Whether it’s in the IndyCar Series, NASCAR, Formula One or other types of motor sport, some elements of racing transcend leagues and countries.
As a former race car driver, Zak Brown – now the executive director of the F1 racing team McLaren and the chairman of Motorsport Network – spoke to FTW about how certain aspects racing can be universal, where open-wheeled IndyCar and F1 cross paths and the status of McLaren driver and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso.
The 45-year-old American based in the United Kingdom was named to McLaren’s leadership team last year and is also the founder of Just Marketing International, a motor sport-specific agency.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Unlike other sports, racing relies heavily on engineering, as well as a talented driver. So which is more critical to a team’s success?
One won’t be successful without the other. If we’re talking Formula One, not only do you need a superstar driver, but because there are lots of superstar drivers out there, you need to have a great race car. In Formula One, there is a greater disparity in the race cars than IndyCar – (where) on the surface, everyone’s got the same car and then half the field has one engine, and half the field has the other.
So that creates a more equal playing field, and therefore, the quality of the race team and the quality of the driver makes a bigger difference versus Formula One.
What else contributes to so much disparity in F1 compared with IndyCar?
If you take the big teams in Formula One – us being one of them – we’re all spending north of 200 million (pounds) a year. And when you go down the grid, the smaller spending teams (are) probably at 90 million. So when you’ve teams with two- or three-times the budget of others, that right there creates a lot of disparity.
Then you have more engine manufacturers – Honda, Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault. Unfortunately, we’re suffering right now with the newest partner in the sport, Honda, who aren’t at the same point in their development curve as a very mature Ferrari, who’s been in the sport for 60 years, or Mercedes, who’s been in for 20.
Across all motor racing, is there a universal characteristic that all successful drivers possess?
Absolutely. There’s the obvious physical element – reflex, bravery, physical fitness. Those are some of the physical attributes, and they all have that. But what really starts to separate the drivers is intelligence, because it’s a very technical sport and race cars need to be set up, and that’s done between the driver, the team and the engineers.
I don’t think people – not everyone – but I don’t think they fully understand what goes into driving a race car, the physical and mental energy that’s required. The margin of error, I think, in motor racing and the consequences of making an error, probably are far greater and less forgiving in motor sports than any other sport.
Fernando Alonso basically gave McLaren an ultimatum – either provide him with a competitive car or he might not re-sign when his contract is up this season. How did you react to that?
I totally understand it. Someone like Fernando, who’s 35 – while I think he’s driving better than he’s ever driven – he doesn’t have 10 years ahead of him in formula one like (25-year-old McLaren driver) Stoffel (Vandoorne). A champion wants to win. That’s what he cares about first and foremost, so I’m completely comfortable with his comments and position. I think it’s totally reasonable that a world champion driver wants to go racing to win another world championship.
What is the team doing with Alonso moving into the rest of the F1 season?
We’ve agreed to see where we are around the summer break (in August), and I think his preference is to stay at McLaren. But we’ve got to give him a car capable of winning, and I get it. We’re all heads down working very closely with Honda trying to get in a position where he feels – and we feel – we have a car that can win races.