely tied to drivers and cars. That's where it gets difficult.

“Unfortunately, I would have to say that Verstappen is showing that he is the best driver at the moment, and I don't think it would matter much. It could even play into his hands, because he’s shown he's good enough to be very adaptable and would probably drive any of the cars better than his competitors. 

“I heard someone say once "If you can drive, you can drive anything". I don't think it would matter if you put Max in a s***box or a Red Bull car, he'd probably still beat the rest of them. He's very adaptable. I don't think it would change much, sadly. 

“If you started Max at the back of the grid, he'd still do better than most, but perhaps he wouldn't win. A lot of it is due to the car. Red Bull has the best driver and the best car.”

Q. What was your career highlight at Brawn GP? 

NF - "Brawn GP itself was the highlight of my career as it was so damn difficult!

Formula One is very tough. It's easy to disparage those at the back of the grid, but the reality is that they're doing very well. They just happen to have less money and fewer resources. 

“Look at Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn, it took them five years to sort out Ferrari. It took us a long time, too. I started with the team in 2002 whilst it was under a different name and we didn't win our first race until 2006. Three years later, we won the World Championship, and the team has gone on to achieve even greater things. 

“Formula One is a very tough gig, and I think that would be my career highlight. There were numerous elements to it, as the documentary shows. It was an incredible achievement to get to Melbourne and survive! It was a great team effort. 

“Ultimately, the first and second-place finish at Monaco is super special to me. Everybody wants to win Monaco as it's the only Grand Prix that gives more to F1 than the sport does to the location. It was incredible to finish first and second there. 

“I was so tired from work before the race that I slept through it. I was slumped over my computer and I was woken up by the Head of PR – actually our only media person - to go and get the trophy! I don't remember much of the race, but it was a great achievement and I’m sure Rubens and Jenson drove brilliantly!"

Q. Were you out partying the night before?

NF - "I was trying to land huge sponsorship from a betting company. We were very close to selling the whole car to a major online betting company. Mercedes put the brakes on that opportunity as they didn't want the car covered in betting logos!" 

Q. How important has Drive to Survive been for F1? How important are documentaries like that for general sport? 

NF - "Winning is the most important thing for the competitors, but there has to be a narrative for people to watch. That narrative always comes down to human beings. 

“Cars, and the general technological aspect, are interesting and there certainly are fans who are fascinated by that, but the vast majority of people want human interest stories. Netflix managed to tell those stories incredibly well. 

Drive to Survive is, without a doubt, the best investment Formula One has ever made. The sport was once watched by old white guys and the demographics weren't very diverse. The program massively broadened that, and we're now seeing more female fans and younger people taking an interest. The racing itself provides a great backdrop, but there's a great story in there, too. 

“We're watching a bunch of fit guys participating in a dangerous sport in glamorous locations, wrestling with internal politics along the way. It's not hard to see why people like it." 

Q. Is there another team who'd like to receive a documentary? 

NF - "I'd like to see a sequel to the Brawn GP documentary, I just don't know what the title would be! 

“The Brawn documentary has been incredibly successful. It's one of Disney's most-watched programs and it was translated into almost every language imaginable. 

“Keanu Reeves and Simon Hammerson (the writer) have done a stunning job with it and it's attracted a lot of interest in a film adaptation. People want to see a sequel documenting the sale to Mercedes and the success that followed with Lewis. There's a great story in there, having elements of Macbeth at the start with the deposing of Ross Brawn and the rise of Mercedes. You can even see elements of Terminator in there, too!

“The sequel is being looked at. People have kindly offered us a budget and it could be on the cards. I think there are loads of great stories out there, though. 

“Just look at Williams and what happened to that team. There's a fantastic story that can be concocted there, with elements of Brideshead Revisited and Saltburn, a bunch of posh boys!

“Renault's heyday with Flavio Briatore would make a great sex, drugs, and rock & roll story. I'm sure there are lots of people searching for stories, and there are tons of angles that would have a broad appeal."

