We caught up with Zak Brown, the new McLaren president, ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, the first of the 2017 F1 season. The new American boss of the legendary team has quite a challenge on his hands, after extensive problems in testing with the new Honda engine in pre-season testing, but he says he’s optimistic: “We’ll finish the race”…
Given the state of things, let’s start with the easy stuff. Why orange, Mr Brown?
It was in response to the fans. We’re devoted to them. At the end of the day, we focus on our fans, our teammates and our staff. Given our history, orange, which is one of our colours… well a dynamic orange is very satisfying, I think it makes the car more exciting for everyone.
Your predecessor Ron Dennis was an F1 legend, and now you are here. Who is Zak Brown?
I’m a racer. I’ve spent my whole life involved with racing. In my younger days I competed and I still do in vintage cars. I’ve based my life around this sport, my business life as you’ll know was mainly focused on the sport. So my F1 experience is the actual business of Formula 1. I’m not an engineer, I’m not a designer, I can’t contribute much to making the car go faster. That’s Eric’s job. My job, of course, is to make sure Eric has all the tools he has to do that. I’m a racer, a McLaren fan, a businessman. I’ve devoted my life to F1. It’s my overwhelming passion.
And as an expert in the F1 business, getting a major sponsor is a major objective…?
Yes. Getting a major sponsor is something that requires time to work on. I started in December and it needs a year. I wouldn’t have big expectations for 2017, but in 2018 we should have various more brands on the car. I’ve done my job.
"Getting a major sponsor requires time...in 2018 we should have more brands. I've done my job"
You’re from the US?
Yes, from LA
Formula 1… the US…?
Yes. It’s an important country [for the sport].
What’s the plan to grow F1 in your country?
The US has the biggest riches in terms of a mature [sports] market. That has its pros and cons. It’s great that it’s big, it’s rich, it has lots of interest, however it’s a saturated market. There are lots of sports, but I think it’s fantastic that F1 is also there. The race in Austin is awesome. We need another one. New York would be exceptional, you know… Miami, Las Vegas, all these tracks sound so good. I think they are fantastic places.
I think it’s great that we have an American team, I think F1 needs to lay down roots in America, it just needs to do it more quickly. I think a second race, better TV coverage, building awareness. We need to be there over the long term. You know, part of the problem in America is that we’ve got Detroit, Phoenix, Indianapolis… in other categories. We need another Austin, because they’re doing a great job in Austin.
What have you found at McLaren?
It’s an incredibly passionate team, full of history and it has a winning culture. That’s why we’re so frustrated when we don’t win races and it hurts to see that because you can see the passion there is in the team. I’ve been taken aback seeing the difficulties we’ve had in testing and then watching how the team works together. Everything’s got harder, everyone knows that. I was taken aback, but I’ve known McLaren for a while now and I wasn’t surprised by the reaction.
You said that this year it wouldn’t be possible to win, but that’s changed to just seeing if it will be possible… to finish the race on Sunday in Australia.
"The problem in America is that we’ve got Detroit, Phoenix, Indianapolis..."
No, in reality I think we’re ready to win, in terms of mentality and just about everything else. We’ve been ready to win for a long time. The drivers are incredible. We’ve got everything we need except for the power. Fernando already said it in testing, he summed up where we are now. The positive side of things is that Formula 1 is continuously evolving. We’re sitting here now and winter testing wasn’t good, but the season hasn’t started yet. We’ll finish races.
You seem optimistic, but if that’s so, why did you say you couldn’t win?
I was being honest at the time I made those comments that we probably wouldn’t win. But there’s one thing we won’t do, we won’t give up. We’ll get the most out of our package and we won’t stop until we’re winning races.
Do you feel your work is a mission to lead McLaren to success?
Yes, of course, that’s my mission. Between drivers, engineers and McLaren itself we’ve been in so many world championships. I don’t have any doubt that I joined at the right time. We’ll keep going though there are temporary challenge, like winter testing.
What does McLaren need to start winning again?
Boullier said something similar to me. Now there are rumours about Honda, people talking about Mercedes. Have you talked to them? Will McLaren continue with Honda?
We’ve got a long contract with Honda. That’s our plan.
How many years?
A few years more…
"We've got a long contract with Honda. That's our plan."
That’s what people are saying, but no, it’s a multi-year contract.
Fernando Alonso said he was expecting the team to react. What reaction do you think he was expecting?
Fernando is, as we all know, very capable of winning multiple world championships. All the races he hasn’t won have frutrated him, because he’s been world champion twice and it could have been three, four or five times. He’s doing a fantastic job. The drivers need to help us with the car’s development, they are the ones who drive it, they are desperate to win. I’ve enjoyed working with them in the short time I’ve been here. They are completely professional, and push the team forward and vice versa.
In the interview with Eric, talking about Fernando, we talked about how many people say that Fernando is the best F1 driver… but his last title was 11 years ago…
He was close a couple of times, wasn’t he? In the right car, very close. I think in Abu Dhabi 2010 for example. We could be sitting here and he could have easily been world champion four times. Unfortunately some changes he made weren’t at the best moment. We were close to the guys in red… And now for the last two years we haven’t given him a car that can win races, I think he didn’t win championships because of the team at certain point. Just because of that, if it were just about the driving…
Do you think Fernando will be champion again?
That’s our plan and his.
"Our contract with Fernando is for this year...I hope he stays after that"
What’s the feeling?
It’s clear we won’t win the championship this year. Our contract with Fernando is for this year. So…
You want him to renew…
I’d love to continue with Fernando, absolutely. We’ll show him we’re able to give him a car capable of winning championships. I hope he stays and enjoys the atmosphere at McLaren and everyone’s work. He’s happy at McLaren. Now we need to give him a car that’s capable of winning races, and we’ll be champions alongside Alonso.
Did Mercedes make contact with McLaren about Fernando?
No. I don’t think so.
Not with Fernando, with McLaren.
Fernando made his conversation with Mercedes public. I spoke to Toto out of season when it happened, but it was one conversation and there wasn’t a second.
A team with Fernando and Lewis Hamilton would be a dream?
Yes… you know it’s hard at times. Lewis and Nico… I think every team wants to have champions. A lot of teams have a number one and a number two, we’ve always had two number ones. It’s hard to manage two number ones and for both of them to actually be that. But at the end of the day it’s good for the sport and the entertainment. It’s good for television.
F1 has changed owners. What’s your opinion of Liberty?
I think Liberty are exceptional. They are media experts, and at the end of the day that’s the reason [F1] reaches billions of people. They know the sport really well. They know about the spectacle of sport. Their investors are going to take strategic decisions. I think they are the best fit we could have hoped for.
You could have been at Liberty but you chose McLaren. Why?
It’s what being a driver is all about. I want to race. And McLaren have always been my favourite team, it wasn’t an easy decision because both were incredible opportunities, but I’m happy with the decision I made. Now I’m racing, in a way. And very happy.
What do you think about the new Formula 1?
Do you mean the new cars? They look great, they are much faster. We’ll see how they go in Australia. Everyone has a different opinion and we won’t know until we see the first race.
Many thanks Mr Brown and we wish you every success, because your success will be that of Fernando Alonso’s fans around the world.
Thanks to you and your newspaper.
- United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland