Zak Brown must be the busiest man in motorsport. Just following his social media alone demonstrates that he is often jetting all over the world, and that is just the parts he chooses to share with us all! However busy he is, he always finds time to maintain his commitments; a noble trait, and on this occasion, one that I am extremely grateful for.
After a busy day at the Autosport International Show on Motorsport.com duties means we miss catching up, he makes time in his diary for me whilst at the airport, and we talk through elements of all those roles whilst looking at the year gone by, the ‘here and now’, and what 2018 might bring.
Sarah Merritt: Zak, we are chatting whilst you are at the airport now, and you were at the Autosport International Show with your Motorsport.com hat on, as opposed to your McLaren hat, or your United Autosports one. How crazy does it get for you having to interchange between those roles, especially at a time like this when you’ve just been out at the #RoarBeforeThe24 in Daytona?
Zak Brown: Extremely busy, but a lot of fun! I always have my different hats in my back pocket because you never know which one you have to put on at any one given time, so I wear all three at different times. McLaren’s always my first, second and third priority, then of course as non-exec chairman and owner of United, I put in the time happily required to contribute to what their expectations are. But McLaren is my only full-time job. It’s easy to balance them when you love motorsport and live in the sport. I’m quite used to having lots of commitments, so I wouldn’t have it any other way.
SM: And how do you think the #ROAR went for the team? Obviously exciting to have McLaren team members Fernando Alonso and Lando Norris involved, and having Fernando at the event certainly elevated it into the news. Were you a little disappointed by the car’s performance?
ZB: Yes, we were very excited to be there with both cars, obviously Fernando’s one of the most famous drivers in the world but in addition, in that car, we also had Lando Norris and Phil (Hanson), who did an excellent job when he’s racing with two of the fastest guys in the world, and Bruno Senna and Paul Di Resta, with our two regular drivers, Will Owen and Hugo de Sadeleer also did an excellent job. It was disappointing that the Ligier was, around that particular track, not as competitive as the ORECA and then the LMP2’s, on the whole, weren’t as competitive as the DPi’s (Daytona Prototypes). Whilst I think there’ll be some balance of performance to close that gap, it certainly seems around that particular track that the DPis, specifically the Cadillacs, have a pretty significant advantage.
So I think we’re going to Daytona knowing we’re not going to be the fastest team, but we need to do what we did at Le Mans, where we qualified thirteenth and finished fourth and be the fastest team in the pits, have drivers not making any mistakes, have the team not making any mistakes, then if we all do our job, I think a top five or a podium is well within reach.
SM: Now, changing hats again, let’s talk about McLaren; a challenging year in 2017, and I know you understand how difficult that was for stalwart fans as you often made mention of it and thanked us for our continued support. Can you summarise how hard a year that was for you and the team? How have you managed to maintain morale and a positive outlook when you knew that you’re heading to a race weekend with imminent penalties?
ZB: The team has done an outstanding job in 2017, and on track was definitely painful. I only had to deal with it for 12 months so I can imagine the pain for the balance of the team that had been there for three-plus years, and how frustrating that must have been. Morale never dipped – the team are fighters and it’s just made them hungrier! The frustration is what crept in because, as you said, you come to the weekend knowing it wasn’t going to be a good weekend, it was just going to be a degree of “how bad?”. That’s not a fun way to go motor racing, but outside of our on-track situation, we actually had a great year off-track.
Bringing the companies together, really engaging with the fans, retaining our drivers and some new partners coming on board; we actually accomplished quite a bit that wasn’t visible on television that I think we’ll see the benefits of from this year onwards. In that aspect, we actually had a very good season and we are very hungry for the upcoming year. It’s great how much fan support we have and they never gave up on us, the drivers never gave up on us, and the team never gave up on us.
SM: Obviously the switch has now been made to Renault to partner McLaren as an engine supplier next year, and a move away from Honda was something that seemed almost inevitable to us all on the outside looking in. My question is: when was the deciding moment for you? Not commercially, but more of a personal “enough is enough” moment? Was it at winter testing when it was clear there had been a step back again?
ZB: No, it wasn’t at winter testing. We knew during testing something had to change, but we had some ideas and approaches that we were working through the situation. Only after we explored all those avenues did we come to the conclusion that a change in engine partner was required, so that happened more around mid-season and we came to the conclusion that our only solution was to find a new partner.
SM: It seems that fans, journalists (and even team members) alike are very excited about the year ahead and the possibilities it holds – after all, it feels like it’s been a long time coming! What are your expectations? Are we all right to be getting excited?
ZB: Yes, everyone’s super excited! I can’t wait for Australia, I wish it were tomorrow. We’ll be ready. It’s not going to be easy, and I think we need to manage expectations. It’s an unbelievably competitive sport with some great teams at the front of the field, so we will definitely move forward but at the same time, people shouldn’t expect miracles overnight.
SM: That’s very true, but you did previously tell me I could expect a podium at some point?
ZB: That is certainly our goal!
SM: Is there perhaps an option for the future of McLaren building their own engine – taking away the risk of a third party, and keeping it all in-house?
ZB: We’ve had some discussions about it, but until we understand what the new engine regulations are it would be premature to do anything other than pay attention and be involved. We’re very excited about being with Renault. We’ve never done our own engines before so we’re very happy to have a very long-term partnership with Renault. We’re all waiting to see what the engine rules are before anyone makes any decisions on their plans from 2021 onwards.
SM: A hot topic of discussion ahead of the car launches always seems to be the McLaren livery. I’m sure you were surprised by just how much interest there was ahead of seeing the car for the first time last year, and the discussion seems to be bubbling this year too. Whilst it was great to have some orange last year, there is much hope that the fan’s desire of a Papaya MCL33 will have been taken into account and I know you listen to the fans! I’ve also seen you say about how that has to match with new sponsorship that is coming on board. What can you share with us?
ZB: All I can say at this point is stay tuned! We’re not done with the design yet because some of it is sponsorship driven, so if everyone thought last year was a step in the right direction they’ll be pleased with the outcome. We’re excited to show the car but sitting here right now it’s not 100% finalised so I couldn’t say what it’s going to be, because we don’t know yet ourselves.
SM: Lastly, and not that I think you will have had much time for this, but a question about your personal motorsport hobby. Have you acquired any new additions to your dream garage this year, and what car is there out there that you really would love to get your hands on?
ZB: Ooh.. good question! I have. I’ve bought the Jody Scheckter Wolf that debuted in 1977 and that he won with at Monaco, Canada and it’s first race in Argentina. I don’t park that in my garage, I’ll park that at the race track. The McLaren-Senna car is mega, but those are not yet being delivered. I’m always looking out for the next exciting race car with a big historical significance.