Q. You've learned so much over the years about what makes a great car. How can teams keep evolving? What's the secret to success?

NF - "The secret to success in F1 is getting the best people. It's not that different to being successful in any other organization, just much more visible – you get your performance report in front of tens of millions of people each week. There’s no hiding place! 

“Companies always state that people are their most important asset. It's a nice mantra, but the reality is, you have to actually apply it in top-level sport. If you've got Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola at your club, then everybody else will find it very difficult to compete. 

“It's no different in motor racing, it starts with the people asking how they can be as successful as possible. I was lucky enough to attract Ross Brawn to our team. You needed Ross, Adrian Newey, and Pat Symonds in those days or else you didn't have prayer!

“Adrian is still going and he's still in charge at Red Bull. It starts with a great technical director as they will attract great technical staff as they want to work with the best people. It doesn't matter which industry you're in, people want to work with the best. 

“Formula One is a people's game and teams need to attract the best in every area and then give them the tools to do their jobs. Teams won't be successful without a top wind-tunnel, manufacturing and testing equipment, and sufficient budget. 

“Football clubs need great training grounds and great coaches. It's about building from the ground up and being patient. One of the problems is investors expect immediate success, but that's not going to happen. 

“Look at the way McLaren has evolved now they've got an excellent technical director. Aston Martin is also starting to improve. Both teams have, ironically, poached aerodynamicists from Red Bull! They're starting to develop an understanding of how to improve. 

“It's always about getting the best people."

Q. What was your experience of working with Michael Schumacher like?

NF - "I'd say my experience of working with Michael Schumacher was complicated. Being a good Brit, I'd never have Michael high on my list of most-loved people as he was the dastardly German who did rotten things to good, honest Brits and others!

“I wasn't an immediate fan of Schumacher but I had massive respect for what he had accomplished. I hate to say it, but when you meet Michael, you realize how special he is very quickly. The difference was the level of teamwork. Michael really appreciated that everybody in the team needed to contribute if he was going to be successful. 

“In terms of engaging with everybody and knowing everyone's name as well as what was going on in their lives, Schumacher was the best. During his peak, it was portrayed that he got people on his side to the detriment of his teammates. There may have been elements of that, but I think that Michael just did a better job. The way to achieve success in anything is building a good team around you and motivating them as much as possible. Michael was outstanding in this aspect. 

“Professionally, he'll be remembered as the driver who took the fitness, strategy and teamwork side of driving to a new level. Commercially, he was more successful than even Jackie Stewart. He made my job on the money side difficult as every time we thought we had a team sponsor we would find that Michael already had a conflicting personal sponsor!

“Michael was a pleasure to work with. It must be very hard for Corinna and the kids. Mick was quite young when the accident happened, and I have fond memories of him playing with my son in the motorhome when my son was a toddler. It was a very happy family environment. 

“Brawn was my biggest success, but my only regret in motorsport was never winning a race with Michael. That was mostly down to us not giving him a very good car. He may have been towards the end of his career, but I still think that he'd have won had he given him better tools. That's our fault."

Q. What was Schumacher like away from the circuit? Did you have a personal relationship with him?

NF - "I didn't have an intimate, personal relationship with Michael Schumacher, but he seemed to be very family-orientated. Corinna and the kids were frequently around and they were very normal considering how wealthy and famous they were and still are. They were very down-to-earth. 

“What happened to Michael was unbelievably sad. The Schumachers are a wonderful family.”

Q. Is he the greatest driver ever? If not, who is?

NF - "Everybody has their own view on who the greatest driver ever is. I think it's a personal choice as it's not just about winning races. 

“Max Verstappen can very well finish as the most successful driver ever, but I'm not sure if he'll be the most heroic and the one who'll they'll make movies about. All of the truly great drivers have done something as well as winning races, great achievement though that is. 

“I've known Jackie Stewart for decades, and he championed the safety side of the sport. He stood up with all the other drivers and campaigned for better safety. He commercialized and professionalized the sport as a whole. He'll always be remembered for that. 

