Zak Brown has been the CEO of McLaren Racing for since April 2018. In his first three years (2018-2020) at the helm, the McLaren F1 team finished 6th, 4th, and 3rd in the Constructors’ Championship. Since then (2021->), McLaren F1 has finished 4th, 5th, and ……. better off not to talk about this year’s performance so far. It raises the question of what changed and what has gone wrong after it looked so promising back in 2020.
The Early Brown Years (2018-2020)
Zak Brown took over as the CEO of McLaren Racing in 2018 at the same time as McLaren moved from Honda engines to Renault engines for F1. McLaren had used Honda power for the previous 3 years and had absolutely disastrous results, including finishing next to last in the Constructor’s Championship twice. The era is probably best summered up by Fernando Alonso referring to the power unit as a GP2 engine (GP2 is a feeder series for F1) in the middle of the 2015 Japanese Grand Prix. The move to Renault power had an instant positive impact and McLaren improved from 9th in 2017 to 6th in the Constructor’s Championship in 2018. 2018 also saw Lando Norris joining McLaren as its test and reserve driver for a year before being promoted into a race seat in 2019. Fernando Alonso left the McLaren team at the end of 2018 and for 2019 & 2020, Norris was paired with Carlos Sainz. The Norris Sainz driver pairing worked well, and McLaren improved to 4th in the Constructor’s Championship 2019 & 3rd in 2020. However, during this period, the Racing Team was still bleeding huge amounts of cash and when the McLaren Group got into major financial difficulties with the onslaught of COVID in 2020, a decision was made to spin McLaren Racing off into a financially separate but still majority owned joint venture. A consortium led by MSP Sports Capital became the minority shareholder in McLaren Racing after it committed to invest £185 million (£100 million injected in 2020) over 3 years. This cash injection was expected to fully fund McLaren Racing into 2023.
Brown Part II (2021->)
Like Zak Brown’s first year in charge back in 2018, 2021 would be another year of major changes for the McLaren F1 team. McLaren moved from Renault engines to Mercedes power. In addition, when Carlos Sainz left for Ferrari at the end of 2020, Brown signed Drive to Survive star (the Netflix Docudrama on F1), Daniel Riccardo, to replace him. While Norris continued to develop and finished 6th in the Driver’s Championship in 2021, Riccardo underperformed and finished 8th with the lone season highlight being the win at the Italian Grand Prix. While the Italian Grand Prix was by far Riccardo’s best performance of the season, it’s highly unlikely he would have won the race if Max Verstappen had not decided to park his car on top of Lewis Hamilton’s head on lap 25. If 2021 was a disappoint, 2022 was worse with Norris’s finishing 7th in the Driver’s Championship and Riccardo 11th. In 2022, McLaren dropped to 5th in the Constructor’s Championship, behind Renault’s Alpine Team whose engines it had dumped in 2021. Riccardo was effectively fired halfway through the 2022 season and Brown cut him a $18 mil. check to not drive for McLaren in 2023. To replace Riccardo for 2023 McLaren signed Oscar Piastri away from Renault’s Alpine F1 Team. The 2023 season has not gotten off to a good start and after only the 2nd race, McLaren Racing announced a reorganization which included the departure of Technical Director James Key. While McLaren did have both cars finish in the points in the 3rdrace of the season in Melbourne, only 12 of the 20 cars that started the race made the checkered flag.
Focus and then Lack There of
It appears that the first three year of Brown’s reign at McLaren Racing were very focused on McLaren’s F1 team and driving it forward on the grid. The move to Renault engines delivered immediate performance improvements and the signing of Carlos Sainz, while not flashy, was a solid choice that worked out well. McLaren Racing, after years of bleeding huge amounts of cash, was also put on much more solid financial footing during this period.
With results improving and the McLaren F1 Team seeming to be on the right track in 2020 Brown kicked off his “racing expansion” program with McLaren first joining the US IndyCar Series in 2020 and later announcing that they would enter Formula E in 2022. Extreme E was later added in 2021 for the 2022 season. In 2021, McLaren Racing cemented their involvement in IndyCar by acquiring a 75% share of the Arrow McLaren IndyCar Team. McLaren F1 also switched over to Mercedes engines in 2021, right in time for Mercedes near decade long dominance of F1 to be ending.
