The Callum Murray Interview - Zak Brown
Zak Brown, formerly of JMI and CSM Sport and Entertainment and now chief of the McLaren Formula 1 team, discusses F1's new ownership, the future of the British Grand Prix and how he'll get the team back on track. Author
7th July 2017, 10:36

I meet Zak Brown, the McLaren Formula 1 team’s executive director, at McLaren Group’s lovely headquarters near Woking, south-west of London, designed by the 'starchitect' Sir Norman Foster.

Set by a man-made lake, the building is cool and minimalist, all curving glass and subdued colours and set in acres of landscaped parkland. It’s a blistering hot day, but it is, of course, air-conditioned and everyone’s wearing a suit. The atmosphere is calm, efficient, unhurried. Someone greets me by name as I enter the foyer, which doubles as a museum, a petrolhead’s paradise, with McLaren F1 cars of the past, featuring the names of previous star drivers – Senna, Prost, Lauda – scattered artfully around.

It’s like the ultra-modern headquarters of a global corporation – no accident, I’m sure. Just look at the list of the team’s sponsors: Johnnie Walker, SAP, Santander, Hilton, NTT, Michael Kors… These are the companies with which the team rubs shoulders and which it wants to continue to entice and influence.

The only trouble is, the McLaren team, which has won 182 grand prix races and 20 world championships since its Formula 1 debut in 1963, is on its uppers. Presently lying in bottom position in the constructors championship, with two points, compared to the leader Mercedes’ 250, without a grand prix victory since 2012 and without a title sponsor since 2013, the team (and the company) has been through an unprecedented period of turmoil.

This culminated just a week ago with Ron Dennis, regarded as an icon of grand prix racing, finally stepping down as chairman of McLaren, having already been ousted as chief executive after 37 years in charge, and selling his stake in the renamed McLaren Group (which comprises the F1 business, a road car business and a technology business) for £275 million ($313 million). The group had combined revenues of £898 million in 2016 and employed more than 3,400 people.

Brown’s arrival in November last year from CSM Sport & Entertainment, the UK-based sports agency chaired by Sebastian Coe, was part of a major restructuring aimed at addressing the Formula 1 team’s problems. The road car business is doing well, as the Formula 1 team struggles, but Brown rejects a theory that F1 teams with road car divisions – Ferrari and Mercedes are other examples – tend to be successful on either the road or the track at any given time, but not both. “They’re two separate workforces,” he says. “I’m not sure it’s even statistically accurate. It’s a coincidence.”

McLaren's HQ in Woking, designed by 'starchitect' Sir Norman Foster

American, thick-set, with slicked-back hair, he’s an expert interviewee: brisk, succinct and with an arresting, apparently pre-prepared, nugget for me. Formula 1 should buy the ageing and ailing Silverstone, home of the historic British Grand Prix, he says.

The British Racing Drivers’ Club, owner of the circuit, said this week that it is “highly probable” that it will have to activate a break clause in 2019 enabling it to withdraw from its contract to host the race because of financial concerns. Silverstone’s hosting fees are contracted to rise by 5 per cent per year over the course of its 17-year contract, from £12 million in 2010 to £26 million by 2026. 

“We have to have a British Grand Prix,” says Brown. “I think Liberty [Formula 1’s new owner] should buy Silverstone. If it owned the circuit it could take a different view on investment - kind of like the NFL owns the Super Bowl, even though it moves around. Formula 1 could do a lot if it owned the event. Silverstone has to run, it’s not a charity, it has to pay for itself and if it just can’t afford it I think Formula 1 needs to explore as many ways as possible to help make Formula 1 a good business for Silverstone. You could have testing, a hall of fame, racing schools, fan engagement days…”

Brown doesn’t cite them but there are examples in USA of motor racing series owning the circuits they stage their races on: International Speedway Corporation, sister company of stock car racing’s Nascar, owns around a dozen circuits, including the Daytona International Speedway, while the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway also share common owners.

This is a period of change not just for McLaren, of course, but for Formula 1 as a whole, after Liberty Media, the US media giant owned by billionaire John Malone, acquired the series in January from a consortium led by previous owner CVC Capital Partners in a deal that valued the sport at $8 billion.

Brown, perhaps unsurprisingly as a new boy himself, is full of enthusiasm for the new owners and their plans for the series. He says: “I’m very happy with the new owners. They’re global sports media experts and ultimately we deliver Formula 1 via different types of media. They also understand sport and own sports teams [Liberty Media owns Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves, among other sports investments].

What we now have are strategic owners investing in sport that understand sport and media. They’re very transparent in the way they come at things because they don’t have a history in the sport  

“What we now have are strategic owners investing in sport that understand sport and media. They’re very transparent in the way they come at things because they don’t have a history in the sport; they’re agenda-free. We’re seeing new governance and structural balance because it’s not everyone fighting for themselves.”

Bernie Ecclestone, the legendary former Formula 1 promoter and ringmaster, who ran the series almost single-handedly until finally being forced to step down following the takeover, was criticised by some for being uninterested in digital and social media developments and failing to exploit the potential for race and series sponsors.

That criticism is “fair,” Brown says, although like almost everyone in Formula 1 he’s quick to defend Ecclestone’s legacy, describing his work as “Herculean,” and adding: “It was unbelievable, and we all have him to thank. But the world changes”

Brown was himself touted at one point as a potential replacement for Ecclestone before joining McLaren, but in the event the 86-year-old was effectively replaced by three executives: 21st Century Fox’s Chase Carey, now the chief executive and chairman of Formula 1; Ross Brawn, previously a successful team principal at Benetton, Ferrari and Brawn GP/Mercedes and now Formula 1’s managing director for motor sports; and Sean Bratches, a former senior executive at sports broadcaster ESPN and the new managing director of Formula 1’s commercial operations. “The job Bernie did as an individual is too big for anyone now,” Brown says.

Previously, the share of Formula 1 revenues that was distributed to the teams under the Ecclestone regime was a bone of contention between the two sides, but in recent years that share has risen to about 68 per cent, which, Brown says, “seems to be fine. Would we rather have 75 per cent? Sure. Would they [Formula 1’s management] rather it was 55 per cent? Sure. But I’m more interested in the growth of the total pie. We need to double the size of the pie, then the percentage matters less.”

Then he says something interesting. McLaren is one of six teams which receives a bigger share of the revenues than the remaining four because of their perceived history, heritage and value to the series. But, says Brown, “I’m not happy with the revenue distribution [between the teams], even though we are one of the beneficiaries: the entire eco-system of the sport needs to be healthy. Too much goes to the top, to the detriment of the bottom. I’m arguing to change that, to create a more equal playing field.

“Right now, if you look at the discrepancy it’s the largest of any major sport, top to bottom. Look at the NFL and it’s effectively equal. I’m not an advocate of making it equal [in Formula 1], because bigger teams like McLaren have delivered more, but it’s definitely a barrier [to the entry of new teams into the series]. When you are the biggest annual global sporting property in the world and some of the teams have gone bust or traded for a dollar – tell me the last time a [Uefa] Champions League team or an NFL team went bust. Steve Ballmer bought [the NBA’s] LA Clippers for $2 billion. No race team on the grid is worth anything near that. Something’s wrong and what’s wrong is the Formula 1 business from a pure investor standpoint is not good business. But that’s all changing.”

The foyer at McLaren's HQ doubles as a museum

Having launched his own motor sport sponsorship marketing business Just Marketing International, and then run it successfully for over 20 years, Brown sold it to CSM in 2013, becoming CSM’s chief executive in a reshuffle of the management team in March 2015, until accepting the McLaren job. His time at CSM, though short, exposed him to a range of other sports - so did it give him the (relatively unusual) ability to put the normally closed world of Formula 1 into the wider sports marketing context?

“One hundred per cent,” Brown replies, enthusiastically. “I got more perspective at CSM. I was there long enough to get exposed to effectively every other sport in a behind-the-scenes way. It helps to understand where Formula 1 and McLaren are strong and weak, versus other sports - because ultimately we’re competing with other sports.”

Motor sport has, of course, the reputation of being a money pit, and Brown admits: “We spend more than we attract. Some people can afford it, others can’t, but Formula 1 has not lived within its means; that’s the biggest flaw with the business model. Anything is a money pit if you don’t bring enough money in. Take the [English] Premier League for comparison. There are individuals that want to win at all costs, and also some extremely wealthy individuals. But with Formula 1 there’s no choice. With other sports it’s a deliberate decision [to spend more money than they earn].”

Then, perhaps betraying one of the reasons that his tenure of the top job at CSM lasted less than two years, he adds: “You could come into the Premier League and put 11 players, or however many it is, on the pitch less expensively.”

