The matrix revolution: Exclusive interview with McLaren’s Zak Brown


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In the latest in our series of exclusive interviews with team principals, McLaren’s Zak Brown tells @DieterRencken why he is dismantling the infamous ‘matrix management’ structure implemented by his predecessors.

When Zak Brown, F1’s supreme sponsorship hunter, accepted the role of McLaren executive director at the same time as Ron Dennis departed after a showdown with the company’s primary shareholders, the widely-held view in the Formula 1 paddock was that the Californian replaced the man who had led the post-Bruce McLaren operation to great heights before it all came crashing down.

Not so: Brown was appointed to head up the race team’s commercial operation, whereas Dennis had been CEO of McLaren Technology Group, made up of McLaren Racing, McLaren Advanced Technologies and a number of smaller entities. McLaren Automotive, the road car division, was a separate company with a different set of shareholders, albeit with some crossover – including Dennis.

After Dennis’s departure, the shareholders embarked on a consolidation programme, in the process housing all entities under a single umbrella company. Brown was appointed CEO of McLaren Racing – one of three main operating divisions within the revised McLaren Group – with one of his first tasks being to institute a total restructure.

During this process numerous senior personnel members left, including, in chronological order, technical director Tim Goss, racing director Eric Boullier and engineering director Matt Morris, plus a few more heads down the command chain.

In came Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran – who’d enjoyed a brief management spell with Honda F1 a decade ago – as sporting director, with Andrea Stella simultaneously promoted to performance director, and Simon Roberts granted greater responsibilities as COO.

It didn’t stop there, either: During the run-up to F1’s summer break, McLaren announced that James Key had been hired from Toro Rosso as technical director – ruffling some feathers in Faenza given that the highly-rated Briton is (allegedly) under long-term contract.

Crucially, they all have clearly defined job descriptions, which was not always the case at McLaren after Dennis instituted a matrix management structure at the turn of the millennium. That McLaren subsequently failed to add a constructors’ title to its tally of eight can be no coincidence.

Gil de Ferran, McLaren, Silverstone, 2018
De Ferran arrived as sporting director
Matrix management was introduced in the seventies, and is the practice of managing individuals via multiple reporting lines, i.e. having two (or more) managers, often indirectly. While such structures can be effective where projects are concerned, in corporate structures they result in confusion and lack of clarity – both no-nos in an F1 environment, and clearly the cause of McLaren’s current dilemma.

As part of our monthly team boss interview series I sat down with Zak in Hungary between practice and qualifying with a view to discussing precisely this point, and its impact on the team. I’m allocated 15 minutes, but, as it turns out, Zak graciously extends the session by ten minutes – in turn delaying a meeting with Carlos Sainz Jnr’s management team, whom I see waiting in the corridor. By now we all know how that one turned out.

When shown into Zak’s office I’m somewhat taken aback – over the years I’ve interviewed various McLaren team bosses, always in the right-hand corner office situated on the first floor of McLaren’s hospitality unit. This time I’m shown to a smaller office on the left. Why the change, I ask as we exchange pleasantries; who now occupies the desk across the way?

“Oh, it’s a team meeting room,” says Brown. “That’s more important than my having more space.” The implication is clear…

I dive straight in, somewhat provocatively: From where I’m sitting McLaren appears to be in utter turmoil. What is going on within a team that was once the benchmark by which all others were measured?

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“If I look back at what got us to where we are today,” he says after a pause, “is [that] we’ve had a continuous change of leadership since – pick a year – ’10, ’11, ’12…

“Ron (Dennis) out, Ron in, Martin (Whitmarsh) out, Martin in, Jost (Capito) in, Jost out, and then at the highest level, [we’ve] had shareholder changes. So I think the team has lacked leadership. Not any one individual person’s fault, but just because of the turmoil, that’s created a lack of leadership and therefore direction.

“Whether it’s a Formula 1 team or a water company, I don’t think any entity can be successful having that degree of lack of stability. What created that, was then a lack of clarity and leadership down into the racing team. So you had racing directors and CEOs; Jost and Eric, you had a structure that wasn’t right…”

Stoffel Vandoorne, McLaren, Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, 2017
Brown admits their problems weren’t entirely down to Honda
I mention the two M words; matrix management…

“Correct. And then because there wasn’t that overarching, consistent leadership no-one was able to recognise the issue. The issue was then probably maxed somewhat by our [Honda] power unit situation,” Zak adds.

