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Exclusive: How Zak Brown has managed McLaren back to success

McLaren ended a nine-year barren streak at the Italian Grand Prix, with Daniel Ricciardo winning the team's first race since Brazil in 2012. It's been a long road back to the top, and Zak Brown has explained the management choices he's made to help bring about the culture change.

Daniel Ricciardo's victory at last weekend's Italian Grand Prix marked a huge moment for McLaren, given that it was a victory earned on merit against the might of engine supplier Mercedes and the juggernaut that is the Max Verstappen/Red Bull combination in 2021. McLaren's first victory since Jenson Button won at Interlagos way back in 2012 spelled an end to nine years of abject misery for a team that foundered badly during the switch to the hybrid engine formula. Ricciardo crossing the line at Monza marked the culmination of several years of a steady rise. It wasn't an easy ascent, though, given that McLaren hit rock bottom as their nostalgia-fuelled partnership with Honda refused to gel. It was that team decision that saw the talismanic Ron Dennis finally fall from the McLaren throne, with Zak Brown taking over the running of McLaren's operations as CEO. The changes began quite quickly, with Brown electing to drop the Honda factory deal to become a Renault engine customer. That was quickly followed by a change in management structure as Racing Director Eric Boullier resigned shortly after the disappointing MCL33 hit the track. But it was the signing of Andreas Seidl from the championship winning Porsche WEC team that really accelerated McLaren's fast and furious rise, and the stability of the team in recent seasons has seen them make gains back towards the front every season until last weekend's victory underlined the progress that has been made at Woking. Speaking in an exclusive interview with RacingNews365.com even before the F1 team's latest success, Brown spoke at length about his management style and the key decisions he feels he's made correctly in order to return McLaren to the front. Having also returned McLaren to the IndyCar field on a fulltime basis, as well as running the extremely successful United Autosports teams in multiple racing series, such as the World Endurance Championship, European Le Mans Series, and Australia's Supercars, Brown is perhaps the most thinly spread of Formula 1's key personnel, but the success he is achieving across the board shows that his decision making is proving fruitful. Just the week prior to Monza, Andretti United XE became Extreme E's latest winners with victory in Greenland with Catie Munnings and Timmy Hansen. "In all racing, I think there's commonality to success. In no particular order, but all equally as important," he explains at the start of our lengthy chat. "Get the best management in the world, get the best equipment in the world, get the best drivers in the world for that particular racing series, and get all the resources, the commercial partners, the eonomics, and each racing series has its different business models, that's what it takes to be a successful racing team in any series. "So I think, first and foremost, my priority is always McLaren [F1]. That's my job. That's my business, so that always comes first. But when you're technically not running a team, my presence at a race weekend is sponsor relations, industry relations, representing the brand, it's not calling the race, it's not running the race. "Because I believe we have, for the most part, all the things I've described, in all the different racing series, it allows the supercar team to go win and I've not been to a supercar race in 18 months. "But what I am on is on a 10pm weekly management call to Australia, with Michael Andretti, Richard [Dean], Ryan Walkinshaw, Bruce Stewart [all of whom are United Autosport's management in Australia's Supercars championship], making sure they have what they need to be successful. And I haven't been to Australia in 18 months. "At the same time, we won on our debut both races, one from pole, McLaren GT4 in Italy. And even Richard [Dean] wasn't there, right? So he has the same philosophy. He's running United, but we also had the ELMS race in Spain. So we've got good equipment, great drivers, great leadership, commercially the team is strong. "I do observe a lot when I'm in a race weekend and think I contribute more kind of post-race when I share my observations," Brown explained. "I know what great looks like, and I know what bad looks like, I know what good looks like. And I think my job is to help steer the ship but you can, in today's day and age, do that remotely. "But make no mistake about it. You know if there's ever a scenario where I need to choose between something, 110% of the time it's McLaren." With McLaren taking over the majority stake of their IndyCar team, taking over from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as the primary shareholders, Brown said that McLaren's input into the running of that team is also increasing. "We're operational as well now. So I've got 12 people, operationally, from McLaren that sit inside SP and Taylor Kiel [McLaren's IndyCar team boss], who runs the team as President, I have a weekly [meeting] with so, fortunately, all of these racing teams have great leadership and I work with them all very closely. But I also know when to stand back and, you know, I can't do what Taylor [Kiel] does, I can't do what Andreas [Seidl] does, I can't do what Richard [Dean] does, but I know what they need to be successful. So it's my job to give them those resources, tools, people, etc." Brown fully admits that there are areas in which he simply can't help out, and says that this is where it's important to be able to delegate and, even more importantly, be able to trust those that he delegates. "I come from a commercial, marketing, driver background," he explains. "I don't come from a technical background so, you know, if I sat in a meeting with James Key [McLaren F1 Technical Director] and started giving any advice, we go backwards and quickly. "So trust is number one, the trust that I've got between myself and Andreas and Richard and Taylor, it's awesome. I think you need to, as a leader, understand what their needs are, be a really strong communicator. I think, to hire the best people, it has to be an attractive proposition, which all of the people that work with me, first and foremost, are racers. So they all want to have confidence that they're going to have the tools and resources and support to do what they think they need to do to win. "You need to give them good competitive packages, these people are, just like a Grand Prix driver, the good people cost money so you can't be afraid to spend money, you get what you pay for in this world. You need to build up a huge amount of trust and then I think you've got to give them freedom, you've hired them to do a job, you can't then be micromanaging them. You hire them to do a job and, if they don't, then you have a conversation. But you can't get in there and meddle, because then you frustrate them. Looking at Andreas and I, we've got an outstanding working relationship. He knows my sandbox. I know his sandbox, and we work together brilliantly." In terms of the Formula 1 team, Seidl's calm, methodical approach to racing in his role as McLaren's Team Principal has clearly borne fruit in the three years since he joined, further adding to the successes he enjoyed in the World Endurance Championship and, prior to that, with BMW in Formula 1 and DTM. Brown explains that Seidl continues to impress him on a daily basis. "How focused he is, how humble he is, he lets the results speak for themselves," Brown explains. "How much he is focused on creating the right team culture and empowers people. He delegates and he empowers his people. Some people might think of that type of personality as a micromanager. He knows exactly what he wants , he set clear goals and objectives for the individual people within his team. But he empowers them to do it. And much like I do with him, he does with his people. He lets them make decisions. He only steps in if he really feels he needs to. "He'll let his people run with it for a while, even if it's something that maybe he would do a little bit differently. So, unless he thinks it's going to be totally detrimental or it's a catastrophic mistake, he'll go 'You know what, I would have maybe done this, but you're the guy in charge. So I'm gonna let you run with it'. And I think that's a great skill set."

