When Honda Racing began developing the RA109 early in 2008, they could have never have predicted their car would go on to win the Formula 1 constructor’s championship the following season. Well, sort of…
Emphasis was placed on developing the RA109 earlier than usual after the team abandoned work on the terrible RA108. When the Honda-funded Super Aguri team closed its doors ahead of the 2008 Turkish Grand Prix, Honda took full advantage and the team absorbed some of Aguri’s key engineering staff. Many of them were put to work developing Loïc Bigois’ RA109 chassis.
Minimum sponsors, scoring only 14 points for ninth in the constructor’s championship and the global economic crisis at the time meant that Honda were forced to pull the plug on their Formula One operation at the end of the 2008 season. With Honda unwilling to pay for the Brackley-based team’s $300 million budget, the staff of 700 and drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello found themselves out of a job.
The team was eventually saved in a management buy-out in February 2009. Honda team principal Ross Brawn, in conjunction with chief executive Nick Fry, bought up what remained of the team. This new team, badged Brawn GP, retained both Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello (after Fernando Alonso said no) and would use Mercedes engines. Honda continued to provide financial backing for the team and the Virgin Group provided sponsorship, but few expected the team to last the season.
These fears were heightened because the team of engineers had to scrap the two existing RA109 chassis and hastily re-work the design of the car in order to accept the Mercedes-Benz FO108W V8 engine. The original Honda engine had a significantly different oil tank shape to that of the Mercedes, which required new tubs. For the most part the new chassis were the same, apart from the rear ends, but this alteration posed an intriguing side effect.
The modifications made to the car to accommodate the Mercedes engine saw six inches removed from the rear end. Such a drastic change meant that the car’s centre of gravity was severely compromised. By the time the team realised how much the balance of the car had been affected, it was too late to commission a new design.
Ross Brawn himself admitted that the car had fundamental problems, stating that it was too heavy, and that some of the parts were not good for the car. Additionally, Brawn GP opted to stay with its own carbon fibre case transmission—despite being offered a transmission by McLaren. Nevertheless, Brawn GP joined the rest of the grid for pre-season testing on March 9.
Brawn took advantage of a loophole in the regulations regarding double deck diffusers. He had previously highlighted the loophole to other teams and suggested that the wording should be changed, but they ignored him.
Even so, several teams protested to the stewards about the legality of the Brawn GP cars prior to the opening race of the season in Melbourne. Rival teams argued that Brawn’s “double” diffusers were illegal and in breach of regulations. However, the protest was thrown out by stewards and the diffusers were deemed legal.
Williams and Toyota were also running similarly controversial rear diffusers and the three teams acted as pacesetters for the rest of the field with Williams’ Nico Rosberg setting the fastest time in all three practice sessions. On Saturday however, the two Brawn GP cars of Button and Barrichello dominated qualifying. Barrichello was quickest in the first two parts of the session however, it was Button who claimed the fourth pole position of his career by three tenths of a second. It was his first pole since the 2006 Australian Grand Prix when he drove for Honda.
Button went on to win the race ahead of team-mate Barrichello, securing a memorable 1-2 finish for Brawn GP in their first ever race. The weekend was the first since Juan Manuel Fangio and Mercedes in 1954 that a constructor on Grand Prix debut qualified on pole position and went on to win the race.
The Englishman went on to win five of the next six races with Barrichello also earning three podiums. One of the Mercedes-Benz FO108W engines fitted to Brawn BGP001-02 broke records as the most successful engine in modern Formula 1. Button won three consecutive races, including the Monaco Grand Prix, using the same engine without any work being done other than oil changes and inspections. The FO108W had the lowest cooling demand of any on the grid that season.
The Mercedes-powered Brawn GP was the class of the field at the start of the season not only because of its engine, but also due to its highly developed aerodynamic package constructed by many former Super Aguri aerodynamicists. The high downforce car suited slow and intermediate tracks very well. Furthermore, the almost bullet proof design of the car saw only one mechanical retirement all season—an overstressed transmission in Turkey.
It is common practice for F1 drivers to use multiple chassis across the course of a season. Larger teams, such as McLaren, build as many as eight. In fact, BMW-Sauber ran eight cars during 2009, Toyota six and Red Bull five. Given the limited budget and development time however, Brawn GP only ever constructed three chassis: one for each driver and a spare.
Rubens Barrichello used the older BGP001-01 for most of the season but it was replaced by the newer BGP001-03 from the Singapore Grand Prix onwards. Remarkably, Button persisted with the same chassis all year. The Englishman drove the BGP001-02 in every session and race of the 2009 season.
For all that, the BGP001’s nonetheless had a weakness in cool conditions. The cars struggled to get maximum heat and, therefore, the best out of the tyres under those circumstances. Brawn’s engineers did not seem to be able to find an answer to this issue and, despite having an incredibly strong engine, the car was not often in the top half of the top speed tables at races.
The rate of development by their rivals also left Brawn trailing behind. Both McLaren and Red Bull had faster cars towards the end of the season. Barrichello scored a win at the Valencia Street Circuit and led Button home for the team’s fourth 1-2 finish of the season in Monza, yet the team only recorded three more podiums with Button never returning to the top step of the podium.
In spite of this, Button did manage to finish every race in the points, with the exception of a collision at the Belgian Grand Prix, and was eventually crowned as the 2009 Formula One world champion in Interlagos in October. He became the tenth British champion and the first British champion to succeed another since 1969, when Jackie Stewart succeeded Graham Hill as world champion. Not only that, but Brawn GP became the first and only team to win the constructors’ championship in their debut season, a record remains unbroken to this day.
In November 2009, Daimler AG, parent company of Mercedes-Benz, bought a 75.1% controlling stake in the team. Button’s championship winning Brawn BGP001-02 was painted silver after 2009 for the 2010 launch of Mercedes GP and used as a demonstration car for 2 years before being returned to its previous Brawn livery.
Where is the car now?
Allegedly, Jenson Button had a clause in his contract which entitled him to ownership of the Brawn BGP001 should he win the driver’s championship. Button’s contract stated that: “In the event that the driver wins the championship at any time during the term, the company shall transfer … ownership of one chassis of the type driven by the driver during that winning season.”
It was reported that he undertook legal action against his former team in order to receive his prize. Mercedes, who were now in possession of the car, refused to supply Button with a genuine race-car owing to the “limited quantities” of Brawn-constructed cars manufactured for the 2009 season. They instead offered a replica, but Button said a replica would lack the “special and unique” value of one of the vehicles he used to win the championship.
After frantic negotiations, Button’s spokesman said that he would receive a 2009 Brawn BGP001 from Mercedes. “We have arrived at an amicable resolution, and so there will no longer be any court action over this,” he added.
Despite this, it appears that Button never gained possession of the car and in December 2016, he took to Instagram to share a picture of the car, commenting that it was the first time he had seen it since his title win.
Instead, Ross Brawn has been in possession of the original BGP001-02 chassis since the end of the 2009 season. “I’ve had chassis 002, which is the very car Jenson Button used throughout his world title-winning season in 2009, in my collection since that time,” he said.
“The car was stripped and rebuilt before I took it and has been rarely seen in public since then.
The BGP001-02 was demonstrated at the 2016 Goodwood Festival of Speed by former Formula 1 driver Martin Brundle, the first time it turned a wheel under its own power since the conclusion of the 2009 season. Button’s contract with McLaren at the time prevented him from driving the car, but he was on-hand on the day and met with Brundle.
Speaking about the car, Brawn noted, “We had problems with all sorts of things—we even had to find laptops from that era that could run the right software. It’s not configured to work on modern computers. The wheel nut on the front is also peculiar because of the spinners, and for some reason we didn’t have any spares, so we actually had to make new ones. It’s been quite an exercise to get it going.
“Even though it’s relatively simple compared to today’s cars, it still takes a crew of seven or eight people to run it. There was once a day it would only take two people.”
“Both the car and the circumstances behind it were really unusual,” Brawn added. “A team that only existed for one year won both championships before morphing into a different team. I think the circumstances behind a team on the verge of closing and then surviving was an intriguing storyline – it was everything that was wrapped around it that made it such a special year, a special team and a special car.”
Across its 17-race career, the BGP001 recorded eight wins, 15 podiums, five pole positions and four fastest laps.