Last month, Track Limits flew out to Sonoma, California to interview the CEO of McLaren Racing, Zak Brown.
Brown reveals his feelings on the 2023 season, what he’d change about the current F1 regulations and an embarrassing story featuring Lando Norris…
Time for Q1.
A rocky start for the papaya
2023 didn’t get off the line that well, and Zak knows it. Until major upgrades in Austria, McLaren was lucky to make it into the top 10. They were P6 in the Constructors’ standings at the midpoint of the season, but their upgrades eventually brought them up to P4 overall. Damaged limitations, perhaps. If their season was as consistently strong as the latter half, Lando could’ve easily been in contention for P2 in the Drivers’ Championship…
From finishing P17 and P19 in Miami to having two double podiums in Japan and Qatar, they went from looking like the slowest car on track to showing Red Bull’s Verstappen a wheel or two.
Zak’s magic touch
McLaren has gone from strength to strength since Zak Brown became CEO in 2018. They scored their first win together with Daniel Ricciardo in Monza 2021. Their first pole in Sochi 2021. And Oscar took the team to their first Sprint Race victory this year in Qatar.
A great post from a friend of mine, Niru, highlights Zak’s influence on the team and acquiring valuable sponsors to fund development costs.
Track Limits get Zak to share some insights on this. Brown mainly focuses on the commercial marketing side of McLaren, helping secure these huge new sponsors McLaren keeps acquiring, such as Monster Energy, for the 2024 season.
This episode was recorded with the final rounds of 2023 on the horizon, and Brown had already begun to work on the 2024 car to keep the momentum going. Upgrades brought to the car from Singapore 2023 onwards are critical for the 2024 car to hit the ground running.
Zak mentions that technical sponsors, such as Dell and Cisco, are the main reason McLaren is one of the development pioneers in F1, as their technology can keep up with the demands of the team. He also attributes the leading sponsors to the record-breaking pit stop in Qatar.
The youngest driver line-up on the grid
Track Limits asked Zak how he felt about their lineup for 2024 having the lowest combined age of the entire paddock and what each driver brings to the team.
Brown praises Oscar and Lando as having very similar driving styles, which only accelerates development. They are both very technical and ask for consistent changes out of the car. This is the dream when running an F1 team. We’ve seen difficulties of this kind at Red Bull, with the car being tailored to Max’s ‘pointy’ driving style rather than Checo’s smooth approach.
Zak emphasises that Lando doesn’t feel challenged by his younger, rookie teammate. After having a couple of years without a competitive teammate, Lando relishes having a true equal teammate to race alongside and keep him on his toes.
The future is female — and American?
Brown is also excited about the future of women in the sport, having recently signed Bianca Bustamante to their F1 Academy team. He mentions that McLaren is striving for a more inclusive workforce with the aim of over 20% of the team being from an underrepresented background. He believes that a more diverse, well-rounded team will bring the team success in 2024.
Track Limits questioned Brown’s stance on Andretti joining F1. He remained true to his word that he has no issue with more teams joining the sport, as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of their own funding or ‘slice of the pie’. He believes another American team on the grid (next to Haas) will boost TV revenue, sponsors and engagement with the US market.
Brown is keen on another Indycar win for McLaren and believes the team has a competitive package for 2024.
Zak went full purple in Q1. Time for Q2…
F1 wasn’t in pole position for Zak
As a kid, Brown took to baseball and ice hockey before entering the world of motorsport. It wasn’t until Alan Jones’ winning season in 1981 that Zak started to take notice.
He took up racing himself, getting into karting from 1986-1990 and winning 22 races. His most memorable race finish was a P2 at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1997. Brown recalls Martin Brundell and Mark Blundell’s historic return to endurance racing at the 24 hours of Daytona in 2011, where the duo drove to P4 for Brown’s team, United Autosports. This was their first drive together since the trio were victorious at the 1994 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Brown’s visions for the future of McLaren
Brown hasn’t had an easy ride as McLaren’s CEO. He recalls the pandemic years and the furloughing of his staff as one of the hardest moments in his career.
Zak and Daniel Ricciardo had a strong relationship, which is why it was hard for their ‘breakup’ in 2022. Both Zak and Daniel wanted it to work and aside from their first (and only) victory together in Monza 2021, the two years together were pretty underwhelming.
Brown points to the media for making the departure of Daniel even more difficult. With Ricciardo being such a popular driver (and McLaren a popular team) the eyes of the media were all over it and everyone had an opinion on the matter. Regardless of the outcome, Zak is thrilled to see Daniel performing well at AlphaTauri and hopes he has a successful 2024.
While we’re on the topic of the media, Zak loves Drive to Survive and the positive impact it’s had on the sport. He believes everyone is portrayed accurately, despite other teams complaining about their public image on the show. The show has been a leading factor in the rise of young, American and female fans engaging with the sport.
Outside of Formula 1, Zak is busy running United Autosports (UA), which is having consistent success in other series. In 2020, UA were the first team in history to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans (LMP2 class), the FIA World Endurance Championship AND the European Le Mans series in the same year.
I think it’s already clear that Zak’s had another full purple session. On to Q3.
It’s time for the quickfire round. Let’s see if it’s P1 for Zak…
If he could change one current regulation, he’d open up the cost cap for teams further down the grid to create closer competition
Fernando Alonso is the one driver he’d trust to drive him around on a hot lap
Ayrton Senna is Zak’s GOAT, no surprise there. He even has a super-rare scale model of Senna’s 1991-winning McLaren MP4/6 in his office
If Brown wasn’t McLaren CEO or United Autosports co-owner, he’d want a team in baseball
When asked about Max’s opinion on the Sprint Race format, Zak agreed it needs reviewing. Whether that’s a mandatory pit stop, a reverse grid or a bespoke super soft tyre, Brown would like to see some changes
Zak tells Track Limits that he got an ace (hole-in-one) against Lando Norris during The Netflix Cup tournament, but the footage was cut from the final edit after Lando was embarrassed to lose against him
The Le Mans 24-hour-winning McLaren from 1995 is the one car Zak wants in his collection more than any other
He owns Fernando Alonso’s IndyCar helmet, which is one of his favourite pieces of racing memorabilia
Zak believes the F1 calendar needs to be shorter. His solution would be to have 18 permanent tracks and then rotate four to six circuits every year to keep the track variation fresh
The Canadian Grand Prix is Zak’s favourite when it comes to atmosphere/experience
During the Japanese Grand Prix, Brown thought his watch had been stolen. He reported it to the police and they treated it like a murder mystery - he couldn’t believe their professionalism and dedication to finding the watch. Turns out, the watch was in his suitcase all along…
If Zak had to be stranded on an island with three F1 drivers, he’d pick Mika Häkkinen, Ayrton Senna and Mario Andretti
And, unsurprisingly, that’s another full purple sector for Zak Brown.
The hero that McLaren needed
Zak has undoubtedly been a positive addition to the McLaren team. He’s pulled the team out of its lowest, least successful era in their history (2015-18) and brought them back into the fight for the top step of the podium.
Here’s to plenty more papaya at the sharp end of the grid (and a Lando Norris race win - PLEASE).