Alonso's Indy 500 jaunt a sign of Brown's new broom at McLaren
After the huge disappointments of underperforming for the past two years, McLaren needed a fresh start this season. An early signal that one is under way came clearly when the team announced on Wednesday that they were allowing Fernando Alonso to miss the Monaco Grand Prix to compete at the Indianapolis 500.
It was a decision unthinkable under the team's former chief executive Ron Dennis but positively encouraged by the new executive director, Zak Brown, the architect of the deal and the man who is now leading McLaren's attempt to return to the top tier of F1. Alonso acknowledged in Bahrain just how much of a change had already taken place at McLaren; his race on the super-speedway would simply not have happened under Dennis, he confirmed. "Zak is a man who has a bigger vision that other team principals or bosses," he said. "I think he is a true racer."
Brown was not well known outside the sport before his move to McLaren but Alonso was right to mention his racing heritage. The American left Los Angeles for England to try to forge a career in F1 before turning to business and becoming hugely successful with his motorsport marketing company JMI, all the while staying in touch with his passion for the sport. That included running his own sportscar team and driving for them as well. "You've got to have a bit of the racer instinct in you to survive," says the 45-year-old.
It was the racer in him that meant he turned down the chance to be head of commercial for F1's new owners, Liberty Media, in favour of taking on the tough task at McLaren, concluding that winning the F1 world championship would be "the coolest thing".
Cool indeed, but it's a target that remains a long way off as McLaren have struggled with their Honda engines. However, his sense of purpose and confidence in the team's future is palpable.
"Ron was probably the most successful principal of a single era," Brown says. "So what he did worked, but all individuals have different ways of working. I operate differently. I like to empower people. I am a big communicator and sharer of information. We are exposing more of the team members to more parts of the business and engaging them in a way that they have not been engaged in before."
Showing the 2017 McLaren's new livery to their staff in Woking and asking for their opinions was a good start, when previously their first sight of the car would have been at its launch. The feeling within the team of being more involved and informed has gone down well, reinforcing the sense that the new broom has revitalised the operation.
The decision to allow Alonso to miss Monaco would not have happened had the car been competitive, and the need to keep their best driver on board for another difficult season was clear, but Brown's background means he recognised an opportunity when he saw it - and alongside naming former world champion Jenson Button as a replacement for one race has probably garnered more positive press for McLaren than they have had in the past two seasons combined.
Brown has little time for those who questioned his qualifications for the job. His reaction to the problems in testing is a case in point. "It was a surprise," he explains. "But I have been in business long enough, I was a CEO and I have been surprised before. You dig yourself out of a hole; this is a racing team not a marketing company. You see CEOs change industries because of the qualities needed. Those qualities are getting the right people, the right resources - whether it is a marketing company or a racing team, those skill-sets are very transferable."
McLaren are once again well off the pace and the relationship with Honda has been strained, putting pressure on Brown, but he denies there is any sense of crisis. Instead he insists McLaren have adopted a controlled but aggressive pace to turn things around. "I feel it's an enjoyable stress if there is such a thing," he says. "It doesn't feel like we are losing control. We see the road map and there's still 10 miles ahead and we are not there - but we know where to go."
There will be no sudden improvement in McLaren's fortunes, not least in Bahrain this afternoon, and Brown is realistic in that respect - but there is a sense that a corner has been turned.
"Some people would probably say they like my style," he says. "Some would prefer another and for some the jury is still out. The proof will be in the results."
Sunday Indo Sport