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McLaren aiming for ‘victory lane’ - Exclusive Zak Brown Q&A

24 Nov 2016

He’s already a familiar face in the Formula One paddock thanks to his past work bringing major sponsors and F1 teams together, but Abu Dhabi marks Zak Brown’s first appearance in his new role as an executive director at McLaren. His appointment, announced earlier this week, came hot on the heels of news that team stalwart Ron Dennis will not have his contract as group CEO renewed. So what is Brown’s remit, and what is top of his to-do list at Woking? We sat down with the American to find out…

Q: Zak, taking on an important role at McLaren after the team has two difficult seasons to overcome - what is the beauty of it?

Zak Brown: Very simple: the beauty is that the team is getting better with every race. You could say that I’ve picked my moment on an upswing. So you see, I am not as dumb as I look! (Laughs) But let’s be serious: this team has the best history in Formula One and it is the team I grew up watching and idolising in the Senna and Prost era. Now being able to join it is unbelievable. I have lots of friends here and have done tons of business with them over the years. And as I said, the team is clearly on an upswing - so this was my moment. I already said: I’ll get a bit of credit if we go upwards - and I’ll get all the ‘credit’ if we don’t. So we’d better do well.

Q: You are an American landing in what is a distinctively British team. How did that come about?

ZB: Ha, I actually wanted to race for McLaren - that was the reason I came to Europe, to England, in the early nineties. Racing in F1, that was my desire. And believe it or not, I once fitted into a race car! I have raced against Jos Verstappen and Jan Magnussen and it is funny to see their kids racing in F1 now. That really makes me feel old.

Q: Your job title is ‘Executive Director’. What exactly does that mean?

ZB: (McLaren COO) Jonathan Neale and I are partners in ultimately running the Formula One team - on and off the track. It is a newly-created position after the reconstruction of the company, but in simplest terms Jonathan and I will be working very closely with (racing director) Eric (Boullier) and (team CEO) Jost (Capito) to get the team back into victory lane, as they say in America.

Q: You are widely known in the paddock as the ‘money man’ - someone who brings in sponsorship funds. Is that what is expected from you?

ZB: Well, I am sure my commercial skills played a large part. (Laughs) Right now the car is not covered in glory with as many luxury brands as it should have - these that we have are fantastic, but clearly we have room for a lot more. Jonathan is way more technical than me and I am more commercially focused than he is, so that should make a very good partnership. And never underestimate: I am a real racer. (Laughs)

Q: It is no secret that teams find it hard these days to attract the type of lavish-spending sponsors seen in the past. Where do you hope to find them again?

ZB: First, of course, you need a company that can afford to get involved in Formula One. It is not inexpensive - but it is unbelievable value given the size and the reach of the sport. So yes, not inexpensive, but well worth it. And if you look at what McLaren stands for - cutting-edge technology and lifestyle - you have to look at companies who play in that space. And what is also on my agenda is the industry itself can collectively do a better job - marketing and promoting the sport. And there we have quite a way to go in the paddock - for the better of us all. Formula One looks the way it is largely also through the involvement of McLaren and I’d like to see McLaren again be one of the spearheads when it comes to new fan engagements, via social media and in the way fans nowadays consume the sport.

Q: What will be your first tasks in your new role? What’s on your immediate to-do list?

ZB: Watch, listen, learn and communicate. There is a lot I have to learn. I am fortunate, as I have been close to the team for so long - but from the outside looking in. Now being on the inside needs a bit of a reshaping before I start doing things. Probably the only immediate change that I will try to make is to lower the temperature in Woking from its current 21 degrees to 19.5 degrees! I like it a bit cooler. (Laughs)

Q: As you said, you have been so close to the team - and to Ron Dennis - for so many years. And now you are part of the top management level just as Ron departs. How does that all fit?

ZB: I have a great relationship with Ron.

Q: Even right now?

ZB: Positive. Ron set out recruiting me. Ron and I started serious talks in the middle of the year - so I wouldn’t be sitting where I am without Ron. He is very much in my mind. I have spoken to him before I came to Abu Dhabi. My relationship with Ron is unchanged.

Q: Does Ron hope to run the team through you?

ZB: I don’t know what he hopes. This is a question for Ron to answer. All I can say is that he told me before I flew out to Abu Dhabi that it is a very good thing that I have joined.

Q: Coming back to the racing, what do you say to the rumours that Fernando Alonso could walk away at the end of the season if the team doesn’t reach his objectives. Fernando is a huge asset…

ZB: Fernando has a straight three-year commitment. Period. And with Fernando and Stoffel (Vandoorne) and Jenson Button we have the coolest driver line-up you can imagine. So at least we do not have any driver excuses.

Q: What about car excuses?

ZB: No excuses. So far I have not got involved in any technical stuff, but in the future I surely will be part of the technical briefings - at least try to understand. But more important, I will see that we have the right people in the right places and - also important - have the right resources to get the job done. I have a ton of faith in Eric and Jost.

Q: There was speculation that you had your eyes on Bernie Ecclestone’s job. Was McLaren second best?

ZB: No, no. There has been speculation about Bernie’s job for years. So it’s no secret that I had conversations with Liberty (Media) - I’ve known them for a long time and (Formula One Group Chairman) Chase (Carey) was one of my clients back in TV with NASCAR. My move to McLaren has exclusively to do with how excited I am with this opportunity. It is what I wanted to do. Liberty would have been a great opportunity, but anyway we will work closely for the reasons of enhancing the show and fan engagement. When I was talking with Chase and (Liberty Media President) Greg (Maffei) recently I wanted them to know that McLaren will be a friendly partner in the pit lane.

Q: In a year’s time, what do you want to be held accountable for?

ZB: I would like to see more partners on the race car. I want to see more on-track success - probably having a view of the podium. But I don’t want to get caught making predictions. What I can say: ‘more’ is the route to go!