The CAR In­qui­si­tion: McLaren’s Zak Brown

McLaren team boss Zak Brown on life af­ter Ron, Alonso’s Indy 500 gam­bit, Honda’s un­der­per­form­ing en­gines and what it’s like to own 10 grand prix cars

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OH DEAR. HAVE stan­dards fallen at McLaren now that Ron Den­nis has gone? While wait­ing for new boss Zak Brown, in Ron’s white-walled Nor­man Fos­ter-de­signed tem­ple of tech­nol­ogy in Wok­ing, I note that the huge floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows need clean­ing. They mostly sparkle but there are smudges up high, near the ceil­ing, on the can­teen win­dows that our meet­ing room over­looks. I could just imag­ine Ron dwelling on that dirt and up­braid­ing some poor main­te­nance man­ager.

Then Zak turns up. No suit. Open shirt. No jacket even. Ron al­ways wore a sharp suit and shiny black shoes.

Brown is an Amer­i­can, and he’s Cal­i­for­nian laid-back. Friendly, open, easy go­ing. Very un-Ron. He loves mo­tor­sport and that’s why he’s here now. ‘It’s awe­some to be at McLaren. It was my favourite team as a kid. For me, the ro­mance started with Senna and Prost. Then Häkki­nen and Lewis. The only thing bet­ter would to be on the podium in a driver’s suit. But if I can get up there in a man­age­ment shirt then that’s a close sec­ond.’

The three peo­ple most re­spon­si­ble for For­mula 1’s suc­cess to­day, he be­lieves, are ‘Bernie, Enzo and Ron’. ‘Ron was the vi­sion­ary for to­day’s For­mula 1 teams: the tech­nol­ogy, the at­ten­tion to de­tail, the lead­er­ship.’

He says he has many sim­i­lar­i­ties to Den­nis. ‘Cleanliness, de­sign, pas­sion to win… Ron was a world cham­pion in all those qual­i­ties.’ Ron’s rules still ap­ply at Wok­ing: no pa­per tow­els in the wash­rooms, no cof­fee or sand­wiches at desks, no post-its. It’s still a spot­lessly clean en­vi­ron­ment, win­dows ex­cepted.

How is he dif­fer­ent? ‘I’m a big com­mu­ni­ca­tor. I think in a team en­vi­ron­ment. I don’t al­ways wear a tie. I think For­mula 1 is too much of a closed shop and I want to change that.’

Zak says F1 must fo­cus on the fans. ‘We as a sport tend to fo­cus on our­selves. We set the rules to suit our­selves. We just hope the

fans en­joy it. We need to think what the fan wants. It’s a mind­set change. This also in­volves dig­i­tal and so­cial en­gage­ment, and to use to­day’s tech­nol­ogy to bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate with the fans and to en­ter­tain them. Lib­erty [the new F1 owner] knows this.’ Most rac­ing se­ries, says Brown, are bet­ter at fan en­gage­ment than F1. ‘Look at Fer­nando at the Indy 500. We worked him hard for PR. But he loved it. It got sen­sa­tional pub­lic­ity.’

Zak was be­hind Alonso’s Indy 500 en­try. ‘I want McLaren to di­ver­sify, where ap­pro­pri­ate. McLaren had a great his­tory in Indy­Car, in CanAm, in For­mula 5000, we won Le Mans. It’s also im­por­tant we get our brand out there for the ben­e­fit of our road cars. nd Rac­ing is at the core of our com­pany.

‘Ev­ery time we race out­side of For­mula 1 there are a few cri­te­ria. Is it com­mer­cially vi­able? Can we win? Does it fit our brand? It can’t de­tract from For­mula 1, our pri­mary ob­jec­tive. So maybe that’s For­mula E, maybe sports cars… But it was great to pull it off at Indy where Fer­nando won ev­ery­thing ex­cept the 500.’

Brown says he knows McLaren will only keep Alonso if it’s got a com­pet­i­tive car. ‘We’re push­ing like mad. We’re com­mit­ted to Honda [sup­plier of un­com­pet­i­tive en­gines and its ma­jor spon­sor]. But we can’t ac­cept our lack of com­pet­i­tive­ness. If we don’t see dras­tic change this year we’ll have to fig­ure out what to do. If we give Fer­nando a race car that is com­pet­i­tive, he’ll stay. Oth­er­wise, he’ll go. Sim­ple.’ Adapt­ing to the pace of the For­mula 1 cul­ture has been a strug­gle for Honda, says Brown. ‘They need to do things dif­fer­ently, and they need to do it quickly.’

Al­though he’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the whole McLaren tech­nol­ogy group, F1 takes up 85% of his time. ‘I work closely with Mike Fle­witt [CEO of McLaren Au­to­mo­tive] and they’re do­ing great. McLaren Ap­plied Tech­nolo­gies is prof­itable and has enor­mous po­ten­tial. But For­mula 1 is the DNA of the com­pany.’ You sus­pect that Brown con­cen­trates on F1 be­cause that’s the side of McLaren he loves – just as Ron did.

He’s such a devo­tee of F1 that he owns 10 GP cars. They in­clude Alan Jones’s world cham­pi­onship-win­ning 1980 Wil­liams, Häkin­nen’s 2001 Bri­tish GP-win­ning McLaren, Senna’s 1986 Lo­tus, Mansell’s 1990 Fer­rari and Lewis’s 2013 Mercedes. Does he drive them? ‘When I can.’ His favourite? Senna’s 1991 MP4/6 Monaco GP win­ner. Why? ‘Senna was my hero.’

His hobby is now his job for ad man and race nut turned McLaren boss Zak Brown

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