I brace for a tirade of Honda criticism, but, no: “While it definitely wasn’t all [Honda’s] fault, clearly we had tons of issues and penalties and blow-ups, so that made it harder, I think, to then go in and diagnose where are we really, because there’s other factors. And then you make that change, you put in a (Renault) power unit that Red Bull shows what you can do with it, and you have a big wake-up call…”

Zak is in free flow so I let him continue: “So it’s been structural, it’s been communication, it’s been leadership. It’s not been a person. I think some of the people that moved on were high-quality people. It wasn’t their fault. It was just not a well-run organisation from the top, because it didn’t have that focus.

“So I think that’s what’s happened over the last five, six years. Now we’ve identified we haven’t had the right people in the right place. We’ve got a lot more right people than I think we appear to have. And so now I’m making changes to address that. I’ve hired a Technical Director…”

“You hope,” I interject…

“I’ve hired a technical director! Start date TBD.” Which could mean ‘discussed’, ‘defined’, ‘decided’ or ‘determined’ in Zakspeak…

“I’ve brought in Gil; I’ve got other things happening. I’ve done some restructuring and it’s not all been public, it doesn’t need to be public. I’ve got a plan. I’m head down. It took us five, six years to get us in the situation we’re in.

James Key, Toro Rosso, 2017
Key will join the team, Brown insists
We’re not going to fix it overnight. Kind of just like [FOM CEO] Chase [Carey], who’s inherited years of issues, as much as we all want him to fix it tomorrow, it’s going to take some time. So I think I’ve got a plan. People are starting to see it. ‘Ah, a new technical director?’ So they are paying attention.

“Because everyone thought we need, I mean, I didn’t hire one because everyone thought we needed one, but there’s a reason why everyone else has one. And so I think I don’t want to big up the plan, because I think that’s gotten us into trouble in the past, is making predictions and big statements. So I’ve got a plan, we’ve got a plan, people are starting to see that.

“It’s not done, it’s not fully matured yet, and it’s going to take some time but I think we’re confident we know what we’re doing. It’s just going to be head down and get on with it and hopefully people will just see us go up the grid.”

All of which is encouraging for legions of McLaren fans, but I point out that it took McLaren four years to reorganise into its matrix. How long, then, to dismantle and institute a traditional pyramid?

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“I think it will take us a year,” he shoots back, “to the end of this decade, to really be in a position where…

So another year, 18 months from now…

Zak Brown, McLaren, Silverstone, 2018
Brown says getting the right people in place will take time
“Yeah, to really get ourselves in a situation where I feel like ‘Right, I’ve got all the right people in all the right places with all the right structure, full-throttle.”

We agree that reversing the structure is not simply about drawing pyramids, that job descriptions and reporting structures need to be institutes, jobs may need regarding, pay grades need revision and perks need revisiting – none of them the work of a day or two. Then there is the change of culture – all before McLaren can again proudly view itself as a proper F1 racing team…

“Yes, yes,” he nods. “By then I think we will be where we need to be, but then things take time to gel, work together. I’ve now got a five-year business plan.”

Starting when? Last year? This year?

“Starting right now,” Zak says immediately, then pauses. “Yes, it’ll take time to get the right people, to get the right structure. Everything you’ve mentioned is correct and we’re on it, and it’s just going to take some time.

“We just want to be head down, focussed on it, getting on with the job, and the results will come in due course, and we don’t want to predict when. Hence my statement, which I don’t think was a good soundbite because it wasn’t intended to be the soundbite everyone picked up on of ‘two to 10 years, maybe somewhere in between’.

“Really what I was saying was “It’s going to take some time, don’t expect miracles overnight.” But the “10 years” was a great headline.”

After another pause Zak modifies that comment to “No timeline”, then adds: “We’ve got a clear plan, but much as we acknowledge the media interest in what is our plan, what are the steps on the timeline, it’s just not productive for us to get into that in too much detail. So it’s not about us being evasive, it’s just about us being sensible.”

I point out that fans are the ones who want to know about the timeline, about how much longer they can expect to wear McLaren gear before once again being rewarded with regular win and podiums and harbour realistic hopes for a title or two…

“Yeah, for sure. I think what the fans need to know is we’re on it, we have a plan, we’re head down, we’re working hard and we’re trying to do it as fast as we can. I think you run a risk of saying ‘We’re going to accomplish this by this date’, because if you don’t, then you lose your fans. I think we’ve made that mistake before and we’re not going to make that mistake again.”

Okay, but how does Brown see McLaren’s structure five years down the road?

