‘Dropping Honda, Ricciardo among Zak Brown’s many odd decisions at McLaren’

Oliver Harden
Zak Brown on McLaren pit wall. Australia, Melbourne. March 2023

Zak Brown on the pit wall. Australia, Melbourne. March 2023

Peter Windsor, the Formula 1 commentator, has accused McLaren chief executive Zak Brown of making some “odd racing decisions” in his time in charge of the team.

Brown has been at McLaren since late 2016, when the American was brought in to succeed legendary team boss Ron Dennis.

One of his first acts saw McLaren move away from the MP4 designation of the team’s cars in what was widely interpreted as an attempt to make a clean break from Dennis’s regime, with Brown also taking the decision in 2017 to end the team’s engine partnership with Honda, who went on to power Red Bull driver Max Verstappen to consecutive titles in 2021/22.

With Brown overseeing just a single F1 win since arriving at McLaren, claimed by Daniel Ricciardo at Monza almost two years ago, the team’s poor start to the 2023 season has seen scrutiny rise on the man at the top in Woking.

Assessing Brown’s time at McLaren, former Williams and Ferrari team manager Windsor believes his stewardship has been defined by a series of highly questionable calls.

Speaking via his YouTube channel, he said: “He got rid of Ron Dennis’s MP nomenclature, which upset Ron a bit. He’s got ‘MCL’ now.

“I think that was quite a big thing.

“It was a bigger thing than we realised at the time because Ron has taken that quite personally, because Ron likes to think MP4/1 was the start of the real McLaren.

“Then, when he went in, he got rid of [the] Honda engines pretty quickly, which were free to McLaren, and replaced them with Mercedes, which he had to buy, and I think the number is £23million that he suddenly had to go from what they weren’t paying to what they suddenly had to pay as a Mercedes customer team.

“I said at the time [that] I [was] shocked that he’s done that, because there’s nothing wrong with the Honda engine and the Honda program that really good management of the Honda engine program couldn’t put right, and absolutely for sure Red Bull will know how to do that with Adrian [Newey], Christian Horner and some very intelligent, good management people.

“I [was] shocked that Zak didn’t think that he could do that with what he had at McLaren because he’s, in theory, a good manager as well.

“So he got rid of Honda. And Honda went on to win World Championships and he’s a Mercedes customer team.

“You have to say, looking back now, it was a pretty dodgy decision.”

Windsor credited Brown for unearthing Lando Norris, who made his grand prix debut for McLaren in 2019, but questioned the wisdom of signing Oscar Piastri for 2023 having previously described Norris’s partnership with Ricciardo as “one of the best driver pairings” of the modern era.

“Hiring Lando Norris was a really good thing,” he added.

“I think hiring Daniel was a good thing and he had a really harmonious team there and now he’s hired Oscar to replace Daniel, which I think is a dubious call again.

“Not because of Piastri’s talent, I think there’s no doubt about his talent, [but] I’m not sure you want a guy that talented and young alongside Lando Norris, that’s all.

“So whether he’s now getting the best from Lando, I don’t know.

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“And then on top of that, the other issues have been the wind tunnel and whether or not they should keep using the wind tunnel in Cologne, the Toyota tunnel, or whether they should do a revised version of their own tunnel in the Woking Technology Centre.

“They seemed to take quite a long time to make that decision and now they’ve taken the decision to have it in the Technology Centre, but I don’t think it’s up and running really as they want it to be yet, so that’s been a big thing.

“And they’ve got rid of [technical director] James Key now.

“I was talking to [former Red Bull driver and Piastri’s manager] Mark Webber about this and Mark said, ‘good call’. He obviously knows a lot more about James than I do.

“My experience with James Key is that he’s a really good guy and he’s got a very logical brain and he’s 100 per cent into the program, so I’m surprised that Zak’s let him go but we’ll wait and see how the new regime works.

“There’s Pete [Prodomou], aerodynamicist, ex-Red Bull.

“In theory, if you say that aerodynamically last year’s McLaren was a disaster with the porpoising that they had to work on for half the year, and then the amount of downforce they didn’t have in the second half of the year when they got rid of porpoising, all of that falls under the heading of aero.

“That’s why I think it’s odd that James Key has been released because he’s managing the entire car – he’s not the aerodynamicist as such.

“I would suspect Zak is still very much liked by the shareholders and the board because he’s very good still at raising money for the team and there’s quite a lot of companies involved with McLaren.

“I don’t think you can say there’s still a big title sponsor in the way that Marlboro or West or Vodafone were title sponsors, but there’s quite a lot of money around the team.

“But there’s a lot of Bahraini shareholding money and not a great race for them in Bahrain in front of the home crowd.”

When asked by a viewer if McLaren – with a presence in IndyCar, Formula E and Extreme E – care more about sponsors and merchandise sales than racing, Windsor responded: “At least they’re accepting [of] their legacy and at least they’re aware of who Bruce McLaren was and who Tyler Alexander was, that orange existed as a colour and Alastair Caldwell was a pretty good chief mechanic/team manager when he had to be and Teddy Mayer played a big role.

“I think Zak is into all that and I can’t criticise Zak for that, but I take your point.

“It’s odd that they’re making these odd racing decisions.

“I suppose the other thing you’ve got to say about Zak is he’s got this thing about signing young drivers and doing all these other categories of racing and doing all this stuff, and I can think about that in two ways.

“One: if I was doing Zak’s job, would I do the same thing given McLaren’s heritage and how much I love racing anyway?

“I don’t think I’d be doing sportscars and stuff but I’d probably be doing Indy.

“I think to be doing anything in America is not a bad thing because potentially it’s a huge growth area for Formula 1 and if you’ve gone there with an IndyCar team you’re starting to get a turnover with sponsors.

“It’s quite a logical thing to do and you can farm out the management as they are anyway.

“On the other side of the coin, you’ve got Frank Williams/Patrick Head’s philosophy of don’t be distracted, Formula 1’s hard enough as it is without lifting your head and looking at anything else out there.

“It’s easy for me to say that because Williams indeed did get distracted at various times, but Frank was always very conscious of not really taking the focus away from Formula 1 and I think there’s a lot to be said [for that].

“You could say that Zak’s priority would have been get hold of McLaren, rebuild McLaren, win a World Championship and then maybe diversify into Indy and a few other things, but focus on Formula 1 big time.

“You could argue that would be a very good, logical philosophy.”

Having built a reputation as F1’s leading sponsor guru prior to joining McLaren, Windsor feels expectations of Brown should be kept in check.

He said: “What do you expect from Zak Brown?

“At the end of the day, the guy is probably the world’s greatest purveyor of sponsorship. That’s what he is.

“And prior to joining McLaren, apart from running his own sportscar team, he didn’t have a track record managing Formula 1 teams or race teams.

“He was a sponsorship guy.”