Autoweek: What brings you to Detroit?
Zak Brown: I’m investigating a potential entry into IndyCar.
AW: What makes you even ponder such a thing? How are IndyCar and McLaren a good fit?
ZB: We have won the Indy 500 three times -- three times as a manufacturer, twice as a team in the ‘70s, so we have a long history in IndyCar. We think when we look at racing outside of Formula 1, which is our No. 1 priority, we have a different criteria. First, that it doesn’t in any way, shape or form compromise our focus on Formula 1. Two, that the racing program is commercially viable. Three, that it fits our brand -- we’ve been in IndyCar before, and we’re about open-wheel racing. And, finally, that we can be competitive and win. Those aren’t in an order of ranking, those are all must-haves. And we think from what we can see -- we dipped our toe back in the water last year at the 500 -- that IndyCar has the potential to tick all those boxes. And therefore, on that basis, we’re exploring whether we should enter (IndyCar) on a full-time basis, which is all about timing.
AW: If you were to enter, would you be supplying your own engines or would you be buying and engine from Chevrolet or Honda?
ZB: We certainly wouldn’t do our own engine before the new rules. It’s unlikely we would do an engine, but never say never.
AW: What is the timing that you think it will go from an investigative role to a yes or no? Weeks? Months?
AW: Before the end of 2018?
ZB: If we’re going to enter in 2019, definitely.
AW: There’s obviously other forms of racing that has McLaren's attention. There’s some production-based McLaren GT3 car and these types of things. IndyCar would be in addition to these other forms?
ZB: We’re in Formula E as of next season -- doing the batteries for the entire series -- and that gives us a great presence in Formula E. We have announced we’re doing a new 720 GT3 car, which is for the 2019 season. And we are following closely the new rules that World Endurance Championship are putting together. We’ve also met with IMSA. I think being a racing company, it’s our job to stay current and engaged on any other racing series that we think fit the McLaren brand.
AW: What’s your overall impression of IMSA?
ZB: I like IMSA. If you look at the grid this year in Daytona, it was stellar. Four or five manufacturers (in the Prototype class), Formula 1 world champions, IndyCar champions, 20-car DPi/LMP2 field, cool-looking cars. I think IMSA is in a great place. I think they’ve done a great job. I wish (IMSA and WEC) could find a global platform between the two of them. I’m not optimistic they will, which is unfortunate, first and foremost for the racing fan. I think sports cars as a whole would benefit. I just think their views are too far differing on what the top class should look like. Obviously, they’re aligned on GTE, LMP2, but not with LMP1 (class). That’s unfortunate. I think that could make sports cars even stronger. That being said, I think the rules that World Endurance are going down will work well for World Endurance. I just don’t think they really work in North America. I think the DPi works really well here. It would work really well in Europe, but they have differing views on what the cars should be.
AW: When you entered McLaren, it was after the ousting of former boss Ron Dennis and plenty of problems on the racetrack. What was it like entering the business at that time, considering all of McLaren’s history?
ZB: Fun. Hard. Exciting. Motivating. I’d been a massive McLaren fan ever since I’ve been following motor racing, really since I began following Formula 1 in ’88. It’s a massive honor, privilege and responsibility to lead McLaren. In it’s long history, there haven’t been that many leaders. It comes with a lot of pressure that I put on myself. It’s a team that everyone has big expectations of, as they should. But I’d rather come into a situation where I’ve got the opportunity to show my stuff, rather than come into a team that is dominant where all I can really do is go backward.
AW: Was there anything when you walked into McLaren that you said, ‘Why is that like that?’ Were there any surprises that really threw you off?
ZB: There’s stuff that I definitely changed. I think they are getting a lot more right than wrong, but definitely some areas that we need improvement, or we’d be winning races today. So, we’re definitely not perfect. I was pleasantly surprised, but not shocked, at how die-hard the McLaren employees are and in love with the brand. Everyone in there is massively passionate about the brand, and all they want to do is get back to winning. What pleasantly surprised me was the motivation is extremely high. You would think, given the decline in performance the team has had over the past five years -- which starts before Honda -- you would think there would be a lot of lack of motivation, frustration. It’s quite the opposite. I’ve never seen a group of men and women work so hard. And that’s because they love the brand.
They take it personally. That was great to see. I think weaker teams, given the five-year run -- really, the decline started in 2013. Martin Whitmarsh was running the team, Lewis Hamilton leaves in 2012, (title sponsor) Vodafone leaves. We didn’t win a race, and we were fifth in the championship in ’13 and ’14, pre-Honda, and then you’ve got the Honda situation that accelerated the decline. The decline really started probably when Lewis Hamiton said, ‘I’m leaving.’ Really it started on Whitmarsh’s watch, in that era.
Now we’re fifth in the championship, were fourth, hopefully we’ll finish fourth and that will be the best season we’ve had in five years. Our sponsorship hit, hopefully, our low point. This year, we’re up on sponsorship, so we’re slowly turning a five-year decline. I think we’ve now got it reversed, but you’re not going to fix five years in one year, but you’ve got to start turning the boat. So, it’s exciting. I think we’re going to do it. It’s going to take a little bit of time.
AW: What is it going to take to end the slide, and what role does Fernando Alonso play in that?
