In an ever-changing and fast-paced world it can sometimes be hard to keep up. That is not a problem when you are a Formula One team like McLaren.
On the waves beside Yas Marina Circuit ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Gulf News exclusively caught up with Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing for an exclusive chat about the thrilling season we have witnessed, what the future holds, and all about an exciting new project with key partners BAT.
Joining Zak was John Beasley, Group Head of Brand Building, BAT, to explain the road ahead for their partnership and innovative concept ‘Driven By Change’.
Rooted in advanced technology, BAT’s partnership with McLaren Racing was formed in early 2019 and is a multi-year deal which establishes BAT as their principal sponsor. The agreement gives BAT global marketing and innovation platforms to drive a step-change in their ‘New Categories’ business, powered by the company’s corporate narrative; building ‘A Better Tomorrow’.
‘Driven By Change’ is a platform for underrepresented artists to be seen and heard and has already unearthed talent across the globe and in the UAE.
Q: It’s been great to see McLaren hold their own this year among an entertaining battle between Mercedes and Red Bull. How do you see things for next season with an even more level playing field?
Zak: It has been an outstanding year. We won our first race in 10 years, we finished 1-2 in Monza, we had our first pole in quite some time in Russia. We got more poles than last year. When we started this season our goal was to improve on last year and we have done that in every but one metric — which is the Constructors’ Championship, but I think that is a reflection on how competitive this series is as opposed to our forward progress. As we look towards 2022 with its new rules for the sport, 2021 will go down as one of the best in F1 history, and I think that is the start of a new Formula One era — 2022 is going to be outstanding.
Q: And we are seeing more fans come to the sport now as well. What is the newfound attraction to you?
Zak: The Saudi race had record numbers for the most televised race, we will see records smashed here in Abu Dhabi and Austin, Texas, was the most-attended F1 race. We have the biggest calendar in terms of races, so the consumer demand is definitely there, where it’s digital, live or broadcast, so the sport is headed in the right direction.
Q: You have a great team to lead, and the results show how you motivate them to deliver above and beyond. How is your on-track and off-track relationship with the team and how do you plan to keep them motivated moving forward?
Zak: It is pretty easy to keep the team motivated. It is pretty much a high-performance culture. We want to win and now we have tasted it for the first time in a decade we want more. Winning the world championship again is the goal. Off-track it really is all about our partners and our fans. Our partners are very much engaged and that really motivates us. We race together, not just with the team but with our partners and our fans. The fans are very engaged so there is a lot of energy behind the team.
Q: You have been part of the current McLaren set-up since 2016 — what is the plan for the ‘brand’ McLaren to take them into the next era after their beginning back in the 1960s?
Zak: I think it is all about fan engagement and fortunately in this day and age we can communicate with our fans through our partners and also platforms such as digital, social and virtual and, of course, live. We don’t exist without our fans. And we wouldn’t be with our partners if we were not successful on and off the track. So it all starts with entertaining the fans.
Q: We are here with another great finale and Abu Dhabi has just confirmed it is going to stay this way until 2030. Where does the UAE and the Middle East as a whole rank for you as a global sporting destination now that F1 has firmly stamped its name here alongside so many other global sporting events?
Zak: Specifically in F1 we now have four races in the region and the UAE is where it began. The UAE and Middle East have been great contributors to the sport. They have built great facilities — some of the best in the world. You also see big corporations in the region get involved. And because of the impact they have here, the UAE and Middle East have become our focus in a critical race. Sports here is massive, North America is growing rapidly, we’ve got to tackle Asia next but where we are in the Middle East is great
Q: Where is the future of F1 in terms of getting more eco-friendly?
Zak: In the sport we have power hybrids since 2014, the most thermo-efficient power units in the world. F1 and motorsports has a long history in safety and innovation — carbon fibre, rear-view mirrors, seat belts, paddle gearshifts, these are things that were developed in motorsports. We are now looking at biofuels. McLaren was the first team to be carbon neutral in 2011, we were the first team to win the FIA Carbon Trust Award and maintained it ever since. The next team to win it was in 2020. A lot of that was before my team to credit to them also. F1 is at the cutting edge of technology, and as that develops it is safe to assume the Formula One will be leading the way in sustainability — the word means so many things to so many people — and we also do a lot of work with our partners. While we have our race weeks and race weekends, we are a small company in that sense. Our partners — the BATs of the world — give us the chance to talk to millions and millions of consumers together. If we all hold hands on that journey we can all make a big difference in the world.
John: I think, to expand on that, the root of our partnership is innovation and technology in the wider world of F1 and beyond. And now it is all about where we are going, and you can rely on F1 to be always driving for change, always looking to improve. We are also looking to become a more sustainable business and we look to our partners to help us with that.
Q: The key to taking McLaren and BAT into the next ‘phase’ lies with insights, partnerships, digital marketing and e-commerce all high on the agenda. Can you break down where you see the road map for the future?
John: In McLaren we have a partner in the true sense of the word, not only in allowing us to explore technological innovation in our products but also to look at our approach to marketing. Those examples you laid out are what we are looking at for an end-to-end consumer journey and a better understanding of our adult consumers better. The future road map of our partnership is in how we can understand better, get better at addressing, technology to help us create better products and accelerate towards that goal of reduced risk profile of products that we are looking to set up. Beyond that McLaren is such an innovative company, it is essential to have a partner like that to allow us to explore new ways, such as the Driven By Change platform that we have created together, to help create a platform for underrepresented artists, and that sort of grown-up approach to becoming a purpose-driven company, that is what is at the heart of this partnership and that is really important to us at BAT and key to our future road map.
Q: Global marketing and innovation platforms within the New Categories and ‘A Better Tomorrow’ for all is top of the tree. How do you plan to take this into the community and improve society?
John: The team at McLaren have this incredible skill set to accelerate our capabilities and allow us to develop our reduced-risk products and reduce the health impact of our products and accelerate that future which is encapsulated in ‘A Better Tomorrow’.
Q: For BAT, how do you see this partnership evolving in the coming years, particularly in the Middle East?
John: The last few races in the Middle East have shown what is possible and particularly ‘Driven By Change’, which we set out to champion underrepresented artists but what has been delivered has been so much more. We have discovered an incredible artist from the Middle East, in Rabab Tantawy. But that is not isolated and it really shows that this is a real jewel in the crown of art, culture and also elite motorsport and I think it is fantastic to be part of all this and it gives us the opportunity to do more to really unlock the potential of all the art and culture that is already in this area. There is so much more to build and thanks to the fantastic partnership with McLaren and the relationship they have and our teams have with the governing authorities here. It will be a really exciting future.
Q: How does this partnership tie in with BAT’s corporate narrative of ‘A Better Tomorrow’?
John: Our commitment, vision and strategy is driven by improving the impact of our business for investors, society and our employees, and at the heart of that is developing the transformation and producing a portfolio of reduced-risk products. Those products rely on really high end, cutting edge technology and innovation and our partnership with McLaren allows us to move faster towards that goal than we ever could alone. Together we are a much stronger force, we are always trying to move faster and improve our goals, and make a greater difference to as many people as we can. It is essential to our journey. One of the key things to this partnership is trust and that is so strong with us from the ground level. The response from fans has been jaw-dropping and how far we have come is testament to McLaren’s team and commitment to improving the future.