“If you look at what we have now: technical director, sporting director, performance director. There’s a certain way to run Formula One teams. I think there’s probably not a big variance up and down the pit lane. So while we’re not done with our restructuring, if you drew it on a piece of paper, or you drew every race team on a piece of paper, everyone’s probably within 90%.

Could, though, McLaren’s slide be blamed solely on its matrix structure, or could there be an element of “forgetting how to win” to it? After all, not winning a constructors’ champion this millennium must be pretty painful for the team…

Jenson Button, McLaren, Interlagos, 2012
Jenson Button scored McLaren’s last win in 2012
“So clearly we had enough resources in 2012 and before. It’s all before my time, so I think it’s a little hard for me to go back and go ‘Here’s what happened in 2004’ or ‘Why didn’t we do it in ’05 when we had a dominant car?’

“So all I’m really doing is focussing on looking forward, and how we got to where we are. I think sitting here today, until the new rules come out in 2021, I don’t see anyone other than Ferrari or Mercedes winning in the next two years. Back then there wasn’t the budget discrepancy, so why we didn’t then, especially we had some dominant cars?

“I think the car was fast enough and we had great drivers. I don’t remember all the stats, probably some pretty close seconds and thirds. In ’07 we could’ve won [but for Spygate, which knocked the stuffing out of the team].

“But sitting here today, I think it would be difficult to win the Constructors’ given the resource and engine situation. I don’t think anyone would beat Ferrari and Mercedes. And [we’re] just very happy that Formula 1 has recognised that and are looking to put in changes in ‘21 that would change that dynamic.”

Still, McLaren’s chassis have been dire of late, or so the record shows…

“A couple of things. One, this year’s chassis is different than last year’s chassis, so…Hard to ultimately know, because when you get more power then the chassis could start doing different things. I think when you have three years of poor performance like we did, I think we took our eye off the ball.”

Was there not an element of McLaren arrogance, though?

“I think,” pause, “what’s the right way to answer that? I wouldn’t say arrogance, but not enough looking in the mirror and challenging ourselves enough. For instance, last year our pit stops weren’t great. Sauber and Williams had great pit stops, so I think we took our eye off the ball, because pit stops have nothing to do with chassis and they have nothing to do with power unit.

“So we should still strive to be the best. Launches, things of that nature. So I think if you look, we haven’t been world championship calibre in all the areas that you need to be, the areas under our control.”

Dennis had been very good at controlling the control-ables, but then he seemingly took his eye off the ball when the road car division was formed. Any comment on that?

“I think at the end of the day the Group grew to a size, and if you look at what Ron had to do – he was road car, he was MAT (McLaren Applied Technologies), he was F1; meanwhile not having a great relationship with the shareholders…

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It’s what I believe was a loss of focus, and this leads us into the next area: McLaren’s IndyCar and Le Mans aspirations, all while the F1 team is well off the pace and undergoing a massive restructure. Is that not detrimental?

Lando Norris, McLaren, Hungaroring, 2018
Young star Lando Norris is on the shortlist for a 2019 drive
“So we won’t do those other race series if we feel it compromises F1 in any way, shape or form. So the whole reason why no-one’s seen us saying anything other than that we’re reviewing is because all that we’re doing is reviewing,” says Zak.

“If, when, when, if we decide to into other forms of racing, it will only be because first and foremost it won’t compromise our F1. So do you look at things when the budget cap comes in and we’re going to have extra resources?

“The way we did it in Indy last year with Andretti, so there’s maybe some drain on maybe executive leadership time, which we have to protect and laser focus on F1, but if we were to do something in Indycar or WEC, it wouldn’t be pulling on F1 resources.”

We move onto prospective driver line-ups – a topic that introduces itself given the Spanish armada waiting outside. A fortnight later the team announced Fernando Alonso will not drive in F1 next year, and subsequently confirms Sainz will replace him.

Stoffel Vandoorne remains an option for the second seat but needs to raise his game. The team’s development driver, F2 star Lando Norris, will do first practice in Spa.

Clearly, drivers are the least of Zak’s concerns right now, which leaves him plenty of time to focus on the team’s restructure and sponsor hunting. Both are massive tasks, and the mere fact that he won’t be pinned on timelines proves it.

Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines


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34 comments on “The matrix revolution: Exclusive interview with McLaren’s Zak Brown”

  1. As usual, great interview @DieterRencken , really enjoyed it.

    1. Indeed. Many thanks to @DieterRencken.

      At the same time, from the Brown side, I still don’t feel the charisma (ie. personality, inspiration, encouragement, abilities…) necessary to be a successful leader. I know some overly charismatic managers viewed as cocky, disingenuous back-stabbers but I don’t speak about them. MacLaren needs a ‘strategic’ business leader first who can articulate a broad vision for the company and inspire workers to pursue it. This is what is missing as far as I can tell. Strong ‘operations’ leaders make sure that staff is encouraged to perform to the best of their abilities by providing the tools necessary to make tasks seamless. That’s easier. I may be wrong tho.

