This weekend, at the 101st running of the Indy500, the biggest story in racing won’t be the blistering 232 mph lap set by polesitter Scott Dixon. Nor will it be young Alex Rossi’s quest to defend his 2016 victory.
The biggest story at Indy, and in the whole of the motorsports universe this year, is McLaren’s decision to return to the Brickyard with two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso.
It’s a decision that’s made waves in both the European and US racing communities.
And the man behind all of this is McLaren Technology Group executive director Zak Brown.
McLaren Racing is one of the most respected names in motorsports. With 182 Grand Prix victories under its belt, the Woking, England-based Formula One team is the second most successful outfit in the sport’s history.
However, the perennial powerhouse has greatly underperformed over the past two and a half seasons.
That’s where Brown steps in. The former racer took the top job at McLaren in late 2016 following the departure of long-time CEO Ron Dennis. With a reputation as an expert marketer, Brown was tasked with turning around the struggling giant’s on-track performance while securing its financial future.
Recently, the affable California native spoke with Business Insider on the future of McLaren, the business of Formula One, and Fernando Alonso’s foray into the world of IndyCar.
On the future of McLaren-Honda
Through the first five races of the 2017 Formula One season, McLaren-Honda are dead last in the sport’s constructors’ standings. Much of the team’s struggles can be attributed its embarrassingly poor Honda Formula One engines. The team’s drivers have complained that the cars are wildly underpowered. “I have never raced with less power,” Alonso said during one race. At both the Bahrain and Russian Grands Prix, one of the team’s cars broke down before the race even started.
“We didn’t just have a bad weekend, we’ve had a bad year,” Brown admitted. “I don’t think, being realistic, we’re going to have overnight success. It’s going to be a long journey to improvement.”
“It’s painful, we’re working closely with Honda. Together we have a plan to improve, but it’s going to be one that’s going to appear slow to the outside world,” he added. “You can’t fix the technical issues we have in a race. So we are hoping for small incremental improvements over the course of the season and do the best with what we have.”
Over the past few months, rumours have swirled about in the motorsports community that McLaren is actively trying to dump Honda as an engine manufacturer.
It’s a rumour, Brown was quick to shoot down.
“We are committed to Honda and we think we can work through the issues together,” Brown said. ” You can’t just change partners every time you aren’t having success. You have to stay focused on the long-range goals.”
On Fernando at the Indy500
Love it or hate it, this year’s Indy500 is all about Fernando Alonso. In fact, 2 million people tuned in to watch a live stream of Alonso’s rookie test of May 3rd — And that was just him driving around an empty track. So how did the sixth winningest driving in Formula One history decide to try his hand at Indycars?
“I brought it up to Fernando and it was something that I thought made sense for our brand,” Brown said. “I kind of threw it out there to Fernando as a little bit of joke because I didn’t know if has any desire to race at Indy.”
“Fernando stated that it was one of his career goals and when the window of opportunity opened up for this year, we jumped on it,” he said.
For McLaren, the Indy500 is not an unfamiliar place. The company’s cars won the race three times during the 1970s — once with Mark Donohue in 1972 and with Johnny Rutherford in 1974 and 1976. According to Brown, McLaren’s return to Indy may not be a one-time event.
“I can definitely see us being a regular entry in the future at Indianapolis,” the McLaren boss said. “Whether that extends to an Indycar team, would be too early for us to consider.”
When McLaren goes racing, the team takes three factors into consideration — whether the team is competitive, it’s commercially viable, and if it fits with the brand.
“We’ve ticked all three boxes for this year, and there’s no reason to why we can’t in the future,” Brown said.
On the business of Formula One
On track performance aside, one of the main reason Brown was brought into McLaren was to secure a headlining sponsor — something the team has been lacking for the past couple of seasons.
According to Brown, the environment for sponsorship opportunities is tough in Formula One right now. However, with Colorado-based Liberty Media at the helm of the series, there is new found optimism.
Even with its new US owners, Brown doesn’t believe Formula One will become more “America-centric”. However, he does believe there are some things F1 could learn from racing series in the US.
“Formula One, historically, hasn’t spent enough time on the fans and that’s not just the sanctioning body. It’s also the teams and the drivers,” Brown said. “I think we can all do a better job getting closer to our fans.”