So what does he mean when he says that Formula 1’s broken business model is changing? “We’re going to reduce costs through rule changes, and increase the size of the pie so we can distribute the revenues more equitably,” he says. “We’ll change the dynamics of Formula 1, which predominantly loses money, to predominantly making money.”

Sounds good, but how? “Growth from all areas,” he says. “Building a bigger fan base means more media rights [revenues], higher demand from cities to hold races, more sponsorship and selling more merchandise. Liberty will focus on the fan first, so sponsors will sponsor the sport to reach the fans. We’ll have higher attendance figures and more people watching on different forms of media.”

Bratches last month told the FIA Sport Conference in Geneva that Formula 1 will seek a 30:70 ratio of free-to-air and pay-television coverage of the sport in future rights deals, but added: “Free to air is critically important to us. My vision as it relates to media rights is a hybrid of free-to-air and pay. Our plan is to balance the two but have a prominent, over the year, free-to-air voice.

“That is important from a fans, sponsors and relevance standpoint. There is the cauldron full of cash on the pay side and on the other side of the scale you have brand and reach.”

Brown agrees, but adds: “It will fluctuate by market. Are you getting more or less [money] via sponsors or via pay-TV? If you reduce the audience [by showing races exclusively on pay-TV], are you making the money you think you’re making? It’s a market-by-market thing.

“But what needs to be done when looking at media is not just free-to-air and pay, but other forms of media that complement it. You need to talk to all fans in the different ways they like to consume. The reach needs to increase. I’m less concerned about how, I just want the audience getting bigger.

“Media can grow and certainly can grow a lot in non-TV. There’s a whole world out there and other forms of media are just getting started.” Of digital and social media, he admits: “How to monetise that has yet to be totally figured out. [Ecclestone] and CVC took short-range economic decisions. There are areas that are critical for the long-term health of the sport.”

However, he argues that directly monetising social media is “not the most important thing, it’s about building the fanbase. Eventually, sponsors will come to you instead of someone else if you can show you have a heavily engaged fanbase on social media. It’s about building scale and knowing who your fans are. No one is killing it today, but it’s not about today.”

There are other untapped revenue sources for both the teams and the series, such as merchandise, Brown adds: “Look at what Nascar, what [American] football does. We just haven’t done it well.” There’s also what he terms “brand extensions,” citing the possibility of Formula 1-branded go-kart facilities or restaurants. And how about an entire top floor of a Hilton hotel that is branded ‘The McLaren Suite at the Hilton’? Given that Hilton is one of McLaren’s sponsors I imagine that this one is already in the works, although he doesn’t say as much.

Finally, Brown believes that Formula 1 needs to extend its geographical reach and therefore welcomes this week’s announcement that it has teamed up with Lagardère Sports, the international sports management agency, to attract new commercial partners in the key market of China.

Formula 1 has had a strong presence in China since 2004 in the shape of the Chinese Grand Prix held at the Shanghai International Circuit, but following the news that this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix will be the last for the foreseeable future after the country’s government relinquished the hosting rights earlier than planned, Brown thinks there’s scope for at least one more race in Asia, plus another in USA and one in South America, albeit he says, “I don’t think Europe requires any more.”

How do you turn a Formula 1 race into a two-week event? There is scope for that, absolutely  

In the Lagardère announcement, Bratches talked of “developing our brand through unique live entertainment experiences designed to get fans closer to the action,” and Brown welcomes plans to transform Formula 1 races into events that last well beyond the race weekend, saying: “When the Super Bowl comes to town, it’s not just a Sunday, there are parties and events to engage with the fans. How do you turn a Formula 1 race into a two-week event? There is scope for that, absolutely. Some tracks do it better than others. Singapore does a great job of the build-up to the grand prix.”

Reflecting on his time at CSM, Brown says: “I was there long enough to know I really wanted to be back in motor racing full time. I do like other sports: golf, tennis, MLB, I played all of those. So if I’m looking at what gets me excited, the sports I like, most were the ones I played or was best at. I’m more of a player-manager, and that’s why I like those sports. But I always liked cars from a young age, the competition – I’m a competitive person. But it’s the way race cars look and sound, that’s what I loved from early on.”

Brown was born in Los Angeles in 1971 and first fell in love with motor racing when he and his brother were taken by their father to sports car, Nascar and drag races once or twice a year. He went to his first Formula 1 race aged 10 in 1981. He still has the programme – in fact, he still has the programmes of all the races he went to as a child. “That’s how much I love the sport,” he says.