      1. lack of time locked edit button and incorrect auto correction (MacBook), sorry for the typos.

  2. Great article @dieterrencken

    I find Zak quite fascinating, as a character he was pegged as a sponsorship and marketing man when in reality he is a business man. Analyse the problems, make the fix, see if it works, repeat.

    I agree with setting timescales and expectations, one of Mclarens biggest problems (aside from results) the past few years was “title sponsor on the way” and “podiums in a year” etc. however there needs to be metrics and dates that we as fans can look at and remind ourselves that things are heading in the right direction.

    It honestly looks like the management structure at McLaren requires much more work than initially thought, and as long as he blame game doesn’t set in and they can accept this will take time and do it properly then I am sure they will become contenders again soon.

    This is F1 though, where if you don’t have immediate results you get destroyed in the media, with fans and by shareholders. A balancing act to be sure.

    1. He has a five year plan (probably a new one every 6 months as usual in such company) and he can’t tell when to expect them to win again… Should mean that a win or title is not part of the current 5 year plan.

      1. He has a five year plan (probably a new one every 6 months as usual in such company)

        @jeanrien – LOL, I can see you’re not enamoured of corporate management!

  3. Great interview. Very insightful.

  4. I honestly don’t like his attitude. His talent for getting sponsors shows right through his words to a journalist. He’s selling us a product in every word, and it rings false and fabricated.
    I don’t expect McLaren to go back to winning for many, many years.
    It’s sad, but whatever, others will be there on the top step of the podium.

    1. Johan Tolemans
      24th August 2018, 22:47

      It is very worrying indeed reading this. He is and sounds as far from a succesfull F1 leader as seems possible. He’s trying to convince himself almost. I find it staggering people are discussing drivers at this stage. What will it matter who is behind the wheel now? They may as well not show up.

  5. Why not replace an experienced driver with another experienced driver in tandem with Lando Norris? I am thinking here about Robert Kubica. It would be a great, effective duo.

    1. @Nihilist – are you for real?!

      Firstly, Kubica is clearly past his best with limited freedom of movement. Were he still at the top of his game, he’d have been re-picked as a race driver already.

      Secondly, Carlos matched (the undoubtedly very good driver) Verstappen whilst they were together at Toro Rosso. He actually outqualified him 10 – 9; and quali is seen as Max’s forté (even giving Riciardo a hard time for one-lap pace)!!!

      Lastly and of course most importantly, next year will be Sainz’ 5th year in Formula One. Kubica drove for 5 seasons in F1, entered a 6th, but was severely injured before starting any races. So Sainz lacks only a years’ experience in comparison to Kubica.

      So, what’s this about Robert being preferable? What is the fascination with someone who is past their best?! I do not understand at all! Unless you are Polish – I can fully understand national pride giving you the rose-tinted glasses!

      1. It seems to me that you are biased somehow.

        Kubica has already shown that he has no physical limitations to fully drive the car, so let’s finish discussing this topic.

        He also showed that out of a hopeless car, not driving now almost at all, he is able to do more than Stroll and Sirotkin, which confirms that his talent did not fall under the ground.

        He is the only driver looking for a team that combines technical knowledge, experience and talent.I’m sure that he will be driving in the next season, and it would be great if it could be mclaren… Who, if not he, would replace Fernando in such a good way.

        1. Robert was a tremendous talent but I don’t think he’s the right choice, he’s 34 years old and hasn’t completed a race in years. If he didn’t get injured he’d be starting to approach the tail end of his career. If you want a longer term driver, Robert isn’t a good fit.

          Also by the end of this year Sainz will have completed more F1 races than Robert, so he’ll be more experienced than him as well.

          Sainz is a solid choice, I’m not sure he’s a world beater but he’s a safe pair of hands and probably the best guy that McLaren could convince to get into a backmarker

  6. I think when you have three years of poor performance like we did, I think we took our eye off the ball.”

    Three years for a “top” team is a lot to understand such shortcomings. Better be late than ever i guess.
    One the other side loosing Alonso i dont think it will hurt them at race results so the future seems a bit brighter.

