4 Things Zak Brown Must Do to Take McLaren-Honda Back to the Top of Formula 1
Formula One's loss is McLaren-Honda's gain.
After announcing his resignation as chief executive officer of CSM Sport and Entertainment in September, leading motorsport business figure Zak Brown seemed almost certain to help shape the future of F1 under proposed new owners Liberty Media.
Having shared his impressive vision for the sport in a four-part interview with F1 journalist Peter Windsor, many felt the American would slot seamlessly into a top commercial job at the moment Liberty managed to do the impossible and rid itself of Bernie Ecclestone, the paddock's deeply entrenched chief executive.
And then something even more unimaginable happened.
McLaren's ousting of legendary chairman Ron Dennis created a vacancy at one of the sport's largest, most successful institutions and Brown—a motor-racing enthusiast who just happens to work in F1—just couldn't turn them down.
In many ways, leading McLaren—the biggest underachievers of the modern era, without a grand prix victory since 2012 and a world championship of any kind since 2008—is an even bigger challenge than establishing a plan of action for the sport itself.
But if he can be the one to do it, Brown—making his first public appearance with the team at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix—will weave his name into the fabric of a team synonymous with the success of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the late 1980s and early '90s.
Here, we examine how McLaren's new executive director can harness all of that potential and drag the team back to the summit of F1.
Capture a New Title Sponsor
It has been sad—almost tragic, in fact—to watch how naked McLaren's machines have become in recent years.
Competing with mobile billboards just a decade ago, the team have haemorrhaged sponsors left, right and centre to the point where their cars are now almost as bare as the backmarkers.
That long-term partners including Hugo Boss and TAG Heuer have ditched McLaren for rival teams—switching to Mercedes and Red Bull, respectively, in 2015—has only added insult to injury.
But the first cut was by far the deepest—and it is yet to be stitched up.
Following the end of McLaren's seven-year relationship with Vodafone at the end of 2013, Dennis was determined to avoid settling for a quick fix, even suggesting the concept of title sponsorship was a thing of the past, per Autosport (h/t Eurosport).
Highly reluctant to undersell McLaren—to settle for anything less than the best deal for the team he had come to regard as his own creation—Dennis' stubbornness arguably contributed to his downfall, but Brown should be far more accessible to potential partners.
In his previous role at Just Marketing International, the leading motorsport marketing agency, Brown was behind some of the biggest deals in the modern era—including Martini's title sponsorship of Williams, Ferrari's deal with UPS and McLaren's agreement with Johnnie Walker, per The Inside Line's Maurice Hamilton.
As reported by Autosport (h/t Eurosport), Brown fears he has arrived too late to find a new title sponsor—which, in stark contrast to Dennis, he believes is "crucially important"—for next year, with the American hoping to finally find a replacement for Vodafone in time for 2018.
That would broaden the team's budget and, with any luck, signal the end of that bland, "mutant McLaren-Honda" colour scheme the team have used for the last 18 months.
Let the Team Breathe
"There will be changes...We will win again," Dennis declared upon his return to executive power in January 2014, per the Guardian's Paul Weaver.
At the time—a couple of months after the team's first winless season since 2006—this blast from the past seemed to be exactly what McLaren needed to climb back to the summit of the sport.
But as the Second Coming of Ron progressed and the results worsened, one of the most influential figures in F1 history became, at best, a disruptive influence and, at worst, a complete and utter embarrassment to the team constructed in his image.
As noted on the second anniversary of his return, Dennis' 2015 was defined by several troublemaking exploits, with anyone and everyone—including former drivers Kevin Magnussen and Lewis Hamilton—in danger of being the subject of a Ron rant.
His presence at the rear of the garage appeared to undermine racing director Eric Boullier, who established himself as one of the most impressive young leaders in F1 during his time at Lotus but quickly became fluent in "Ronspeak" upon arriving at McLaren, where he was reduced to a mere puppet.
Although he became a little less visible in 2016, Dennis was more of a hindrance than a help for much of his comeback, and his removal should allow the team to breathe again.
Feeling like "a little kid" in one of F1's biggest sweetshops, as he told Motorsport.com's Charles Bradley, Brown—who already has experience in running racing teams, having founded the United Autosports sportscar operation—may feel a temptation to adopt a similarly hands-on approach.
But if he is as smart as so many say he is, he should work on eradicating the stifling atmosphere at McLaren and, more importantly, let Boullier and Co. do their jobs without interference.
Disentangle McLaren's Messy Management Structure
Before Brown can let Boullier and Co. do their jobs, he must first understand what their jobs actually are.
For several years, the team's management structure has been very complicated, very messy—very McLaren—with a number of roles seemingly overlapping each other.
You have Boullier, who is the team principal in all but name. You have newly appointed chief executive officer Jost Capito, the man behind Volkswagen's astronomical success in the World Rally Championship, who does something or other.
You have chief operating officer Jonathan Neale, who moved upstairs to accommodate Capito and is set to work directly alongside Brown. And there is more to come, too, with the team's official website confirming "a new Group Chief Executive Officer" will be appointed in due course.
Unlike at Mercedes, where Toto Wolff, Paddy Lowe and Niki Lauda all have clear, defined roles, McLaren's busy, disorganised setup invites egos to run wild.
With that in mind, it is no surprise there are already "reports of friction" between Boullier and Capito a matter of months after the latter officially started work with the team, according to BBC Sport's Andrew Benson.
As he told Motorsport.com's Bradley, Brown is already on good terms with both men having taken Unilever to Boullier's Lotus in 2012—another one of his marketing masterstrokes—in 2012 and known Capito for more than a decade.
Extinguishing any inter-team tensions and finding a place for the many cooks in McLaren's kitchen could prove to be his first real challenge.
Keep Fernando Alonso and Keep Him Happy
Will he stay or will he go?
Throughout this year, Fernando Alonso has warned he will happily walk away from F1 if the new-for-2017 cars are not to his liking, telling an FIA press conference how the current state of the sport has left him "a little bit sad."
But he would be even more upset if he were to end his career with just two world championships to his name, recently insisting he will not switch to endurance racing until he finds the third title he's been looking for since 2006, per F1i.com's Chris Medland.
At 35, Alonso appears to be conflicted—losing the will to go on but still too determined to give up—and it is up to Brown, along with the other members of the McLaren hierarchy, to take advantage of his star driver's uncertainty.
As Dennis told BBC Sport's Benson prior to his demise, the major regulations changes will offer McLaren a golden opportunity to return to winning ways and even challenge for the championship, potentially bringing Mercedes' dominance to a shuddering stop.
Even if he hates the feel of the 2017-style cars, a reasonably competitive one should be enough to persuade Alonso to remain on the grid.
And if their four-year winless streak continues, they must show enough encouraging signs—regular podium finishes, a typically strong rate of development across the season—and give Alonso as many reasons as possible, both on and off track, to still believe in McLaren-Honda.
Brown's first priority should be to keep Alonso in F1; his second should be to keep him behind the wheel of a McLaren.