We shake hands. It was just as it was a year ago when he first appeared with his wife and children on the Abu Dhabi circuit. Smiling, offering out handshakes to everyone from the waiting staff to Fernando Alonso. Now, 12 months later, we talk to Zak Brown, head of the McLaren F1 team. It is an honour and a privilege to have a chat with this seemingly friendly and happy American who looks to work his magic to lift Alonso, alongside his team, to a seemingly impossible third title. Will he achieve it? This is what we put to Zak...
Manuel Franco: It's now time to look back. What's been your assessment of McLaren's year?
Zak Brown: Frustrating. Frustrated. Not McLaren. But now that the end of the season is so close, we're getting very excited for next season. It's been a very frustrating season. I've only been here one season and I've been very frustrated, so I can't imagine what all the men and women who have been at McLaren for three years are feeling. It's unfortunate that it didn't work out, because Honda are really good people, [they] tried hard but it just didn't work, so I think we made the right decision for everybody.
MF: Why has this season been worse than last year, when McLaren appeared to be getting better?
ZB: I think there's a multitude of reasons, but Honda have themselves said that they've changed the engine this year, so instead of it being year three it was almost like going back to year one, and then Formula One has a different culture and ways of working and I think Honda will eventually get there, I think they will eventually be successful. But we need a bit more certainty, so hence the change. And I think they're learning from their mistakes, as we all are.
Alonso and his retirement
"He may be 36 years old in age, but I think his body's 22, so I think he's got a lot of driving ahead of him."
MF: Tell me about the split from Honda. What was the process like?
ZB: A long process, a cooperative process. For the deal to come together took the support of Liberty, FAI, Toro Rosso, Carlos, Renault, so it wasn't easy. It was a very complicated arrangement. But I think the outcome is very good; everybody's happy. Honda stays in the sport, which was very important to everyone, and I think it will be exciting for the fans. Any time there's a change, it gives you something to be excited about for [the first race of the new F1 season in] Australia. So I think it's going to work out well for everybody.
MF: What are your hopes for McLaren's partnership with Renault?
ZB: We hope we're going to be winning races next year. It's not going to be easy, but it's what we're going to try and do.
MF: Those are impressive words after a year that you called "frustrating". What can you promise?
ZB: Yes, however we want to win despite the past year. I'm not going to make any promises, because that's when you get in trouble. But, you know, Red Bull is winning races with the Renault, we're going to have the same engine; they're a great team, we're a great team; they've got great drivers, we have great drivers. If they can win, I think we can win.
MF: Are Red Bull a benchmark for you to aim for?
ZB: Well, [yes] in that it has a Renault. Red Bull's not the only team we want to beat; we want to beat everybody. But it certainly gives you a good comparison.
MF: What is your opinion on Fernando Alonso, not only as a driver but also as a person?
ZB: First of all, he's an unbelievable racer. His passion, his preparation, his dedication to how he goes about motor sports is why he's a two-time world champion, and probably should be a three or four-time world champion. And so he's enjoyable to work with, he pushes the team. He's got very high expectations of himself and the team, he's a big contributor in the garage: not only is he a big influence when he's thinking in the car, but he's a huge influence out of the car. So he's a pleasure to work with.
"We surprised the world, he drove great, it was such a great story, and given how difficult the year's been, to be able to hit the 'pause' button from all the negativity..."
MF: Some people think that by participating in Daytona, having also gone to the Indy 500, Alonso is saying goodbye - what do you think about that?
ZB: No! We've just signed him. So I don't think [he's saying] goodbye; we're thinking about winning races next year. We've got the basis for a long-term arrangement and I would like Fernando to finish out his racing career at McLaren, whether that is Formula One and then in the Indy car and sports cars or whatever, I think he's going to want to drive for a long time. There are some drivers, like Nico Rosberg, who [just] quit. I think when Lewis [Hamilton] eventually quits, he'll be done. Fernando I think is one of those rare drivers like a Mario Andretti who's going to want to race in different disciplines, and I think he may be 36 years old in age, but I think his body's 22, so I think he's got a lot of driving ahead of him.
MF: Do you know for definite that next year is not Alonso's last year in Formula One?
No. It won't be his last year. I'm sure.
MF: Tell us about the Indy 500, which Fernando tells us was the highlight of his year. What about you?