    1. @notacop How will losing Alonso not hurt them at race results? He is different class to Sainz and whoever is alongside him, whether it be Vandoorne or Norris. Last time I checked, Alonso has gotten 84.6% of McLaren’s points this season, so you’re honestly telling me that that won’t be a huge loss to McLaren? McLaren could build a car that is equal to pace as Renault and Red Bull but probably couldn’t compete with them as those teams have better drivers.

      1. @Mashiat i believe Sainz will do fine next year. Alonso is not a HUGE loss, maybe when the others will finish 8th he could gain one more place. Don’t forget that Vandoorne had a problem with his chassis so the percentage is a bit skewed. Building a car on par with Red bull is not even imaginable to me until the new registrations.

        1. @notacop

          Alonso gaining unexpexted ‘places’ with the rubbish Honda engine, earnt them 20 million in 2016.

  7. We have a plan
    We have a plan
    We have a plan
    Get it?

    1. Better still

      So I’ve got a plan, we’ve got a plan, people are starting to see that.

      if you repeat it many times they will.
      But what’s the plan ..sigh.

      1. lol ++

  8. Thanks Dieter!

  9. Missing only The Wachowski Brothers!

  10. Will Zak in Zak out be added to the list? It’ll be interesting to see how the plan shapes out over the coming years…

  11. I dunno… Zak Brown seems like a pretty decent guy & he’s obviously pretty smart, the way he articulates himself in his analysis of what’s wrong, but other than hiring a technical director (which I didn’t even realize they never had, tbh) and a few more changes, all he’s done so far is admit that things were screwy at McLaren & he’s finally got an inkling as to why that might be. “I’ve got a plan” doesn’t exactly instill confidence he knows how to fix it short of copying the management structure of their rivals… but I suppose it is a step up from talking big & falling way short.

  12. Thanks for great interview, Dieter!

    I don’t know Zak as a person or as a businessman, because I am just another armchair F1 fan. But from this and other interviews I always lack confidence from Zak. He says that Mclaren can make it to the top again something between 2 and 10 years, then he says let’s not give a deadline. So it seems he doesn’t know what he is doing and if he is doing it right. Maybe he is really good, but from fan perspective, he doesn’t seem as a great leader.

    Many more guys look more confident and knowing what they are doing. For example, Mario Theisen in BMW-Sauber days looked very confident when his team were going ladders up. If BMW hadn’t quit, they would have definetely were a top force in F1 and not just because of resources (remember Toyota). Fred Vasseur is confident and knows what he is doing as well.

    I could compare others as well. Stefano Dominecalli didn’t seem as confident and great leader. However Maurizio Arrivabene looks confident and calm, doesn’t talk too much and talks with confidence. Christian Horner, Toto Wolff look confident and made structures that can stay at the top or near the top for numerous years. Heck, even Martin Whitmarsh looked more confident.

    So I don’t know how Zak Brown will cope with this situation in Mclaren and if he will lead team back to the top. I am not a Mclaren fan, but would like to see it back at the top, fighting with leaders. So hope Zak does the job. But being in the shoes of Mclaren shareholders, I’d be looking for a confident and ambitious leader.

    1. But… So I’ve got a plan, we’ve got a plan, people are starting to see that.

  13. I hope the plan has getting Whitmarsh back in it. He attracts people + sponsors and brings harmony to a team, simple as that.

    1. Absolutely. Bring Martin back!

    2. Martin was a matrix man and either by design or accident, Mclaren’s decline started under his watch.

  14. Fortunately @DieterRencken is one of those few who know how to ask questions that do not prompt generic corporate answers. But one of the things ZB is somewhat struggling to address, why McLaren did not win in 2005, is actually easy. The engine was not up to it. I believe that Räikkönen had four grid penalties for engine changes, plus one pitlane start. Right there the driver’s as well as constructor’s titles went away. But even that was 13 years ago by now…

  15. Ask many of the mechanics and shop floor staff about their experiences and it points to one of the execs not mentioned in many articles….. cough cough COO

  16. That was quite a read.

    Can’t help feeling though that the answers given were exactly the same sort of answers we hear from politicians. It felt like the interviews here with senior ministers that just repeat the same mantras over and over again without actually addressing any question they get asked.

  17. Insightful article.

    I can’t help but imagine Zak as a mad American inventor with the ‘next big idea that’s going to change everything’ As a McLaren fan I hope his new regime works

  18. re: ‘spygate’

    Have teams stopped spying on each other? Maybe that’s why gaps between them have increased. I remember Ferrari always seem to know what everyone else was running and usually protested it when they couldn’t make it work for themselves. They didn’t get any fines either.

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