In 2017, McLaren Competition Director Eric Boulier met with McLaren CEO Zak Brown shortly after taking the job. Brown asked Boulier a simple question: “What does your perfect team look like?” Boulier answered “Any team with Fernando Alonso”. Brown's response was simple: “Okay then. Go get him”.
McLaren was right to go after the Spaniard. Alonso is considered one of the most talented drivers of this generation. In 2003, in his 2nd start for Renault F1 Team, Alonso raced his way to the podium. His first career win followed later that year. 7 wins each in 2005 and 2006 propelled him to consecutive world championships. At the time, he was the youngest in history to win a race and a season championship. By 2017 he had amassed 32 wins, 22 poles and 97 podium finishes, a legendary resume that McLaren - a team with lots of resources but not a lot of recent results - desperately needed. McLaren found themselves reeling in the wake of several unusually tumultuous years. Historically, McLaren is a team of winners. From Hunt to Lauda, to Prost and Senna, through Hakkinen, Kimi, Montoya, Button, and of course Hamilton, throughout its history McLaren Racing has consistently put the best drivers in the world behind the wheel of their cars. They weren’t used to the struggles they endured in this new hybrid engine era, and so the team brought in Zak Brown and Eric Boullier to right the ship. They inked a new deal with Honda to supply engines, recalling the glory days of Senna. And on top of all that, they lured in Fernando Alonso, hoping that “El Nino” would return them to their past glory. They were wrong
The McLaren-Honda deal from 2015-2017 was a complete disaster. The two sides were never able to come together and put a reliable package together for Fernando and his teammate. In 81 starts in these 4 seasons, Fernando was only able to finish 47 races. I’ll say that again: FORTY SEVEN out of 81 races finished, or 58%. That’s dismal. In those 47 finishes, there were 0 podiums. He did amass some points, because he has an innate ability to outdrive the equipment he’s given (see his 2011-2014 run at an underperforming Ferrari for proof), but Alonso was at wits’ end from the time he ran his first test in 2015 until the time he retired from Formula 1 at the end of 2018. So, why did he stay for 4 years? A driver with his credentials would be able to any team he chose to try and find a car more worthy of his talents. What kept him in the turmoil of McLaren Racing? The answer was also, I think, the problem: Zak Brown.
Brown, a former racer from California, found great success in the business world once he stepped out of sportscar racing. When he sold his company Just Marketing International, it was the largest motorsport marketing company in the world. Brown has won multiple marketing awards, and the sports car team he co-founded with Richard Dean, United Autosport, has been successful in both GT and prototype cars. So why the struggle in his time as CEO at McLaren? I think it's because Brown is an expert at commercialism, not building race cars. Endurance racing is all customer-based: you buy a vehicle from a manufacturer and it comes delivered to your facility ready to race. But F1 is different. Instead of buying a car from a factory, F1 teams have to build almost everything from scratch. Brown didn’t have any experience leading a team of engineers building wining cars. He is, however, a brilliant salesman. He’s fantastic at building and maintaining high-level business relationships. True enough, he did inherit a shit show at McLaren when he became the top dog, but even then he used his marketing expertise to position the company as a heritage brand, selling sponsors on the team’s storied history. McLaren = Winners. McLaren = History. McLaren = Tradition. And it worked. Brown's successful re-brand is what brought in the sponsorships despite the poor on-track performance, and it also brought in Alonso.
But the bravado that McLaren presented to the media and sponsors also impacted the attitude internally when things started going south with Honda. According to multiple sources (look them up yourself if you want all the deets, I’m not going to list them all here), Honda found McLaren hard to work with when - not to be too coy - the rubber met the road. McLaren would tell Honda, “We need the engine to do X” and Honda would say, “Okay, but to maximize our efforts we need Y and Z changes to be made to the bodywork, or cooling, or aero, or engine mount points, etc.” McLaren’s response? “No. Fuck that. We’re McLaren. We didn’t do anything wrong. YOU fix it.” But that's not how engineering works. That complete unwillingness to bend caused a massive rift in the McLaren/Honda relationship, and ties were finally severed after the 2017 season. Honda has moved on to Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Torro Rosso, where they have immediately seen improved results. Red Bull’s young driver Max Verstappen even put Honda back on the top step of the podium in Austria. As for McLaren? They decided to use Renault power for 2018 and 2019. Still no podiums. Still a midfield car on a good day. Maybe Honda wasn’t the problem, huh, Zak?
So much for the cars, but what about Fernando Alonso? Somehow, SOME WAY, he's is still on McLaren’s payroll (EDITOR'S NOTE: Literally until today, 7/5/19. Yeah, we're that good. It seems like Alonso signed a deal to the McLaren brand either in addition to or instead of to the F1 team - more smart marketing work on Brown's part). Because as I mentioned, Zak Brown is an expert salesman, and he kept selling McLaren to Alonso. When Alonso started to voice his displeasures publicly, Brown caved and let Fernando do...whatever he felt like doing. You wanna start a lifestyle and clothing brand? Sure! McLaren will back it and we'll promote it in every race series where United Autosport runs a car. You want to go run sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona? You can use my car! You want to skip Monaco, the biggest race on the F1 calendar, to go race the Indianapolis 500? Be my guest! You want to run the World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, too? Here, let me make a few phone calls and get you in the best car on the grid, because I can’t give you shit in F1, Alonso, and we both know it.
Zak Brown is the perfect Chief Marketing Officer for any race team. He would be a fantastic VP of Public Relations. But he is not an ideal CEO because he lacks the experience necessary to establish and maintain a productive culture in the engineering room. Sure, his United Autosport outfit does well, but that’s because he has a partner. Former race driver and sportcars champion Richard Dean heads the competition side of that business, while Zak does the business deals. Brown doesn’t have to worry about making the cars fast, that’s what Richard does best. Zak makes the phone calls, he sets the lunch meetings, he does the talking. Just like he did when he talked his way into a CEO position for an F1 team he had no business running. Just like he did when he talked Fernando Alonso onto a team he had no business joining.
Fernando, I get that loyalty still means a least a little bit from time to time, but PLEASE sever the ties with McLaren! You talent was heinously wasted for the past 5+ seasons and you don’t’ have that much time left before you hang up your helmet for good. There are plenty of teams with plenty of cars that would KILL to have you strap in for them. Do like LeBron did. Take your talents elsewhere.