A Few Thoughts
In my business career, wherever you have a struggling business, the first thing you do is simplify and focus the operation on the core business, and then keep this focus in place until the business is back in a leadership position. Based on the above, it appears that the McLaren Racing Team did a great job of this early on and made progress but then started chasing shiny objects before the job was done. Stepping back, it looks like someone caught a bit of “Drive to Survive itis” and started making decisions based more on PR value than sound business rationale. While signing Riccardo was a bit of a PR coup at the time and led to a highly complementary Drive to Survive episode on the 2021 Season titled “Ace in the Hole”. A better name for the episode would have been “Two of Clubs” given how the McLaren – Riccardo partnership turned out. A short look back at history would have indicated that signing Riccardo was a high-risk undertaking. No driver in the last decade has left Red Bull and then delivered improved results with the new team. Riccardo’s departure after the 2022 season, and the signing of Oscar Piastri to replace him, was another episode that no one emerged from covered in glory. After Renault/Alpine had spent millions developing Piastri over the last several years, for him to suddenly turn his back on the team and sign with McLaren does raise a few questions on his character and sense of loyalty. If he had no issue doing that to Renault, what makes McLaren think he will not do it to them a few years down the road.
On McLaren’s expansion into other racing series, this has to be a significant drain away from the F1 Team in terms of both financial resources and management time. IndyCar has been the most significant of these new racing series entries, and while McLaren does have some heritage in IndyCar, more in fact than Aston Martin has in Formula 1, it dates back to the 1970’s which is hardly relevant for the majority of today’s McLaren fans. In the announcement on McLaren Racing acquiring 75% of the Arrow’s McLaren IndyCar Team, Brown stated “McLaren Racing believes IndyCar will continue to build our brand in North America, serve our expanding US fan and partner base across our racing portfolio and drive long-term value.” I have a bit of an issue buying this as no other Formula 1 Team is involved in IndyCar. If IndyCar is such a great brand building platform, you would think Ferrari, Mercedes, or Red Bull (and Red Bull is involved in everything from Surfing to Stunt Flying) would have gotten involved long ago. In addition, Formula 1, which is rapidly increasing in popularity in the US, now draws an equivalent size TV audience per race to IndyCar. Finally, IndyCar is not a talent source for Formula 1, in fact it’s the opposite, many drivers who have lost their F1 seats end up in IndyCar. On the other two race series that McLaren has entered, Formula E and Extreme E, both are fairly irrelevant in terms of brand building right now as McLaren does not currently sell an electric car or a SUV.
On a final note, Zak Brown challenging Toto Wolff (Mercedes Team Principle) to a boxing match ahead of the Las Vegas Grand Prix is an indication that there is quite a bit of “Drive to Survive-itis” still going around the McLaren Racing Executive suite. As further evidence, Zak also challenged Christian Horner to a race ahead of the British Grand Prix. The race I would actually quite like to see is Zak vs. Toto’s wife (Susie Wolff). My money would not be on Zak.
McLaren hasn’t won a Constructor’s Championship since Bill Clinton was chasing Monica Lewinsky around the Oval Office (1998) and hasn’t had a driver win the Driver’s Championship since Lewis Hamilton did so in 2008. Based on McLaren’s performance in F1 so far in 2023, both seem as far away today as they were 6 years ago. IndyCar, Formula E, and Extreme E all feel like distractions from what should be the sole focus for Zak and the organization, winning another Constructor’s Championship. Once that is achieved, then expansion might be considered.
Thoughts and comments? Please see the comments section below.
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I’ve never rated marketing man Zak Brown as a team principle. The lack of success shows this, but the amount of times, especially early on, when all he did was fire fight demonstrated he had no ability to plan for the future but was still dealing with yesterday’s problems.
From the start the ask of him was too much. McLaren threw out Ron Dennis and gave the entire portfolio to Zak Brown, around 2016. Ron could handle this as he had matured in to that position, but for someone being thrown into the deep end he could only do one thing: sink. Quickly they reorganised race, automotive, and technical in to separate divisions with Zak’s responsibilities limited to race (~2018).
