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 bets 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 denitely 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…



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