LONDON (Reuters) - McLaren executive director Zak Brown has two racing helmets on a display cabinet in his office, one in the colours of two-times Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso and the other belonging to ‘Lando’.
The helmets point to both present and future — Alonso the team’s big name driver who may not stay beyond this season, and Lando Norris, the British 17-year-old being groomed for great things.
“Certainly Lando is a world champion of the future with us,” said Brown, who arrived last November after previous boss Ron Dennis was ousted.
“He’s still young and you can ruin a driver by putting him in too early. But do I anticipate Lando being in a McLaren, winning races and the championship? That’s the plan,” the American told Reuters before flying to Canada for this weekend’s grand prix.
On the team’s current form, that is very much a long-term plan as Norris seeks to win the European Formula Three championship.
Honda-powered McLaren are the only team not to have scored a point so far this season and the former champions have not won a grand prix since 2012.
The immediate challenge is keeping Alonso and that will depend on the increasingly unlikely chance of engine partners Honda getting their act together. Without a winning engine, the Spaniard looks set to leave.
“I think he loves the McLaren environment, I think there’s no team he’d rather race for more than McLaren. But he wants to race at the front of the field. And I get it,” said Brown.
“There’s zero tension between Fernando Alonso and McLaren, the relationship has never been healthier. We’re frustrated together.
“We’ve been clear that we want him to stay and he’s been clear he wants to stay, but we need a better race car so that’s where our attention is on.”
The cabinet, in a spacious glass-walled office with views looking out across the factory’s lake, also contains miniature cars, including from rivals Mercedes, Ferrari and Williams.
The collection says a lot about the American marketing and sponsorship expert’s wide-ranging interests and connections across the paddock.
The 45-year-old retired racer, who has another collection of real Formula One cars including a Michael Schumacher Benetton B191 and Ayrton Senna Lotus 98T from the 1980s, is a wearer of many hats if not helmets.
Part of the management team tasked with leading the former champions back to the top, he is also chairman of the fast-growing Miami-based Motorsport Network.
The multi-lingual media platform includes the Motorsport.com and autosport.com websites, as well as F1 Racing magazine, Motorsport.TV and photographic archives going back to the championship’s early years.
It also has a stake in Formula E, the electric series in which McLaren Applied Technologies will be battery supplier from next year, and is building close ties to Formula One’s new owners Liberty Media.
Some might see the many overlaps as posing a conflict of interest for Brown, who holds an executive role at publications that write about his team. He sees it differently.
“I work and help the company on the business side, not the editorial side. If you look at Autosport, we’ve had good headlines and bad headlines. I’m not contributing to things editorially,” he said.
“Is it a conflict that (Red Bull owner) Dietrich (Mateschitz) owns the Austrian GP? The sport loves finding conflicts or creating conflicts. Sometimes they are really there, sometimes they aren’t.”
The former head of CSM Sport & Entertainment introduced sponsors around the paddock in his former existence and is known as a dealmaker. That is one reason why McLaren, who have lost some key backers, brought him in.
“I’ve known (Red Bull team boss) Christian Horner for 20 years. (Mercedes motorsport head) Toto (Wolff) and I have done deals. I’ve done deals with Ferrari. (Williams chief executive) Mike O’Driscoll used to sit on my advisory board,” he said.
“I’ve got great relationships up and down pitlane ... when I joined here I thought I don’t want to lose those relationships and I haven’t.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford