Why Zak Brown has been McLaren’s best signing in years

McLaren finished third in the 2020 Formula 1 constructors’ championship, their highest finish since since 2012. 

In October 2019, Rob Hansford looked at why Zak Brown was McLaren’s best signing in years.

In 2016 McLaren removed its long standing CEO Ron Dennis from his position and replaced him with Zak Brown. Three years on, it is starting to look like McLaren’s best move in years.

It did not come as a surprise when the McLaren board ousted Dennis from his CEO role, after a power struggle with the other shareholders, and a disastrous switch to Honda power, but many did not expect them to replace him with Brown, a man who had no previous involvement with running an F1 team.

Prior to his involvement with McLaren, Brown was involved in marketing where he founded his own company – JMI – which grew to become the largest and most successful motorsport marketing agency in the world, and during the course of his career Brown has brokered some of the largest sponsorship deals in F1 history, including Williams’s deal with Martini back in 2014.

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He is the money man, with the eye for a deal but it was still a surprising appointment when McLaren announced that Brown would become their new CEO, given that he had no experience running a Formula 1 team.

Brown joined the team in difficult circumstances, and although he put a brave front on for the situation he faced, it was clear that the Woking based team had some huge hurdles to overcome, but before any of that could be achieved, the then 44-year-old had to decide where to start.

Stuck with a Honda engine that struggled to complete a Grand Prix, McLaren found themselves floundering at the back of the grid, but glimmers of Brown’s negotiation tactics shone through, as he managed to retain two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, despite being unable to provide a car that could regularly fight for points, let alone wins and world championships.

Sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward and that is how it panned out in this case.

Brown retained the majority of the McLaren leadership team when he joined, but instantly made plans to increase sponsorship revenue to bolster McLaren’s finances. As a sponsorship guru, it was assumed this would be easy pickings for the American, but the results fell some way short of his target, and the team is still without a title sponsor since 2015.

But while sponsorship may not have worked out in the way Brown would have hoped, his re-structuring of McLaren is starting to show some promise.

It was Brown who made the difficult decision to end its partnership with Honda and switch to a Renault power supply and it instantly helped the team make progress in the Constructor’s championship with McLaren ending 2018 in sixth position having been ninth the previous year.

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He has also been very clever with his driver signings. Fernando Alonso was never going to be happy sitting at the back of the grid and Brown recognised that the Spaniard’s constant complaints about the car were only damaging the team’s morale.

But rather than simply dropping Alonso, he made a very clever move by retaining him in the McLaren family.

Brown and Alonso get on well and in order to appease the two-time world champion, Brown gave him the opportunity to try out different categories such as the Indy 500.

And by retaining him in the McLaren brand, Brown has ensured his team will still gain maximum exposure from Alonso’s exploits elsewhere in the motorsport community.

He replaced Alonso with Carlos Sainz Jr in what was another clever move. Sainz has shown over the course of this season that he can lead a team, consistently putting in strong performances and his partnership with rookie Lando Norris has gone down as one of the best line-ups of the year so far.

Both drivers are rapid, consistently bringing points home when on offer, and on top of that, they are a marketing dream with their banter taking centre stage on social media.

Not only has this helped generate further publicity and exposure for McLaren, it is also enhancing the feel good factor within the team, which will only produce better results going forward.

Brown has also not been afraid to re-structure his team in recent years, having brought in Gil De Ferran as Sporting Director, and persuading Pat Fry to return to the team as Chief Designer.

The McLaren CEO also removed Eric Boullier from his post last year before securing the signing of ex-Porsche boss Andreas Seidl, as well as obtaining the services of James Key as Technical Director.

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These signings are starting to take shape and whilst Key will not have any major influence until 2020, Seidl has made an immediate impact which has seen McLaren make further changes in recent weeks.

Under Seidel’s recommendations McLaren announced earlier in the year that they will create their own wind tunnel and just at last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, the team confirmed that they will switch to Mercedes engines from 2021.

There has been a lot of change at Woking since Brown rocked up, and whilst things had a rocky start, he has been given time by the McLaren board.

2019 has been another step forward for McLaren, with the team currently sat fourth in the Constructor’s championship, the highest position they have held since 2012, and they are starting to resemble the outfit they used to be once again.

Brown may have given credit to Seidl for the wind tunnel build and Mercedes engine switch, but without the 47-year-old making that signing, these things wouldn’t have happened in the first place.

The problem with Brown’s predecessor was that he had to be in control of everything at all times, and perhaps that created more problems than it solved.

Now that he has installed the people he trusts, Brown has taken a step back from the day to day management and is allowing his crew to get on with the job in hand, and the results are beginning to show.

It is still too early to say that McLaren will be world champions once again, and there are still a number of obstacles for the team to overcome, but one thing is for sure, the signing of Zak Brown was the best signing the McLaren board have made for a long time.