“Jenson Button won a World Championship with Brawn GP, and he'll always be remembered for that lone title because it was so unexpected. Michael Schumacher will be remembered for more than winning. 

“My personal favourite is Ayrton Senna. He added a romantic appeal to the sport because he was mysteriously thoughtful, super bright, and died before his time. He was the James Dean of F1. It's a predictable answer, but he'd be on my list as the greatest of all time. It's more than just winning races.”

Q. Senna first, Schumacher second. Who's third? 

NF - "I think Lewis Hamilton would be my third choice behind Senna and Schumacher. 

Hamilton has done a lot to broaden the appeal of F1. It's not just due to his race, but also his interest in music and carving his own path. He's doing his own thing, appealing to a new crowd who have been introduced to F1 as a result. 

“You also have to consider drivers' starting points. Lewis came from a very regular background, and Lewis is up there due to what he's been able to achieve himself."

Q. What do you think F1 has missed in not having Michael Schumacher around the paddock or in punditry? What do you think he would have done?

NF - "I think Michael Schumacher would have done a jolly good job of getting his son to be the best driver he possibly could be. 

“A lot of good people were around to support Mick, but not being able to have your dad by your side must be very traumatic. Had Michael been around to provide parental and professional support, I think Mick would have risen to greater heights than he actually did.

“There's not a great track record of drivers as team bosses as it's a very different skill set. I think Michael would have understood that. I think Formula One is lacking on the personality side. 

“I don't think it's a surprise that Kimi Räikkönen was one of the most popular drivers until he retired. He may not have been winning races, but people were invested in him. I think Fernando Alonso has taken his place to some extent. 

“Formula One isn't just about driving the car. I think the drivers' job is to promote the sport. They may not consider it as a part of their job, but it is. You have to look at it from the fans' point of view, it's about accessibility and creating stories. 

“Bernie Ecclestone understood that you had to create all year round. The F1 season will start again in a few months, but it seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness outside of the racing aficionados. 

“We were quite good at creating stories. Some of them may have been contrived and made up, but we kept the storylines going even after the season ended. I think that's missing somewhat now. I think Liberty Media and the FIA could do a better job. It's all about entertainment and the sport is competing for eyeballs. 

“I hope the bosses at the FIA and Stefano Domenicali are working on ways to keep the sport in the public eye."

Q. There were a few reports over the 10th anniversary of Schumacher's accident. One of them was about the family taking him out in a car to simulate him driving. Jonny Herbert had heard that he is ‘sitting at the dinner table’. Have you heard anything about Michael's condition?

NF - "I haven't heard anything about Michael Schumacher's condition, so I'm unable to confirm or deny any of the recent reports about him.

“Michael has the best medical team in the world, and I'm 100% sure that no human being in history has had the treatment Michael has had for his specific injury. The family has the resources. 

“I hope and pray that they're making progress with him. If the reports about him at the dinner table or in a car are true, then it wouldn't surprise me at all because I'd imagine that's the type of thing you'd do to get the brain going again. The only thing I hope for is for Michael's quality of life to be good. My mother has dementia, so I know what it's like when someone is alive but not conscious of the world around them. 

“If there is progress, then Michael will be a great role model for people with severe brain injuries. Humans are remarkable, and it's not impossible to hope for things to get back to as close to normal. I'm sure we'll hear at some stage and if the medical team have learned something about how to treat people with these sort of injuries than that will be Michaels greatest contribution.

Q. What was your favourite memory of Michael at Mercedes? Was it the memory of your sons?

NF - "I think the family side of Michael provided my fondest memories of him, such as our sons playing together. 

“I also fondly remember how Michael and Corinna protected their kids. It was always cute to see Mick, who was a teenager at the time, not being allowed into the garage, but he'd be behind it and looking across at his dad’s car. They protected him from the glare of publicity as much as they could. Mick would have been so proud of his dad, and it was lovely to see that relationship. 

“That's why it's sad that Michael isn't able to help his son's career and see it develop in the same way the kids were for his."

Q. Tell us about your role at McLaren Applied? 

NF - "I don't have any influence on the McLaren F1 team at all. I'm the chairman of McLaren Applied, and we supply electronics to every single F1 team, every NASCAR team, and the majority of Formula E teams. As well as IndyCar and other global series. 

“It's vital that we remain completely independent from the F1 team. We're located in a different building. I'm friendly with Zak Brown and I've known him for a long time, but we supply exactly the same kit to every team. They all use our products. 

“We're now owned by a private equity finance company. All of those wiggly graphs you see on the pit wall are generated by our software, too. We have to be neutral. Ironically, McLaren's F1 team aren't even our biggest customer and other teams use us more than they do!

“It's great fun as we get to develop an understanding and relationship with every team in motorsport as well as selling some of the underlying technology to other sectors.  If you go on a train where the wi-fi works properly, its ours!. It's a very privileged position." 

Q. How about Mercedes? How much influence do you have there?

NF - "The CEO is very important, but Formula One is ultimately a technical exercise, and the job of the CEO is to get the right people. Once you've got them, the main job is to support them and give them air cover from all of the outside pressures.

“When you work for a big company like Mercedes, there's a lot of interest and pressure. In many ways, the CEO's job is to protect the people from internal pressures and help them get on with their jobs. It's a very important position, but the people who will make the difference are the engineers.

“That's why Christian Horner and Adrian Newey work so well. Christian focuses on the commercial side and sporting side and that allows Adrian Newey to get on and design a world-class car. 

“You've got to make sure that you identify what you're good at and divide the roles. The teams are now so big that it's no longer a one-man team. People may call themselves ‘Team Principal’ now, but that title used to mean that you ran the whole show.  Now it’s really CEO. 

“Mercedes F1 have 1,500 people on the payroll now. It's a corporate structure."

Q. What are you predicting for Mercedes and McLaren?

NF - "I believe that McLaren will continue to improve. I hope they're in a position to win races. I'm not sure if they're good enough to consistently beat Red Bull or Ferrari yet.. I think that's a stretch. 

“McLaren have to be realistic about their evolution. They've got a very experienced technical director in Andreas Seidl who is calm, sensible and understands the step a team needs to go through to win. 

“Some of the investments made at Mercedes, like the world-class wind tunnel, were done in my day. The wind tunnel was built in around 2005 or 2006, so it has been contributing for a very long time. McLaren are starting to invest in some of those facilities, but it should have happened a long time ago. 

“Instead of having Norman Foster design their building, they could have invested in better engineering equipment! That was the decision made a long time ago and fortunately the McLaren owners have understood and have invested in those things now. They will be a good investment for the future.

“I have my fingers crossed for them this season, but it's a stretch to believe they can beat Red Bull. I think they'll still dominate. 

“I think Ferrari will continue to improve. Fred Vasseur is very experienced as a team leader, and I think he'll provide the air cover from the pressures of the Italian media. I think he'll do a good job with that and keep the team calm. You have to be fairly unemotional. 

“I'm sorry to say this, but I don't see the technical team as strong enough at my former team, Mercedes. Competing with Adrian Newey's team is a tall order. They're a great team of people, but they've fallen so far behind by taking a different technical route. The rate of improvement is significant year upon year, but spending a year or two with a different concept that doesn't work results in trouble. 

“It's easy to say that in hindsight, but they're learning what the likes of Red Bull learned a long time ago. It's difficult to catch up. I'm sure they'll be good, but I'm not sure if they'll be exceptional. I can't see Mercedes consistently beating Red Bull. It's hard for me to admit as I have such a deep attachment to them, but I think it's going to be difficult this year. 

Q. Would McLaren be your favourite to push Red Bull?

NF - "Ferrari would be my favourites to push Red Bull. My eight-year-old daughter has a strong preference for Charles LeClerc, and she said I had to say Ferrari!" 

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