In an exclusive interview with RacingNews365.com earlier this year, Brown spoke at length about his management style and the key decisions he feels he's made correctly in order to return McLaren to the front. Having also returned McLaren to the IndyCar field on a full-time basis, Brown runs extremely successful United Autosports teams in multiple racing series, such as the World Endurance Championship, European Le Mans Series and Australia's Supercars. Additionally, he has tasted success in the new Extreme E series with the Andretti/United tie-up, and McLaren are preparing to enter their own team in 2022. All of this means Brown is perhaps the most thinly spread of Formula 1's key personnel, but the success he is achieving across the board shows that his decision-making is proving fruitful. "In all racing, I think there's commonality to success. In no particular order, but all equally as important," he explains at the start of our lengthy chat. "Get the best management in the world, get the best equipment in the world, get the best drivers in the world for that particular racing series, and get all the resources, the commercial partners, the economics, and each racing series has its different business models, that's what it takes to be a successful racing team in any series. "I think, first and foremost, my priority is always McLaren [in F1]. That's my job. That's my business, so that always comes first. But when you're technically not running a team, my presence at a race weekend is sponsor relations, industry relations, representing the brand, it's not calling the race, it's not running the race. "I believe we have, for the most part, [done] all the things I've described, in all the different racing series; it allows the supercar team to go win and I've not been to a supercar race in 18 months. "But what I'm on is a 10pm weekly management call to Australia, with Michael Andretti, Richard [Dean], Ryan Walkinshaw, Bruce Stewart [all of whom are United Autosport's management in Australia's Supercars championship], making sure they have what they need to be successful. And I haven't been to Australia in 18 months. "At the same time, we won on our debut both races, one from pole, [with the] McLaren GT4 in Italy. And even Richard wasn't there, right? So he has the same philosophy. We've got good equipment, great drivers, great leadership, commercially the team is strong."