When Zak arrived in McLaren in 2016 they had Eric Boullier as the racing director. They were so lost they started offering incentives to staff to tell them what was wrong with the car. Their incentive was a “Fredo”, a 50p chocolate frog. I’m not sure if that had something to do with Boullier being French, or that Brown was mean.
This is where Brown is getting told by pundits from all directions what’s wrong with McLaren, and that not only was Boullier no good but the matrix management system hindered McLaren. Matrix management was apparently put in by Whitmarsh, and you could say the demise of McLaren started during his time in charge of the race team. It was all fire fighting. Brown jumping from one crisis to another with no team building or planning for the future.
One thing Ron Dennis did say is that you can no longer expect to win in F1 without a works engine. It was around this time where McLaren, who had suffered so much pain with the Honda engine, gave up on it. Red Bull picked it up, maybe because they’d fallen out with every other engine builder, but now look what’s powering them to victory. McLaren opting for the Renault engine, one which was under performing in a Red Bull but available. And later a Mercedes, which should be enough to get to the front of the grid.
Another distraction was Alonso, a known team breaker. He’d already done his best to spoil the relationship with Honda, who it was ironically that demanded a big name like him was signed to McLaren. He’s there because of them, over paid probably too. And not only that, he’s demanding he wants a shot at the triple crown, and demands McLaren enter the Indy 500. He’s got Monaco and LeMans already. Interestingly, Montoya only needs LeMans to complete his! I hope Montoya gets a drive… But for Alonso, he soured the relationship with Honda so badly the next year where it was clear the winning car would be Honda powered, Honda refused to let him drive anything with their engine. Karma.
What did Zak Brown do right?
In 2018 he signed Andreas Seidl. Letting him run the race team, and result improved. It seemed that he knew how to get better performance out of the team, what technical projects to back, and inspire the drivers. I credit Seidl with the improvements at McLaren, because they’re not the work of Brown for sure.
I’d also credit Brown for Lando Norris. Two drivers have gone up against Lando, Ricciardo and Sainz. Both have said to have underperformed, but I think this is a mistake. I think it’s more that Lando is a genuine talent. He has the speed. Just that he’s too nice a guy and that’s making you overlook just how good he is. He needs a better car to show off just how good. Look at Sainz now, out scoring the highly rated LeClerc.
It’s all falling apart again at McLaren because Seidl has left. Brown has to find a better replacement than he has, and as Williams found when they hired Paddy Lowe, there are many who are living on the coattails of others in F1. Whatever Seidl did within McLaren was right.
Mercedes have been living off what Ross Brawn built. Toto’s coup removed him, but he was smart enough to leave everything that Brawn did in place. Ferrari by contrast didn’t, destroying everything in the belief they knew better. Look who did better in their pre-Brawn years. Brawn GP race team was the most successful team in F1 history, no other has won every championship they entered as they did. Now Mercedes has to find their way back to success with Toto. Can McLaren with Brown? Brawn’s success in F1 is unquestioned with success at Williams, Ferrari, Brawn GP and Mercedes (he had everything in place – he deserves the credit). Horner has managed it with Red Bull. Even Ron Dennis did with McLaren. But does Brown have the ability? I don’t know…
One thing for sure, with Norris he has a driver who could.
Article needs a bit of proof reading but thanks for pulling it together.
As an F1 team is now a cash cow under Liberty and the cost cap, I have no issue with a money man, rather than a racer, running it and I don’t think income diversification is such a bad idea when the car company looks so shaky.
What Zak has forgotten with the F1 team is the basics; he needs a manufacturer engine above all else (Audi was a golden opportunity) and a much stronger design team; the new trio of Technical Directors looks like a return to Whitmarsh levels if complexity and unaccountability.
Anywhere else Zak would have fallen on his sword.
Fearing for the long term.
Siedl was a Porsche man , twas only ever a posting.
Fear the shareholders are missing a trick.
Without the golden goose of a mfr engine it’s a battle.
Earnestly agree marketeers see the world completely differently: success on track (sustained) builds momentum. The arsenal of fields now committed to, hoovers up cash and mgmt capacity.