As a teenager he went on the Wheel of Fortune TV show and won, he says, “some watches,” which he then traded in for his first-ever race car, a go-kart, and so his own racing career began, culminating with him moving to Europe to compete in Formula Ford and Formula 3 races in 1990. Meanwhile, he was also still competing in North America's Toyota Atlantic Series, and he launched JMI after being asked to find sponsors for other racers.

So does he regret selling JMI? “No, I did it for 22 years,” he says. “I loved it, it was my baby. It provided for my family and me for the rest of my life, but I was ready for a new challenge. My background is excellent for McLaren’s commercial needs right now. But it’s exciting also to be a part of a leadership, and to get back to winning races. I’m a racer first, but I also live for the thrill of the deal.”

McLaren’s long search for a new title sponsor doesn’t look like ending any time soon. The previous deal with Vodafone ended in 2013, and Brown warned when he came on board that the team was highly unlikely to find a replacement for the 2017 season. The cause has not been helped by the team’s struggles this season which have been widely attributed to an underpowered and unreliable engine supplied by the team’s engine partner Honda.

Brown says that “the Honda era made it next to impossible to sell a title partnership,” but that he is optimistic for next season. “It’s one of my big roles,” he adds. “Starting in December, I’ve been working on it for 2018. It’s early but I like the companies and categories we’re talking to. There’s a strong prospect list.”

McLaren's Jenson Button competing at May's Monaco Grand Prix

Formula 1 plans to increase its own activities in the sponsorship market to plug the gaps in race and series sponsorship that critics of Ecclestone identified, but Brown insists that this will not impinge on the sponsorship categories available for the teams, and that there will be nothing to stop races and teams having competing brands as sponsors.

“It doesn’t restrict us in any way,” he says. “It will create competition for us, and that’s good and bad. Good because there will be others out talking about Formula 1 in the marketplace. Bad because they might be talking to the same company.” However, even if Formula 1 does agree a deal with a sponsor that had been targeted by a team, “some of the revenue will trickle back to us,” he says. “They’re not locking off categories. It would be a problem if they did, but they won’t.”

He won’t be too specific, but the title sponsorship categories that McLaren is targeting, Brown says, are “ones that are very synergistic to technology, and to the premium leadership brand of McLaren. Big global entities. Anyone that is going on our car should be a company that is well-known and makes sense to McLaren.”

How much does the team need? What is its annual budget? “It costs a couple of hundred million pounds a year to go racing,” Brown says. “A little less than half of that is Formula 1 prize money, and the balance is through commercial income, nearly all of it sponsorship. We’re [McLaren] unique in that there are three legs to the stool: motor racing, predominantly Formula 1, but also Indy and GT; the applied technology business; and the automotive business. Our commercial offering is broader and we offer more opportunities [to sponsors] than anyone else on the grid. Some others do two of the three, some are pure Formula 1 teams. That’s our USP.”

So where would Brown like McLaren to be in five years’ time, I ask? “In five years’ time, we could be winning world championships,” he says. “That’s my goal, that’s my remit. We’re not here to finish second.” Will that mean breaking with Honda and finding another engine supplier (Mercedes has been whispered)? “Not necessarily,” Brown replies, carefully. “It’s the biggest issue sitting here today and we certainly need to fix the engine situation. There’s clearly a lack of power and reliability. Formula 1 is the pinnacle of technology. We took a risk this year on a redesign of the engine to close the gap, and they’ve not got it right yet. But there’s not a single reason.”

As head of a racing team, Brown is clearly in an exposed and vulnerable position. The success or failure of JMI was in his own hands, but in a racing team much of what happens is beyond his control. Does he feel comfortable with that position? “It’s what I’ve signed up for and enjoy,” he says. “Comfortable is not a word I would use. My contribution is in the public domain 20 times a year [at each Formula 1 race]. But I’m confident in the people I’m working with; they’re great at what they do.”

Brown still competes in races in historic cars from his own historic race car collection. That sounds dangerous, I say, picturing slow but unsafe cars from the first half of the last century. In fact, the cars are from the 1980s and 1990s and, if anything, are even faster than today’s Formula 1 cars which have been deliberately slowed for cost and safety reasons. “There are probably safer things to do,” Brown says wryly.

So does he ever get frightened, I ask, to which I get a classic racer’s answer: “Every once in a while I get frightened, but I never think I should stop. If you think that, then you probably should stop.”