Brown added: "I do observe a lot when I'm in a race weekend and think I contribute more kind of post-race when I share my observations. "I know what great looks like, and I know what bad looks like, I know what good looks like. And I think my job is to help steer the ship, but you can, in today's day and age, do that remotely. "But make no mistake about it. You know if there's ever a scenario where I need to choose between something, 110% of the time it's McLaren." With McLaren taking over the majority stake of their IndyCar team from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as the primary shareholders, Brown said that McLaren's input into the running of that team is also increasing. "We're operational as well now. I've got 12 people, operationally, from McLaren, that sit inside SP and Taylor Kiel [McLaren's IndyCar team boss], who runs the team as President. I have a weekly [meeting] so, fortunately, all of these racing teams have great leadership and I work with them all very closely," said Brown. "But I also know when to stand back and I can't do what Taylor [Kiel] does, I can't do what Andreas [Seidl] does, I can't do what Richard [Dean] does, but I know what they need to be successful. It's my job to give them those resources, tools, people, etc." Brown fully admits that there are areas in which he simply can't help out, and says that this is where it's important to be able to delegate and, even more importantly, be able to trust those that he delegates. "I come from a commercial, marketing, driver background," he explains. "I don't come from a technical background so, you know, if I sat in a meeting with James Key [McLaren F1 Technical Director] and started giving any advice, we go backwards and quickly. "Trust is number one, the trust that I've got between myself and Andreas and Richard and Taylor, it's awesome. I think you need to, as a leader, understand what their needs are, be a really strong communicator. I think, to hire the best people, it has to be an attractive proposition, which all of the people that work with me, first and foremost, are racers. They all want to have confidence that they're going to have the tools and resources and support to do what they think they need to do to win. "You need to give them good competitive packages, these people are, just like a Grand Prix driver... the good people cost money, so you can't be afraid to spend money, you get what you pay for in this world. You need to build up a huge amount of trust and then I think you've got to give them freedom, you've hired them to do a job, you can't then be micromanaging them. "You hire them to do a job and, if they don't, then you have a conversation. But you can't get in there and meddle, because then you frustrate them. Looking at Andreas and I, we've got an outstanding working relationship. He knows my sandbox. I know his sandbox, and we work together brilliantly."

In terms of the Formula 1 team, Seidl's calm, methodical approach to racing in his role as McLaren's Team Principal has clearly borne fruit in the three years since he joined, further adding to the successes he enjoyed in the World Endurance Championship and, prior to that, with BMW in Formula 1 and DTM. Brown explains that Seidl continues to impress him on a daily basis. "How focused he is, how humble he is, he lets the results speak for themselves," Brown explains. "How much he is focused on creating the right team culture and empowers people. He delegates and he empowers his people. Some people might think of that type of personality as a micromanager. He knows exactly what he wants, he set clear goals and objectives for the individual people within his team. But he empowers them to do it. And much like I do with him, he does with his people. He lets them make decisions. He only steps in if he really feels he needs to. "He'll let his people run with it for a while, even if it's something that maybe he would do a little bit differently. So unless he thinks it's going to be totally detrimental or it's a catastrophic mistake, he'll go, 'You know what, I would have maybe done this, but you're the guy in charge. So I'm gonna let you run with it'. And I think that's a great skill set."

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