THERE WILL NEVER BE a ‘new’ Ron Dennis, just as there’ll never be another Bernie Ecclestone. Yet Zak Brown is, in one important way, New Ron. Since Ron fell out with his fellow shareholders a year and a half ago, Brown has been responsible for McLaren’s racing team and charged with transforming the second most successful F1 outfit in history from back-markers (over the past five years) into winners.
I ventured to McLaren’s clean and clinical lakeside temple of technology in Woking to see Zak. He is less formal than Ron in dress – chinos, open shirt, casual shoes – and in manner: a friendly bear of a man. He’s certainly mad about F1. He owns and regularly drives 10 old F1 cars – and the 2011 Bathurst winning HRT Commodore. He says he’s obsessed by cleanliness and detail: no wastepaper bins, post-its, empty mugs or food-at-desks in Ron’s day, or now that Zak’s the man.
The thorny issue of science versus sport quickly surfaced. The current turbo hybrid V6 cars may well be the worst F1 racers ever, or so I opine (Zak doesn’t like them either). Since their first race in 2014, one team has dominated. No sane person was going to stay up past midnight on a Sunday to watch a faraway race on TV when it was a partstage-managed contest between two identical cars.
Last year was better. Yet the difference between first and last is still bigger than the gap between the Red Bull Holden Racing Team and 23Red Racing. At best, six drivers had a chance of winning. Plus, I’m sorry, but the (relatively low-revving) turbo hybrids just don’t sound like F1 cars. I want my ears to hurt and the earth to move when I go to a Grand Prix.
Then there’s that old chestnut that ‘racing improves the breed’ and benefits tomorrow’s car customers. This was the justification for the hugely expensive and technically complicated turbo-hybrid formula. It is rubbish, of course. Do Mercedes, Renault, Ferrari and Honda have superior turbo hybrid road car technology? Hardly. Renault has never made an innovative petrol road car engine in its life, though the old 5 Turbo was fun. And Merc and Ferrari are hardly hybrid innovators. Even Adrian Newey, Red Bull tech guru, dismisses current ‘racing improves the breed’ claims as ‘marketing blurb’.
Besides, if F1 seeks to pioneer tomorrow’s tech, how should it influence a future where cars will be electric and drive themselves? Does this mean robo Formula E? With Newey’s sensors and software replacing Lewis’s bravery, car control and bling? Or Samsung’s battery cells trying to outmuscle Panasonic’s? Give me Ricciardo, Lewis and Verstappen any day. And V8s, V10s or V12s over high-speed vacuums.
The time has surely come to forget tomorrow’s tech and instead dial up the entertainment. But still provide enough intellectual challenge to keep Newey and friends engaged, and car companies like Ferrari in love with F1.
“Why does Formula 1 have to be about the future of the automobile?” asks Zak. “It’s sport. People don’t ride horses any more, but horse racing is still popular.” Zak says fans want to see wheel-to-wheel racing with the best drivers and the fastest cars in the world. And to be the fastest, F1 cars still have to be technically advanced.
Newey, who was against the move to hybrids, thinks F1 should be a ‘battle of drivers coupled with the creativity of engineers’. He wants to move away from a battle of resources.
So there must be a place for the brainpower of ‘Motorsport Valley’ – that high-tech tract from Silverstone to Surrey. This is the home of F1 (of Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren, Force India, Williams and Renault) and of the world’s motor racing industry. More specialist high-speed car engineers live and work here than anywhere else in the world. It’s Silicon Valley on slicks.
When Lewis is on the top step of the podium and they play the German national anthem, no doubt Mrs Merkel may shed a tear of national pride if she’s watching on the telly. Yet the all-conquering Silver Arrows cars are built, designed and engineered in Brackley in sleepy Northamptonshire (and the all-conquering engines come from nearby Brixworth) – not Stuttgart in mighty Germany.