Zak Brown was hired in 2016 following a power struggle that saw Ron Dennis ousted though the American was not a direct replacement for Dennis as his role was focused completely on the racing element of McLaren rather than all the Group’s commercial interests.
Brown had already delivered success in his previousl role to sign up blue chip companies as F1 partners. In fact it’s believed Bernie Ecclestone himself advised the McLaren owners that Brown was the man to rebuild the racing team.
Brown brought in to rebuild McLaren F1
Yet Zak was unproven in running a Formula One team despite his vast experience in the commercial side of sport. Despite this when Eric Boullier was relieved of his duties in 2018, Brown was elevated to the role of McLaren Racing CEO which simplified the previously over bloated management structure.
This told the world who was in charge now at McLaren and as Brown told The Race during an interview in 2021, “If I look at what was McLaren’s single biggest issue, it was lack of clarity and leadership.”
“You had Ron in, Ron out, [Martin] Whitmarsh in, Whitmarsh out, [Eric] Boullier, [Jost] Capito. So forget about any of those one individuals: that right there is not a recipe for success.
“The shareholders recognised we need to have one person in charge of running McLaren Racing, making it clear internally and externally, and go.
McLaren’s rotting hierarchy
However, whilst Zak unpicked the rotting architecture he recognised it was not his skillset to run the day to day activities and so set about recruiting the right people for the job.
“If I interfere, I’m more likely to mess it up,” he joked.
When Brown joined McLaren, the racing team was part of the Technology Group umbrella structure alongside McLaren Marketing and Applied Technologies. Brown was the most senior person on the racing side but Jos Capito was still there as CEO and Boullier was racing director. Meanwhile, Ekrem Sami was the CEO of McLaren Marketing.
“You never had one person that can make a decision on everything,” says Brown. “Organisations need that.”
Matrix structure abandoned
By 2018 the complex “matrix” organisation built by Whitmarsh to manage the team had been dismantled and 3 key appointments made. Andrea Stella was moved into the position of performance director and James Key as technical director along with Andreas Seidl (team manager who would join in 2019.
Of course with Seidl now leaving for Sauber in 2023, Andrea Stella has simply stepped into his shoes.
Of course 2019 bold decisions were made regarding McLaren’s drivers. Stoffel Vandoorne who had accumulated just a quarter of his team mate Alonso’s points was released along with the demotivated Spanish double world champion.
Bold F1 driver decisions
The team recruited Carlos Sainz Jnr who after 4 years as part of the junior Red Bull team realised it was time to move on. He was joined by the 2017 Formula Three European champion Lando Norris who had been the team’s reserve driver for the previous season.
Despite his additional F1 years experience, Sainz did not dominate Norris and during the 2019 season and by the close of play in 2020 the gap was just 8 points.
Of course Sainz Jnr was called on high by Ferrari through left McLaren joking to his successor Daniel Ricciardo that the car was difficult to drive.
Norris went on to dominate Ricciardo over the next 2 years who has now been replaced by rookie driver Oscar Piastri which for many looks a gamble for 2023 and a team hoping to compete with Alpine for P4 in the constructors’ race.
Lando Norris one of the originals
Following the departure of Andreas Seidl, now Lando Norris is now one of the few from line players left at McLaren since brown launched his business re-organisation in 2018. The British driver has a contract until the end of 2025 though is believed to be coveted by teams ahead of McLaren on the F1 grid.
Whether Norris will see out the remaining 3 years is yet to be seen given McLaren will have performance targets set to ensure they retain their young superstar F1 driver.
Zak Brown is not worried despite McLaren losing out on P4 to Alpine in the 2022 constructors’ championship. He believes Norris is in for the long haul and to the completion of the Brown led McLaren re-build.
Brown believes Lando Norris will stay
“Because I’m convinced we’re going to give him a winning car. We have a long-term contract with him. I think he feels very comfortable within the team,” Brown tells motorsport.com
“Other than obviously the pressure we put on ourselves, because we don’t want to just give him a winning car, we want to give us a winning car. So, I think we’ve got a runway to get there.
“He knows the journey we’re on. He has bought into the journey that we’re on, and I think it’d be early to be worried about it,” the American insisted.
McLaren F1 performance is they key
Yet whether McLaren will achieve the destination Brown has set for the team looks a tough proposition. Had Norris’ team mate been able to score anything like the British driver did may have seen the Woking outfit clinch the constructors’ P4.
Yet as with all rookies it looks a tough ask for Oscar Piastri to deliver anything near the number of points Norris will accumulate next year and make the battle with the Alpine duo as difficult again.
At present Zak Brown is staking everything on his star driver knowing how hard it is for promise to develop into results and consistency.
“We’ve seen drivers that have been great along the way and then, when they get to the top, you don’t know if it was them or the situation: Jan Magnussen right? He was mega in everything and then didn’t quite work in F1. Jos Verstappen was often mega in everything, it didn’t quite work in F1,” said Brown.
Brown believes Piastri will be competitive
“Lando was mega in everything. And it has worked in F1. In fact, what I think I’m happiest to see is not just pure pace, but how few mistakes he makes, and how strong his racecraft is.
Brown realises year 1 for Piastri will be tough but reflects on Norris during his rookie season.
“Looking at Lando, year one. He had the pace, but probably didn’t have his elbows out enough. And now he’s fair, but he’s a tough character when you are racing.”
“I think Lando is one of the fastest drivers on the grid and I expect Oscar to be close,” he said when asked how expected the pair will perform relatively in 2023.
McLaren must move forward to keep Norris
“I expect Oscar to have some opportunities to beat him and vice versa. And that’s obviously what you want, right? It’s two drivers right next to each other and reversing the order,” Brown concluded.
Whether Lando Norris sees out the 3 more years on his contract will depend on simply whether McLaren continue to move forward and make ground on the competition.
Yet Aston Martin have been in a similar rebuilding phase and have the mercurial Fernando Alonso joining the Silverstone squad for 2023. Alfa Romeo are now building towards the Audi takeover and so P4-P6 may be hotly contested in the up coming F1 year.
— McLaren (@McLarenF1) December 25, 2022