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
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