When you lead one of the most recognisable motorsport brands in the world, you will always be in the firing line when performance falters.
McLaren was on the up at the end of Formula 1’s last set of technical regulations as Daniel Ricciardo secured victory at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix, Lando Norris secured his first pole position in Russia and would have won had it not been for a dramatic wet finish to the race.
But whilst the team’s main rivals that season in Ferrari have taken strides towards the top of the pecking order, the Woking-based team have slumped in the ground-effects era, and sit only sixth in the 2023 Constructors’ standings following six races with 17 points to Ferrari’s 90.
Under Zak Brown’s leadership, McLaren has branched out into IndyCar, Formula E and Extreme E in recent years, though the team’s 60 year history points to difficulties in maintaining competitiveness across multiple categories.
The American, however, was quick to point out a “wrench in the statistic” when speaking exclusively to RacingNews365: “They won the Indy 500 in ‘74 and the [F1] World Championship!”
F1 the ‘centre of our world’
So why has McLaren taken the steps into other forms of racing around its F1 operation?
“Ultimately, we are stronger being a bigger racing team,” says Brown.
“Commercially, I want to be the most exciting racing team in the world, and I want to have the most exciting commercial proposition for sponsors.
“Formula 1 is the centre of our world, as it has been and always will be. We have IndyCar to have a bigger presence in North America because that’s what our fans want, that’s what our sponsors want, that’s what’s good for our automotive business.
“We have the Formula E team to be able to have a bigger sustainability platform than our competition in Formula 1 – some of which are in Formula E. Then Extreme E is about sustainability and of course, Esports is about youth and gender equality.”
Growing the portfolio
McLaren leads the way in F1 in regards to the sheer volume of sponsors adorning the team’s machinery and Brown has indicated this commercial success is down to the various motorsport branches it is engaged with.
“Our portfolio of activities allows partners to look and go: ‘I love Formula 1 but I want to dial up North America a little bit,’ or ‘I am in North America but I want to go global’,” he says.
“These are real examples: Arrow Electronics, title sponsor of the IndyCar programme is now a sponsor of our Formula 1 team. Google, sponsor of our Formula 1 car, is sponsor of our Extreme E team. Medallion, sponsor of our Formula 1 team, is sponsor of our IndyCar team.
“So from a performance standpoint, if I didn’t have these different forms of racing, I would simply be bringing in less money to Formula 1.
“A huge market for BAT is in North America, that was a competitive pitch and when we won that five years ago, one of the deciding factors [in our favour] was that we had an IndyCar team, because five years ago, Formula 1 wasn’t what it is today in North America. They were one of our biggest sponsors in F1.
“So from a revenue generation standpoint, our Formula 1 team or our IndyCar team, our Formula E team or Extreme E team wouldn’t have the resources they have if they didn’t have each other. So that is a performance benefit, a competitive benefit in the commercial marketplace.”
Different teams are separate
But with performances in F1 floundering, with only one win in over 10 years, and little room for optimism off the back of the early form this term, McLaren and Brown have come in for heavy criticism about the number of different activities being undertaken.
Those on the outside believe an eye has been taken off F1 in order to help the IndyCar, Formula E and Extreme E efforts, an accusation Brown firmly shuts down.
“The IndyCar team we acquired sits in Indianapolis. When the cost cap came in and we had some redundancies, we were able to put some people on the IndyCar team full-time. That makes us a better employer.
“The team sits in a different country, different people, different leaderships, so each racing team I run has its own person totally responsible for the on-track performance of the racing team.
“There is no sharing, there is no one that is working on IndyCar and F1 from a technical performance point of view.
“What happens in IndyCar happens in Indianapolis with a totally different set of people on the performance side, same thing in F1 and Formula E.
“We acquired a Formula E team, which was literally taking the Mercedes, acquired the team from [Team Principal] Ian James downwards and they are also not based at the McLaren Technology Centre.
“So the F1 team, which is the one that is underperforming at the moment, has nothing to do with: ‘Oh I am sorry, I didn’t get to that front wing because I was busy on IndyCar.’
“Formula E is invisible to them, so not only is that a commercial benefit, it has got employee morale [benefits]. We can move people around on a permanent basis.
“Also, if you make some infrastructure investments, it is easier to go: ‘The IndyCar and F1 teams collectively makes this more affordable than just F1 or just IndyCar,’ so there are cost efficiencies.
“The only people that work across multiple forms are the marketing department, commercial department, PR department and myself.
“I am not responsible for running any of the teams. I am responsible for bringing in the resources and hiring the right people to run the racing team.”
Away from F1, Brown is involved in the United Autosports Sportscar programme, another commitment he is adamant does not reflect on McLaren’s struggles.
“I will go to one United Autosports race this year, it will be Le Mans. I think I did two last year,” says Brown.
“For me, the team is a personal passion but for Richard, who runs it, it is a very serious business. I don’t want to use the term hobby because it is for me on a personal level, but it is a personal investment. I just love being at the race track, so I am at the race track 40 times a year.
“So I just choose, on my weekend off, the weekend of Le Mans which doesn’t conflict with a Formula 1 race. Others might go to the golf course, others might go on their boat – I like to go to Le Mans. I visit my race shop once every three months.
RacingNews365 also touched on Brown’s personal racing, which he describes as his “stress relief.”
He has a delectable stable of examples of classic machines from the history of motor racing, including an Ayrton Senna F1 car and a Dale Earnhardt Sr NASCAR, and often races internationally.
“United Autosports and my personal racing is my stress relief, my golf,” he explains.
“I have no active involvement in the day-to-day running of United, I am Chairman and the team has done unbelievably without my participation, so when I go to the race, I put on my headset and I am just a Chairman-Owner, just enjoying.
“Where I help United is commercially and I am kind of on call to send some notes and be present, [like if the team say]: ‘Hey Zak, it would be great if you could drop the drivers a note, they get really motivated when they hear from you.’
“It is just my version of fishing.”