How Brown's McLaren dream became a nightmare

Monday, 09 july 2018, 07:04 , by Rob Watts

When Zak Brown joined McLaren in late 2016, he spoke of his joy at joining his "favourite team" and said it felt like "Christmas has come early". Fast forward 18 months and the American's dream has gradually turned into a nightmare, but can Rob Watts see an end in sight?

After growing tired of Honda's repeated failings, Brown made the call to drop the Japanese manufacturer and partner with Renault, despite previous boss Ron Dennis believing that McLaren would never win another title without a works engine deal.

But this was Brown's team now, and he was going to do it his way.

Upon the announcement of the Renault deal, Eric Boullier suggested McLaren "would have won races" had they been running a better power unit, while Brown declared that Renault would finally give them "a chance at winning."

Just 10 races into that relationship and there is no longer talk of winning races. Instead there came a sobering admission this week from Brown that McLaren must be "realistic and honest" about the situation they find themselves in.

Maybe, just maybe, Honda weren't solely to blame after all.

After finishing fifth at the season-opener in Melbourne, Alonso told the media that this would be McLaren's 'lowest level' of the season: "We will be the team that will progress [the most] compared to other teams."

If anything, McLaren have gone backwards.

After failing to reach the podium in the opening few rounds, Boullier revealed that McLaren's actual 2018 car would arrive in time for the Spanish Grand Prix in May, implying that would be the turning point of their season.

Expectations were understandably raised as a result, but once again McLaren failed to deliver.

A first Q3 appearance of the season at Alonso's home race was at least something to cheer, but he was still a full second slower than the similarly powered Red Bulls in qualifying and could manage no better than eighth in the race.

Prior to the upgrade, McLaren scored 36 points from the opening four races to place fourth in the constructors' championship - they've since managed just 12 points in the following six races and have slipped to seventh, behind Renault, Haas and Force India.

 

SO WHAT WENT WRONG?

Following the team's worst qualifying performance of the season at the French Grand Prix, Brown explained that the team had been unable to identify the cause of the problem and were struggling to find a fix as "it's something that doesn't show up in the windtunnel."

Not the news Alonso and his struggling teammate Stoffel Vandoorne probably wanted to hear.

That weekend, it became apparent that McLaren's troubles were not just isolated to the track. In a bizarre story reported by the Daily Mail, it was revealed that staff were being 'rewarded' with Cadbury's Freddo bars for meeting deadlines - many of which came as a result of staff working hours of overtime, often long into the night.

Boullier appeared flustered when confronted with the story in France, and dismissed it as "a joke", saying it was probably just "a couple of people who are grumpy".

When pressed further, he angrily declared that the journalist who broke the story was "lying" and said he had no plans to resign.

"I've won races and championships with every team I've managed before, including F1, and this is something you cannot take away from me," he was quoted as saying.

Understandably, Boullier shot down the rumours of unrest but as the saying goes, 'there's no smoke without fire'.

A quick glance at McLaren's Glassdoor page (a site where employees can anonymously leave reviews about their employers) back up the rumours of unrest.

"Nice cars, interesting jobs. Terrible company culture", reads one review, while others talk of a "toxic environment" and an "uncaring company full of yes men".

Read into that what you like, but a few days after 'Freddo-gate' was revealed, Boullier was out.

Brown insists the Frenchman's exit did not come as a surprise and he maintains that he was not fired, but it would appear he jumped before he was pushed.

 

WHAT COMES NEXT?

Although Boullier's official job title was racing director, he was effectively McLaren's team principal and it would appear his exit is now the catalyst for a wider management reshuffle.

In comes ex-Indycar driver Gil de Ferran who never raced in F1 but held a senior role with the failing Honda team in the mid-2000s. He's been given the role of sporting director, while Andrea Stella has been promoted to the role of performance director, taking overall responsibility for trackside operations.

Stella, in particular, is a close friend of Alonso, having worked with him at Ferrari before following the Spaniard to McLaren in 2015 as his race engineer.

Alonso insists he was merely informed of the changes, but not consulted. Brown has gone to great lengths to keep his star driver motivated in recent years as the team has struggled on track, and the ousting of Boullier followed by Stella's promotion to a more senior role may be seen as another move to appease him.

Now almost six years on from their most recent Grand Prix victory, McLaren's decline has been one of the most unexpected stories of the past decade and the complexities involved in turning things around may have finally dawned on Brown.

"Realistically, this is going to take some time to fix, so I think we are years away," Brown said last week at Silverstone. "I don't know if that's two or 10 or somewhere in between, probably more like somewhere in between, but I don't want to get into predictions."

Predictions have been McLaren's undoing in recent years, and after years of talking up the team's chassis while simultaneously trash-talking Honda, it is refreshing to hear Brown finally being honest about the team's hopes.

His rough approximation of an eight-year window to achieve success, however, may be prove a little too honest for some. Those already disgruntled with life at McLaren are unlikely to be motivated by Brown's latest admission, and the cloud of uncertainty that hovers over the team will surely prove a stumbling block as he attempts to attract some much-needed new sponsorship to the team.

If Brown truly believes McLaren's journey has only just begun, he may be in for a shock at how bumpy that road might yet be.

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