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Just Schu watch, we’ll come good!

THE wins that used to come so regularly have dried up, his star name’s much-heralded return to the track has proven a damp squib, and his world championship-winning driver has defected and flourished at a rival team, but Mercedes GP boss Ross Brawn is refusing to give up on what has already been a difficult campaign.

Significant improvements are expected this weekend in Barcelona, when the Formula One bandwagon hitches up in Europe for the first time in 2010, and technician extraordinaire Brawn is confident Michael Schumacher will benefit, while suggesting that Jenson Button’s eye-catching start to life at McLaren will not last.

But then perhaps it is easier to be optimistic when you have been at the centre of one of sport’s true fairytale successes.

The miracle of Brawn GP is well-documented but bears repeating. Brawn, the mastermind of eight drivers’ titles at Benetton and then Ferrari, and the Honda team he was running looked destined for the scrapheap when the Japanese manufacturer pulled out of F1 in late 2008.

But the Manchester-born former engineer saved the stricken outfit by leading a management buyout and, propelled by a revitalised Button, Brawn GP won both the drivers’ and constructors’ championship.

“It topped the lot,” Brawn, whose stint at Ferrari included six consecutive titles, told City A.M. “Those circumstances made it very special. In December we were looking to close the team and in March [2009] we won the first race. It was very special.”

Since being acquired by German marque Mercedes, who helped lure seven-time champion and long-standing Brawn collaborator Schumacher out of retirement, the celebrations have dwindled, however.

Schumacher, now 41, has looked rusty and has been upstaged by team-mate Nico Rosberg, whose two third-place finished represent the team’s best showings from the four races so far. So underwhelming has the veteran’s comeback been that it has been mooted he could end his three-year contract prematurely.

“I think he will be here for the long haul but he is his own strongest critic and he’ll assess that situation. He made very good progress in the first three races. He’s a very determined guy, as you can imagine, and anyone at his level has a lot of setbacks that you need to come back from. When you’re away from a sport as competitive and demanding as grand prix racing it’s not logical to come aback and expect to be at same level as you were. It’s going to take a little while.”

Schumacher’s struggle could hardly contrast more greatly with the success of Button. The Englishman raised eyebrows when he joined compatriot Lewis Hamilton during the close season after protracted contract wrangling with the Brawn/Mercedes hierarchy, but has surprised some observers again by proving last year’s success was no one-off with race wins in Australia and China to top the standings.

“It is not a surprise,” insists Brawn. “He has clearly settled in. We had two Jensons last year. In the first half of the season he was tremendous and then the pressure started and it got difficult. He was a little bit up and down. I think when we get in to races that are perhaps more normal the true speed of everyone will become apparent.”

Although Brawn’s triumph with his eponymous team seemed instant, it was the product of tinkering done while racing in Honda colours. So, while he expects results to pick up this year, his goal at Mercedes is to establish them as a consistent force in F1, as he did at Benetton and then Ferrari.

“We all know teams we expect to be at the top – I want to establish a team that people expect to be at the top. I think we’ve got some work to do this year but the key element is the planning and development for future years. I’ve started working on next year’s car, and we’re in a much better position than we were last year, because at Brawn we didn’t know what the future held. [This year’s results] are probably a reflection of the uncertainty that was going in last year. But we’re not giving up on this season yet.”

With Button and McLaren threatening to run away with this year’s honours, a Mercedes resurgence would rank as another staggering achievement on Brawn’s immaculate CV. Yet could any success at his new team ever match the rapture of underdog glory in 2009? “It’s hard to imagine, to be frank, that at it could top that,” he reflects. “ But then it was hard to imagine after I left Ferrari that Brawn would happen.”

Ross Brawn was speaking to publicise the Brawn Lifeboat Challenge, an initiative with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution that aims to raise £350,000 for a new lifeboat on the River Thames. Go to www.rnli.org.uk/brawn