In this very week 13 years ago Fernando Alonso won the Malaysian Grand Prix for Renault. It was the first of three on the spin to establish Alonso as the man to end the five-year reign of Michael Schumacher and become, in the opinion of most paddock seers, the defining pilot of the post-Schumi age.
The fight that year was not with Ferrari but McLaren, and Alonso had it done by Brazil with two races to spare.
While he was still slugging champagne behind the garage at Interlagos Alonso was approached by McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis, who drew a commitment from the Spaniard to join the Woking empire in 2007, even though he still had a season to run at Renault, which he duly completed with a second successive world championship in 2006. And here we are more than a decade on with Alonso still stuck on two world titles and back at McLaren in much reduced circumstances.
If Dennis had managed that first year differently Alonso would have had his hat-trick of titles and might never have left. And McLaren might not have suffered the steep decline that saw them fall to an unthinkable ninth of ten teams in the constructorsâ€™ championship last year. New executive director Zak Brown had been in his post only a few months when he pitched up in Melbourne in 2017 with his chin on the floor. â€œOn track was worse than any thought it was going to be. It surprised everybody. And it was hard, especially at the early part of the season when we knew we had so many races still to go,â€ Brown said.
Fast forward a year, Brown is sitting in his office at McLaren headquarters feeling properly chipper ahead of Sunday’s F1’s grand depart in Melbourne. Brown is a winner at life, wealthy by dint of his own efforts in building and selling the worldâ€™s largest motorsport marketing agency JMI and with a clear picture of how the future might look and how to get there. He didnâ€™t need the McLaren job, he wanted it, and said no to a leadership role with F1â€™s new owners Liberty Media to take up the post.
Alonso lit up the last day of testing with the third fastest time and the gremlins that cost McLaren so much track time overall in Barcelona were, he declared, resolved.
With a new Renault engine under the bonnet, a fresh lick of papaya paint reconnecting the team with its ancient roots and an utterly re-engaged Alonso, Brown has this team back on the front foot. â€œFernando is like a new guy. I have never seen someone who wants to drive as much as he does. He is very intelligent and just an awesome driver, the most complete driver in the sport in my view and there are some great talents out there. But heâ€™s special, no doubt.â€
McLaren are not yet gunning for Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. They expect to pick up their share of the podium champagne on the good days but the championship is not the battle Brown is prosecuting. The good fight for him is in the political realm, a campaign he has to win, he says, not only for the good of McLaren, but for the sport itself. â€œI love a challenge, I love this team and Iâ€™m excited by the future,â€ he said.
Try like mad
â€œWe have a good race car. We knew challenging top-three on a regular basis, given we are rebuilding, given budget constraints, will be tough. We will try like mad to get on the podium. I stay away from predicting but weâ€™ll try to create some luck and capitalise. We know how to develop a race car. Issues in testing were small, non-repeatable issues, little things, not fundamental. It was frustrating but we learn by those issues.â€
As for the bigger picture, Brown identifies four fundamental issues. â€œFirst we have to get costs under control. There has to be a cost cap. F1 budgets are at record highs. Iâ€™d rather see every franchise financially successful instead of seeing the rich get richer and the poor go bust. We could end up with fewer teams, which would be a disaster for everybody. You can travel first class, business or standard but when the boat sinks, you are all under water. Financial discrepancy is not healthy for the sport.
â€œWhy do the LA Clippers, who play in the NBA, which is a fraction of the size of F1, sell for $2bn? There is not an F1 team on the grid worth that, maybe Ferrari excepted. Something is wrong there. The Clippers are not a great team but they make money, which makes the franchise attractive. In F1 we still have two slots open. If we can stabilise the finances and teams make money then all of a sudden that last placed team is worth maybe $500m.â€
Brown has set a notional Â£150m cap, mightily ambitious given the tension that has exists between the big-spending manufacturers and the garagistas buying engines off the shelf. The second pillar of the Brown agenda is revenue split, which would see a more even distribution of the $500 million profits, and a diminution of Ferrariâ€™s $100m bonus guarantee. â€œIâ€™m not advocating it should be even. Iâ€™m comfortable with Ferrari getting a bigger payment than anyone else because of what they bring of the sport, but not to the detriment of the tenth-placed team.â€
Both the above are conditional on a third pillar, bringing governance into line with the scale of a multi-billion dollar operation. â€œLiberty and the FIA (F1 governing body) have to sort this out. They come up with the rules. They simply have to say these are the rules and get on with it.â€ This, of course, walks Brown into the heart of the Ferrari quit threat over income and control of engine specification, to which you can add the opposition of Mercedes, Renault and Honda.
â€œThere is a risk of losing teams. Iâ€™m of opinion that Ferrari benefits greatly from F1 and F1 from Ferrari. If they were to leave it would be a lose-lose situation. I think you have to take what Sergio (Marchionne, Ferrari CEO) says seriously. But my view is for the long-term benefit of the sport you have to have the cap. If Mercedes win the next seven championships it is not healthy for the sport. There has to be short-term sacrifices, level the playing field and let the best team win. Teams have to have a chance to win. We canâ€™t have seasons where the title is won with two, three races to go.
â€œI understand Mercedes position, too. They are getting everything out of F1 that they want. They are winning races, they are dominant, plenty of money, a great marketing exercise so everything is cool. But Liberty have to take a 20-year view. They have the power to do that. I believe the intention is to get 2021 (regulations) done in 2018, and they need to. New suppliers, new engine providers for example, need two years to get organised.â€
Ah engines and their specification, the fourth and final pillar of the golden age to come. â€œGet the other three right, the last one takes care of itself,â€ Brown said. â€œTeams need a big voice but at a the moment we have too much power to stop things going through. We need a voice for business-critical decisions, but on technical stuff we canâ€™t get things through. So Liberty and the FIA need to be aligned. Together they have the power to do whatever they want.â€
More from Kevin Garside: