Despite a slow start to the 2023 season, McLaren principal Zak Brown stays optimistic with strong drivers and a faster car.
That Friday morning, the 10 F1 teams were preparing for crucial practice sessions in the final moments that cars can be modified before Saturday’s qualifiers and Sunday’s race. Amid the chaos, McLaren Racing team principal Zak Brown exuded a stately calmness while sporting a Richard Mille watch from the Rafael Nadal collection. Brown purposefully shifted from a meeting table inside the team’s paddock to a couch next to a coffee table adorned with flowers and a bowl filled only with orange M&M’s, representing the team’s signature color.
In a conversation with Boardroom, the 51-year-old admitted that the first part of the season has been disappointing for McLaren, currently tied for fifth in the F1 constructors standings.
“We knew that coming into the season, we kind of called our shot in our car launch. We knew we weren’t where we wanted to be in development,” Brown told Boardroom. “But it is a development race. We’re very confident we’ll have a very strong second half of the year. We’ll catch up and be where we be in the second half of the year and set us up for a strong start to 2024.”
Brown, the sport’s lone American-born principal, leads a global corporation worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and whose results are broadcast live to tens of millions around the world. In such a high-profile position, he said it’s important that he stays focused, keeps his nerve, keeps his team on task, and understands how to improve each week. And when things don’t go his way, he needs to know how to dust himself off.
“Of course there’s nervousness. Of course there’s stress. But you can’t let anyone see you sweat,” Brown said. “We’ve got a great group of people. When you struggle, as long as you tackle the issues, it’s actually a great learning experience and you get stronger from it. So I look at failures, if you’d like, as learning experiences. So there is good to come from a difficult start to the year.”
It’s easy for Brown to remain optimistic at McLaren with a team of drivers in Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri that he called the best driver pairing of youth and experience at F1. Despite being only 23 years old, Norris is in his fifth Formula 1 season, all with McLaren. He finished sixth in the 2021 driver’s standings, seventh in 2022, and is one of the sport’s most popular drivers among both women and younger fans — two key demographics as F1 continues to grow globally.
“We’re very fortunate given Lando’s age and how he conducts himself,” Brown said.
Norris is an ideal role model for Piastri, currently the most promising young prospect in Formula 1. Brown said the 22-year-old Australian is already close with Norris and impressive on the track. Piastri is someone the Los Angeles native thinks could be a future world champion.
“Oscar’s been great off the track — he is very cool, calm, focused, and technical,” Brown said. “He wasn’t feeling too good in Baku, and you wouldn’t have known otherwise. He just keeps his head down and gets on with it. So we’ve got a great combination of drivers.”
McLaren Racing is a business just as much — if not more — than a team determined to win races and titles. So building Piastri’s brand is vital to bringing in sponsors and improving the company’s bottom line. Brown said developing Oscar the driver goes hand-in-hand with building Oscar the brand. Right now, Brown says Piastri wants to let his performance on the track do the talking.
Norris was the same way when he started out in 2019, alongside Carlos Sainz, according to Brown. Lando was quiet and reserved. But when he started posting strong results, he grew into his personality. Now, he’s one of the most bankable stars in F1. McLaren will seemingly use that same playbook with Piastri.
“What’s important is we don’t want to manufacture a brand,” Brown said. “Oscar is who Oscar is. As he gets more confident on the track, he’ll get some more media time and people will start to see what makes Oscar tick. So his brand is in development, but we want his brand to be what his brand naturally is as opposed to trying to make him something.”
Various changes to F1 — notably a team cost cap — has made the sport more competitive this season, Brown said, though not necessarily at the top as Red Bull continues to dominate. Teams two through 10 are more bunched up in qualifiers and races thus far in 2023, what he called a more condensed field — even last-place Williams has drivers starting races in the top 10. So while Alpine was famously McLaren’s fiercest rival in 2022, Brown views his team’s biggest competitor as whoever it’s directly chasing in the constructors standings at a given time.
But to truly compete, Brown knows McLaren needs a faster car and an improved technological infrastructure, which are both expected by year’s end. In addition, having a strong driver pairing is a major plus as he looks to become a world championship contender.
“That’s an area that we can tick the box and say we have no driver issues,” he said.
With the second Miami race in the rear view, Austin and the first-ever Las Vegas race upcoming, Netflix‘s Drive To Survive continuing to do wonders, and a new lucrative local television contract with ESPN underway, Brown said the right foundations are in place for the sport’s continued growth in America. It’s helped McLaren attract huge North American brands like Coca-Cola, Dell, Google, Goldman Sachs, and Cisco as key team sponsors who help elevate F1 by promoting it through their various marketing channels.
“All the foundations are in place,” Brown said about F1 in America. “Now, we water the plant and watch the plant grow.”
The same can be said about McLaren’s driver pairing, both still in their early 20s with room to improve. As McLaren endures a slow start, the anticipated faster car and development of Norris and Piastri gives Zak Brown optimism that the best is yet to come.
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