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‘What you see is what you get’ – Zak Brown at The Union

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After the fashionable highs of last Monday (when I say fashionable, what I really mean is Oxford students donning their quirkiest combos in a tragically misguided hope that they would be somehow scouted as the next in Vogue), the Oxford Union took a high octane turn. Out with the ‘neon faux-fur and statement trousers’, out with 90% of the female population (yes, I too was disappointed, but I guess what should I have expected?). In with, far too many, black puffer jackets and boy racers. Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren racing, must have arrived. 

Fashion in the chamber might have been at an all-time low, but Brown sure looked suave. His suit was sharp, his salt and pepper tips greased to perfection, his pin perfectly placed. He looked every inch the manicured American CEO. He had the lethargic Los Angeles drawl to match. His Americanisms took a little bit of getting used to; I don’t think I’ve heard anyone use the phrase ‘best buddies’ in a while – I’m not sure I ever need to hear it again. Brown certainly had a lot to say. I was gripped from beginning to end, my attention never spinning off track – which is more than can be said for McLaren’s own Lando Norris in the Sochi GP last August (I figured basically 9 months later just wasn’t too soon anymore). 

At first, his story was everything I had expected. He began as a racer before realising he just ‘was not fast enough’ and so transitioned into management. However, when he told us exactly how he had got into racing, well, it certainly wasn’t traditional. Yes, growing up obsessed with cars from being continually dragged to races by a father was to be expected – so many karters start out that way. Buying your first kart using pawned ‘his and her’ watches that you won on a Wheel of Fortune is less conventional. After a couple of mini successes on the American circuit – which he hails as among his proudest moments – Brown moved into commercial management. He quickly realised this was not nearly high-octane enough, that he just couldn’t stay away from the racetrack, and so he moved to McLaren. Why McLaren?, the chair asked; ‘[it] has always been my favourite racing team’ Brown replied (a little too much of a manicured response, but what can you expect? He is CEO after all). 

To Brown, the team is everything. The driver might be ‘the quarterback’ but ‘you are only as good as the car you have and the team you have around you’. The fact that ‘anything’ and ‘everything’ could go wrong at any time is something that excites him about Formula One. Most importantly, ‘it’s a lot of fun when you get it right’. To Brown, there can be no neutral trajectory in motor racing, you are either going forwards or backwards. He likes to think he is the reason why McLaren is moving forwards, ‘I like the direction we’re headed’. He also likes to think, in the classic arrogance that we find only in F1, that he is the best manager ever to grace the pits. He cites his ‘fun and focused’ style as the reason why McLaren has been slowly rising through the ranks. After all, if you aren’t fun to be around, what’s the point? 

Next came the challenges, of which there seem to have been a lot. Basically, Brown is annoyed that McLaren isn’t Mercedes or Red Bull, and that the team’s success has been hampered by bad cars in recent years. For Brown, there is nothing more frustrating than turning up to every race knowing you are going to lose because your car is ‘just bad’. That’s why he likes the new Indy Car venture – it levels the playing field somewhat. Brown is also annoyed – but also I think secretly enjoys it from the glibness of his response – by the ‘games’ played by other teams on and off the track. He is sick of his sponsors being taken, sick of others trying to ‘destabilise’ his drivers (though he too evidently enjoys playing these same games). Want to know what he means? Watch the Netflix documentary – I think his Union talk must have been sponsored by Netflix, he certainly brought it up enough!

With challenges come goals. Tragically (I am sorry McLaren fans) we were told ‘I don’t think we are going to be a championship contender this year’. Why? Something vague to do with a wind tunnel not being finished for two years – I too wasn’t convinced. However, don’t be disheartened, Brown likes to think McLaren can ‘win a race or two’. He thinks the team are great on launches, the ‘best’ actually, and wants to maintain this going into 2022. On pit stops he wants to progress from ‘pretty poor’ to ‘pretty good’. Brown also wants to expand his secondary venture, the racing team United Autosports. This is Brown’s opportunity to get back on the grid, to approach kart track meets ‘the F1 way’. Although, given his performance in the 2019 meet at Bayford Meadows (yes, three years ago, but remember club karting was stalled for over a year because of COVID) where he had to withdraw in the first lap of the first heat after colliding with a barrier – I think much improvement is needed in this venture. However, I doubt we will see any vast changes here anytime soon. Brown confesses United Autosports is nothing more than a ‘hobby’, a ‘stress release’, an ‘enjoyable weekend off’. F1 is, and always will be, ‘the pinnacle’. 

However, as with any elite sport, F1 is not without its critics. A big concern is that it is not meritocratic enough. Zak Brown’s answer (although I debate whether this propaganda was really answering the question), make it ‘all about the fans’. This promoted a whole spiel, ‘without the fans there isn’t an x’, ‘without the fans there isn’t a y’. Yes, it was overly Ciceronian; yes, it sounded ridiculous – but we are in the Union debating chamber, and he had to fit the scene somehow. Brown thinks that since Liberty Media took over in 2016, F1 has become infinitely more inclusive (although that really wasn’t hard). He also mentioned the Netflix documentary (again!), proudly telling us that has people who constantly tell him ‘I never watched F1 (before Netflix), now I don’t miss it’. Sure, there’s a long way to go before the sport is completely accessible, and Brown acknowledges this, but there’s certainly been a lot of progress. 

So, what’s next for Brown and McLaren? Well, he made it pretty clear he isn’t leaving any time soon, that his retirement was a ‘long off’ (‘and in a galaxy far, far away’ – no I don’t get why he brought up Star Wars either, something tenuous about McLaren looking like something from the film?). For Brown, McLaren is the ‘only ambition’. I know you’re all dying to know, what’s the 2022 car going to look like? Brown was pleased to tell us it’s ‘papaya and blue’ and that the colours really pop. He hopes it’s going to be ‘faster’. He didn’t have much more to add, sorry. Allegedly there’s a photo on his phone, but of course no phones in the chamber. 

The final question? Who is better at golf, Brown or Lando? Well, it’s whoever had the 20-year head start…