ZB: I'm not sure if in my career I'll ever have a more exciting moment. Well, hopefully winning a Formula One world championship. But as far as... we surprised the world, he drove great, it was such a great story, and given how difficult the year's been, to be able to hit the 'pause' button from all the negativity and have such a good story that was great for everybody, was great.
MF: And what are your hopes for Daytona?
ZB: Our hopes are to win.
ZB: Yeah, yeah.
MF: Well, looking at his team-mates, Lando Norris is very young and very talented...
ZB: Yes, and very fast. Phil Hanson is very young and very fast...
MF: And Fernando is the father of the team!
ZB: Yes [laughs]. He is older than the two of them combined. He'll be a mentor, which is going to be great. And our other car - I don't like to call it our second car - which is going to be led by Paul di Resta, is also going to have a chance to win. But there are going to be about 12 cars that have a chance. It's going to be very competitive.
MF: What is your opinion about Fernando Alonso possibly taking part in the Le Mans 24 Hours race next year?
ZB: If he can find a good ride that he's interested in, then we're very open-minded.
MF: With Toyota...?
ZB: It wouldn't be McLaren. McLaren and Toyota aren't competitors, so that doesn't bother us. We're looking at Le Mans, but for the future rules. So if he [Alonso] wants to do it next year, it wouldn't be with McLaren because we won't be there. If he wants to do it in the future, we may be there.
MF: Fernando Alonso is one of the best drivers in F1, but for you who is the best?
ZB: Oh, for me it is Fernando. He is the most complete driver.
MF: Who would be in your top five?
ZB: Fernando, Lewis, Max [Verstappen], Sebastian [Vettel], Daniel [Ricciardo]... But then you look at Stoffel [Vandoorne]. Stoffel will be in that group soon. I mean, there are lots of great drivers.
MF: What about Carlos Sainz?
ZB: I think he's very good. I'm a fan of Carlos Sainz.
MF: At some point could you consider Sainz for McLaren?
ZB: Carlos is a driver we would definitely consider at McLaren. We don't have any seats right now, but if I were looking for a driver, Carlos Sainz would be right torwards the top of the list. I think he's very good.
MF: Tell me about Stoffel Vandoorne.
ZB: He's very good. He's had a tough rookie year, being up against Fernando, having a very unreliable car. [There's been] a great relationship between Stoffel and the team, a great relationship between Stoffel and Fernando. He's a very nice guy, he's very dedicated, he's very fit, he's very fast. And I think he's going to get stronger and stronger.
MF: Tell me about Formula One and the future, with Liberty and with everything.
ZB: I'm very happy with everything they're doing. The biggest thing that they're doing is that they're focusing on the fan. And I think if we grow the fanbase, then we'll have more sponsors, which will put more money into the teams... So I think they're doing a great job, they're trying new things at the track, they're doing new things with digital and social media, so I'm very bullish on the future of Formula One in Liberty's hands.
MF: You're a specialist at this. How do you see the future of broadcast media and F1?
ZB: I think when you look at media, you need to look at the entire package. Pay TV, over the top, free to air, digital... You need to look at [the question]: Are we promoting the sport through all the right channels in the right way? Sometimes pay TV makes sense, sometimes free to air's better... Right now, for example, you have motorsport.com of which I'm CEO. We are the leader but I wouldn't say that we will be the one and only in the future. However, mass media is critically important because that's what's going to generate new fans. The motorsport.com [reader] is the hardcore fan, which is obviously very important, but we also need to create new fans, and that's where traditional media outlets are very important.
MF: You arrived at McLaren to bring in sponsors. How is that going and how is the financial situation?
ZB: Obviously the engine decision was an expensive decision, but we have very committed shareholders, with whom the remit is: Go and win races. And that's priority one, so we believe that when we get back to being at the front, the sponsors will come. We have some new sponsors coming on board for next year, and we have a wealthy set of shareholders so we'll get through some tough times and we'll be OK.
MF: I suppose the fact that Alonso is staying helps with this?
ZB: Yeah, we don't have Button anymore but we'll have Lando Norris eventually. We've got some great brands joining us next year.
I part by wishing him a good year and reminding him that it's important to us at AS.
He winks an eye and he's gone. Thanks Zak!
- United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland