THE MAN WHO GETS THINGS DONE
Formula 1’s premier deal-maker, Zak Brown turns his considerable commercial talent to a new role at McLaren
Zak Brown has the jitters. Like so many in F1, he’s a restless bundle of energy, constantly on the move, seeking a deal to nail, a problem to solve. So for F1 Racing to be granted an hour of his time is quite a coup.
But it’s making him twitchy. As he stands, briefly stock-still, before the lens of photographer Thomas Butler, he admits that the thought of his inbox growing like Japanese knotweed in his absence is making him feel distinctly uncomfortable. “I’m a ‘clear-out-myinbox-every-day’ guy,” he says, in his trademark gunslinger drawl. “At the moment I’m probably getting 250 emails a day. So it’s times like these that I get the jitters because I know my inbox is going ‘doink-doink-doink…’” He has been overwhelmed – though not surprised – at the amount of team affection he has encountered since taking up his role as McLaren’s executive director on 11 December last year, a fondness manifested through a ood of e-communication via Facebook, Twitter and direct to that insomniac inbox that replenishes like some kind of self-ipping egg-timer.
“And I want to get to it all…” he grins with apparent relish, before pausing once more and posing again at Butler’s request.
“I don’t know when he sleeps,” comments one aide. Anyone who’s experienced the Brown style of business will know he’s a 24/365 operator, seemingly oblivious to time zones or circadian rhythms. ‘Always on’ is both his mantra and method, and, for this great team, latterly rudderless, a full-beam blast of commercially driven focus is probably just what they need.
One of Brown’s rst actions, indeed, has been to re-jig the structure of McLaren’s commercial department, as bets his brief to oversee the team’s marketing and ‘business’ functions. And while he will admit that 2017 is effectively “over” in terms of new sponsorship acquisitions, he insists that 2018 is the year on which fans should pin their hopes for a true revival in McLaren’s fortunes across the board.
“I think 2017 is going to be a transition year,” he says, “even though, given my background, everyone is going to wonder when the title sponsor is coming…” Indeed, Zak, when is the title sponsor coming? “Ha! Not till ’18. And there’s no guarantees it’s coming in ’18, either, but it’s denitely not coming in ’17 because we haven’t really gotten started yet. I think we can do a better job of selling the McLaren proposition.”
Sponsorship and commercial matters are the lifeblood of the global 300km/h soap opera known and loved the world over as F1. And it’s encouraging to hear Brown declaim optimistically on opportunities for title backers, as might be expected from a man who has previously brokered F1 deals with the likes of Diageo, UBS, Epson, Bose and Qualcomm. “The sport is still very attractive to sponsors,” he says, “but the way the costs have escalated, no sponsor is going to pay half your bill. You heard Ron Dennis make the comment a year or so ago
‘there’s no such thing as a title sponsor any more’ – I think what he really meant was that a title sponsor used to pay half your racing bill, but now there is no £150m title sponsor out there. There are title sponsors, but there is a limit to what F1 is worth. What has happened is that our cost base has outpaced the value.”
Ah, the tricky ‘costs’ question – an issue that cuts to the very heart of F1’s current troubles, be they the parlous state of Manor’s finances, the car-manufacturer-funded domination of one silver superteam, or the relentless pursuit of profit by former F1 commercial rights holders CVC, at the expense of the sport’s wider wellbeing.
These are not footling matters, nor are they within the power of one man to remedy. Yet the presence of a newer generation of a ‘fixer’ at a totemic team, at a time when F1’s new owners, Liberty Media, want to tear up the sport’s model and its relationship to its fans, is surely positive. For Brown is not alone: alongside colleagues Jonathan Neale and Eric Boullier, and across the table from Toto Wolff, Christian Horner, Cyril Abiteboul, Bob Fernley, Claire Williams, Gene Haas et al, a new generation of team boss/racers has emerged, who should be able to re-mould F1 into a format that chimes with Liberty’s ambition to make it simpler, more accessible, cheaper and more fan-focused. Dare we suggest there might be a new, more collaborative era about to begin for the sport that spawned The Piranha Club?
“It’s not going to be Sesame Street,” says Brown, an instinctive competitor, like so many of his peers, “but more collaborative? Yep, 100 per cent. It’s good that we want to run each other off the track at the race weekends. That’s what everyone wants. But we need to do a much better job of working together for the good of the sport, and then leaving the competition for on the track with technical staff and sponsors and drivers. That’s something I think the industry has done a very poor job of historically, and now is the time to change that. Be sensible, work together and then ght like mad on Sunday.”
First, though, the matter at hand: dragging McLaren back from their lowly constructors’ position of P6 last season (itself an improvement on 2015’s nadir of P9, ahead only of nul points Manor). So far, Brown says, the signs are encouraging, with positive reports from technical partner Honda on power-unit development and healthy numbers being quoted by the aero and chassis teams.
“Fans can look forward to progress,” he says, “and we need to nish better than sixth. We feel our chassis will be as good as anyone’s and we’re very happy with our internal targets. Honda continue to make progress and they will get there. I’m not a miracle worker, but for 2018 people should raise their expectations for on- and off-track performance.”
Corner-speed analysis showed the MP4-31 to be regularly F1’s third-most competitive chassis in 2016, and privately McLaren have pencilled in P4 as an achievable 2017 constructors’ goal. In the meantime, Honda, now in year three of their F1 return, have re-drawn their designs and gone in pursuit of a Mercedes-rivalling specification.
It’s understood that the ‘size-zero’ philosophy that dictated the architecture of Honda PUs in 2015-16 has been ditched for 2017 after the scrapping of the derided ‘tokens’ system. Honda will now ape the pioneering Mercedes design that places turbine and compressor at either end of the ICE V6 cylinder bank, but connected with a shaft. This design concept, although less compact, has underpinned the success of the Mercedes PUs since 2014. Honda are also believed to have lowered their unit’s centre of gravity without forcing compromises on the rear aerodynamics of the newly designated MCL32.
So as F1 prepares to embrace a technical reboot, there’s realistic hope of a McLaren podium for the first time since 2014: something a little more befitting of F1’s second most-winning team (182 victories to Ferrari’s 224).
Regardless, Brown is determined that McLaren, once notoriously austere, start to give off more warmth and connect with their followers in a manner that for decades has been the sole preserve of their great red rival from Maranello.
“We’re listening to the fans,” he says, “and they will see a new way of working from us – an openness they’ve maybe not seen from McLaren before, because we can totally control the way we engage with our fans, whereas track performance always depends on what other teams do.”
And how might this openness manifest itself? An optimistic McLaren insider, cognisant of the team’s brightly liveried origins, might wish to suggest that the future’s bright, the future’s…
“IT’S NOT GOING TO BE SESAME STREET, BUT MORE COLLABORATIVE? YEP, 100
PER CENT. WE NEED TO DO A MUCH BETTER JOB OF WORKING TOGETHER FOR THE GOOD OF THE SPORT”