ZB: Well, Fernando is not going to be around forever, and McLaren has always gone after the best drivers they can get. Fernando is currently one of those, if not the best. I think he’s an important part of Mclaren’s future. He needs to decide how much longer he wants to do Formula 1, but we’ll always go for the best drivers and we’ve always been able to attract the best drivers., whether it’s Hakkonen, Senna, Fernando, Lewis, etc. My job now is to make sure we’ve got the right people, whether that’s engineers, technicians, drivers, the right people in the right place with the right process, roles, responsibilities, accountabilities. And then I need to make sure I give them all the right tools so they can do their job. As CEO, that’s no different than any business. This one happens to be motor racing. I think the job of a CEO is to bring leadership, focus and direction and then have all the right people in the right places and give them the right tools to get on and win -- whether that winning is in the boardroom or on the racetrack.
AW: Do you think Fernando leaves McLaren after the 2018 season?
ZB: I hope not. We want to keep him in the family until he’s ready to stop driving. I don’t think he’s ready to stop driving anytime soon. And even beyond that, (former F1 champion) Mika Hakkonen is a brand ambassador, and I’d like to have Fernando around the team post his driving career.
AW: You have a marketing background, a driving background before that. Given your background, where is the best place for you to be really hands-on at McLaren?
ZB: I’m a racer, first and foremost. I think I have a good understanding of the entire business ecosystem, whether that’s in the garage or in the boardroom or in the driver’s seat -- not that I can help Fernando with driving. I think I’ve got a 360-degree view of the sport and the business. And my business that I sold, I ended up running the entity that bought mine, which had 1,000 people, so I’m used to having 1,000 team members to lead. So I think my job, my greatest strength, is representing the McLaren brand, helping lead its strategic vision, attracting the best people in the business and building the business. Where I’m probably least effective is sitting in an engineering debrief room suggesting wing angles for qualifying.
AW: What do you think about Liberty Media and their direction of Formula 1?
ZB: I think they’re doing extremely well on the focus of the fan in the sport -- digital, social, trying to open up the sport to the fan base. And I think if you can grow the fan base, capture the younger audience, grow geographically, then the rest of the sport kind of takes care of itself. I do think they need to be moving quicker on 2021 rules. I think they’ve identified what they need to do. I think there’s general agreement on the direction that they’re taking the sport. But there’s a lot of key stakeholders, and I think that it was very good that they were consultative in the process. But know I think they need to be more forceful in making decisions because you’re just not going to get everyone to agree. Now they just need to go.
AW: What about the marriage between Liberty Media, Formula One Management and the FIA?
ZB: They need to be aligned. They're not always in agreement or they don’t always align at the same times on the various issues. That definitely adds complexity to the sport. We don’t only have the 10 teams, which sometimes have 10 different views and rarely one single view, but then you also have the partnership between the FIA and Formula 1, which is not always aligned, so that becomes a very awkward situation at times.
AW: How important is it to have an American team or American driver in the series to grow the sport in the U.S.?
ZB: I think it’s very important. I don’t think it depends on it, but I think it certainly helps. It does not hurt. I think a good TV package, which is new with ESPN, I think if a second race for Miami happens, that would be great. You have an American team, Haas, with European drivers, but I think if you have a successful American driver, it helps. The answer is you You need all that stuff. There isn’t a silver bullet where one is going to change the way Formula 1 is in America. It’s all of the above.
AW: What does America have to do differently to produce someone capable of racing in Formula 1? Is it money? Is it talent?
ZB: It’s hard because you need to get started in Europe. It takes commitment from a family to come to Europe. It’s a shame we let, as an industry, Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi, kind of slip through our hands. I think both of those drivers -- obviously Rossi did if for a little bit -- are Formula 1 caliber. You had two Americans there that ended up in IndyCar, which is great for IndyCar, but I think they were good enough to be in Formula 1 for sure.
They came over and ran in the junior formulas. Rossi got into it, but got with a team (Manor) that didn’t make it. Newgarden never got the (F1) opportunity. I wish there was more testing available because I personally would be comfortable with putting some of the IndyCar drivers in my Formula 1 car. The problem is, with the lack of testing, you just can’t take the risk. And the lack of experience -- Formula 1 gives you such a small window to be successful, that if you can’t test, you can’t be successful. When Michael (Andretti) came over, they really minimized testing. Michael was definitely great enough to be a frontrunner in Formula 1, but he was never given the opportunity and was done before the season had ended.
AW: Is there an American driver now who you can point to that is a Rossi- or Newgarden-like talent who is working his way up?
ZB: Not that I’m aware of. You’d look in karts, in Formula Renault, Formula 3, but I’ve not seen anyone who is winning races.
AW: So, going the European route and the junior Formula is really the only way to make it to Formula 1.
ZB: I think you have to. You have to understand the circuits. The technology is different over there. It’s hard with the limited amount of testing. One used to be able to do what (Jacques) Villeneuve did come over here, but he got 20,000 miles of testing. In today’s current Formula 1 environment, you have no choice but to do it that way. If we get back to allowing more testing, I think you could get to Formula 1 through IndyCar.
By Robin Warner
On the Indycar front, I've seen quotes from current teams wondering why anyone would link up with them - effectively help them get a foot in the door. I think they'd have to set up their own base.
I still wonder what the commercial sense is, given their F1 situation.