Yet, I wonder, when you’re talking nine-figure, multi-year deals with multinationals, what makes sixth-placed McLaren more attractive than those further up the leader board? Brown has no doubts. “McLaren is a brand unlike any other,” he declares. “It has a sense of timelessness and heritage richer than anyone else’s, except maybe the red guys [Ferrari]. We have great resources, and we help our partners develop their own businesses – with technology, marketing, branding know-how. It’s not just stickers on race cars.”
Besides, he continues, F1 itself still offers great-value exposure. “You get global notoriety, delivered very efficiently. Some say it’s expensive, but if you break down what it offers across the world, F1 isn’t expensive at all. Want to prove that? Try buying TV advertising in 200 countries. F1’s global reach is amazing.”
Achieving ‘reach’ isn’t just about TV, says Brown. Sure, he’d like the TV ratings to grow, but they’re not the only thing. “People watch F1 in so many ways now – via social media or online. McLaren has led the field in showing us what modern F1 looks like. I’d like us to be at the cutting edge for new media, too. We must do a much better job for the fans.”
When I ask how, exactly, this can be achieved, Brown utters four words rarely heard in interviews. “I don’t know yet,” he says, cheerfully. “But we’re full of ideas. And we need to ask the fans. We know they have a huge thirst for involvement, but it’s just not possible to march 100,000 people through the pit lane. We have to find new ways of providing unique content – and we will.”
So far, I’m persuaded by Brown’s straightforward American optimism, having been brought up on motorsport interviews full of caution and obfuscation. It strikes me how attractive this must be to prospective business targets. Brown clearly knows it, too. For a high-powered workaholic who needs only four or five hours’ sleep a night, he has a steady gaze, a ready smile, a liking for conversation and a nice line in humility. I remark on his easy availability for this interview, having expected our mid-December request to be answered with a date in half-past July. “Oh, no,” he says, slightly shocked. “You’ve got to get on with things.” Privately, I’m thinking McLaren insiders must be noticing a cultural shift…
Brown’s obsession with big-time motorsport goes back 40 years to a dinner with Mario Andretti after the 1987 Long Beach Indycar race. (“A school buddy’s family had a connection with the Andrettis.”) Andretti won the race and star-struck young Brown asked how he could do the same. Get into karting, Andretti advised, and Brown set off hotfoot to do it, selling several watches he’d won in a TV game show to finance the driving lessons. He won lots of US kart races and then moved to Europe in 1990 (“I was a big F1 fan”) where he went through the Jim Russell driving school and started winning at Formula Ford. In the early 1990s, he had considerable success in single-seaters on both sides of the Atlantic before moving to LMP2 sportscars, scoring impressive results at Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta. But by his own admission, he was a good driver rather than a great one, good at raising money but never quite enough.