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Brown provides the background for McLaren’s INDYCAR decision

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Zak Brown, the CEO at McLaren Racing, discussed in detail the company’s decision to merge with existing Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to field a fulltime NTT IndyCar Series team in 2020. NBC Sports.com was among a very small group of media that had a chance to talk to Brown, shortly after McLaren announced it would field a two-car IndyCar team next season.

“I’m very pleased to get it over the line,” Brown told NBC Sports.com. “We’ve been working on it for a while and we’ve been a tire kicker. We stated our intentions from Day One about joining IndyCar fulltime and have said it’s a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’

“I’m very pleased the conversation can now turn to talking about racing as opposed to, are we going to do it? Are we not going to do it?

McLaren announced very early Friday morning that it was merging with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to create a new team known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP and will field two Chevrolet-powered cars in the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series.

Arrow SPM team principal Sam Schmidt told NBC Sports.com at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago that he had been talking to McLaren officials about this arrangement and would have to switch from Honda to Chevrolet to make it a reality. Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports had one more year remaining on its contract with Honda Performance Development, but that deal will conclude at the end of this season.

What is surprising is Schmidt and Honda share a long-term relationship. By reneging on the final year of a contract with the automotive manufacturer, instead of waiting for the current deal to expire so the team could join rival Chevrolet, is controversial to put it mildly.

It’s the second time that McLaren and Honda have been at odds in the past two years. When McLaren F1 was saddled with an uncompetitive Honda engine in 2017, the team publicly criticized the Japanese manufacturer when it switched to a different manufacturer.

Schmidt’s decision to leave Honda with one year left on an existing contract has likely alienated the automotive manufacturer further.

Brown and McLaren were prohibited by Honda Japan from doing business with one of its teams in IndyCar. That is why the team could not align with Andretti Autosport, as it did in 2017 in two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso’s impressive Indianapolis 500 debut.

In order to come to IndyCar in 2020, it would have to be with a Chevrolet team. McLaren found a team willing to make the move, but Arrow SPM would have to leave Honda for that to happen.

Ironically, these two teams are the last two big-name operations that have failed to miss the 33-car starting lineup for the Indianapolis 500 over the past two years. James Hinchcliffe’s Arrow Honda failed to make the field for the 102ndIndianapolis 500 in 2018 and Alonso couldn’t get the McLaren entry into the 103rdIndy 500 starting lineup this past May.

After dealing with the major embarrassment, Brown vowed that McLaren would be back.

INDYCAR Photo by Walter Kuhn“I had a clear mandate from our board,” Brown said. “They have been bought in to the benefits of McLaren having an IndyCar program as part of McLaren racing ever since 2017. I started and laid out my vision of what McLaren Racing should look like over the next five to 10 years. I’ve been working hard to put together a program that would fit the criteria that was outlined for me. It has obviously taken some time to get there, as you all know.

“We’ve been working on it for some time and done two Indy 500s. It all came together around an SPM partnership thanks to Arrow Electronics and Chevrolet. We have a lot of long-standing relationships inside SPM with Sam and Ric that go back to my racing days and Gil de Ferran, who I brought on last year with what we’ve announced today in mind.

“He played a great role helping get Formula One pointed in the right direction. That was always the intent. (McLaren Sporting Director) Gil De Ferran is a two-time CART champion, Indy 500 winner and had his own team. The pieces were put in place some time ago and just came together in the last few months.”

Because INDYCAR rules on testing are extremely limited, McLaren will depend on the Arrow SPM side of the operation for the foundation of the team and its setups. McLaren will then utilize many of its resources in what it hopes will elevate the overall team performance.

“The rules are the rules, and everyone has the same conditions in front of them,” Brown said. “That was one of the benefits in partnering with an existing team. We saw the challenges by being a startup and how difficult that is. We are partnering with a team that has already won races, already been on the podium this year. Without starting from scratch, like we would if we were starting our own team, what we now need to do is Gil and Taylor Kiel (current Arrow SPM general manager) need to start working together to see what McLaren resources can help elevate the team to where podiums aren’t occasional, but on a more frequent basis.

“That was one of the benefits when we looked through how do we want to go about this, going with an existing that has already won races, I think will help a lot on the areas that would be bigger challenges if we were a new team.

“It’s definitely a very integrated partnership – technically, managerially and commercially and ultimately marketing. Yes, we will have some McLaren-led partnership on the full-season cars and if we did a third entry at Indy, I would suspect that would be the same, too.”

Brown stressed the decision to create a two-car NTT IndyCar Series program was fully dependent on McLaren’s Formula One program returning to competitiveness. This year, McLaren has made great strides in F1 with drivers Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris. Sainz is seventh in the standings and Norris 10th.

“Formula One was No. 1 on the checklist that the IndyCar program would not be a distraction to Formula One,” Brown explained. “We need to have the Formula One team on a strong foundation. If I didn’t feel Formula One was going in the right direction with all of my leadership in place, I wouldn’t have brought it forward if I didn’t feel the two could run parallel and complement each other commercially but have zero distraction to each other’s program from an on-track point of view.

“If this was 2018, I don’t think it would have been something we would have brought forward because I don’t think we would have been ready.”

Brown also said technical partner Arrow Electronics was also a major player in bringing the two operations together to create Arrow McLaren Racing SP.

“Arrow was a critical partner in bringing this all together and a very big partner inside,” Brown said. “Technically, we do business with them inside McLaren Group in racing, in automotive, in our Pi Technologies and our IT infrastructure. Arrow does business across all of our businesses with McLaren. The automotive division of Arrow has ground tremendously. It’s a key focus for them.

“While they are a very important commercial partner supporting both our IndyCar team and the F1 team, they are equally important behind the scenes driving our businesses forward from a technical point of view.”

Popular driver James Hinchcliffe, who married his longtime fiancée Becky Dalton last Saturday in Ontario, has a contract with the team through 2020. The team intends to honor that, but Hinchcliffe has endorsement deals with Honda, including the popular “Honda Dream Garage Spring Savings” line of commercials.

Rookie driver Marcus Ericsson of Sweden has a one-year deal with the team that concludes at the end of this season.

After Friday’s announcement, Hinchcliffe sent out the following message on his Twitter account:

“It’s an exciting day for all of us with Arrow McLaren SP, and the culmination of a lot of hard work put in by all. My love for motorsports started on those weekends watching F1 races with my dad and McLaren was a huge part of that. To be able to drive for that name is a dream come true.

“Thank you to Arrow, Petro Canada Lubricants and all of our partners that put us in this position.

“It is rather unfortunate what this means for our relationship with Honda. They are another company that has done so much for me and when the time is right a discussion to what that means for my partnership with them and Honda Canada will need to occur but that is secondary right now to this exciting news. I’ve worked with General Motors in the past and look forward to rekindling that relationship in 2020.”

Finally, Brown spoke about McLaren’s potential team for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and how both the Formula One and IndyCar programs would have an impact on that decision.

“I think Le Mans is something much like Indy we want to go to,” Brown said. “We think it’s great for our automotive business. We have won Le Mans before. There are a lot of similarities. With IndyCar, we are filling in the North American gap. Formula One is tackling America and getting more popular by the day, but it’s still not a strong market for them.

“Le Mans is more about our automotive business and our road car. We like the rules and it has not been expensive and there is a longer lead time

“I wouldn’t say it is on the back burner, it just moves at a slower pace. It is more complicated. We need to align that more with our automotive business. We have already stated we want to be there in the first season and make sure we don’t bite off more than we can chew is a big element to when and if we go. We really need to understand what the new Formula One looks like because that will be a big element we take into consideration when we get into regional allocation in the future.

“We need to see what the future of Formula One looks like before we get into a Le Mans program.”

Sato back with Rahal Letterman Lanigan in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
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MONTEREY, California – Team owner Bobby Rahal has solidified his 2020 NTT IndyCar Series lineup by announcing a contract extension with 101stIndianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato for another season at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Rahal also told NBC Sports.com in an exclusive interview that as each day passes, it is becoming more unlikely that he will be able to expand to a three-driver team next season.

“With each passing day, the reality becomes less that we will have one,” Rahal told NBC Sports.com. “I don’t think it’s a dead issue at this stage, but if something is going to happen, it has to happen pretty quickly.

“We would like to, but only if it is right. I’m not interested in having a third car, just to say we have a third car.”

Sato has won three races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the last two seasons, including wins in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in April and the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at WeatherTech Raceway at Gateway in August.

He is a five-time IndyCar Series winner.

“He has developed a good relationship with engineer Eddie Jones, and they have had some pretty good races this year,” Rahal said. “They’ve had some that couple have been better but that is like anything in racing. Takuma is a very committed guy. There is some good chemistry between he and Eddie, and the team and it has produced some results.”

Sato will once again team up with fellow driver Graham Rahal.

“The challenge we face for both Graham and Takuma is to be more consistent,” Bobby Rahal explained. “We seem to be hot and cold. One weekend we are hot and the next weekend we are cold. If you look at Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing, they are pretty consistent. We need to figure out how to be that kind of a team. Our processes need to be better and that is our commitment to each other over the offseason, how to generate that consistency to fight for wins every race in the championship.”

At 42, Sato is one of the oldest drivers in the series, but he continues to get better. When he first arrived in the IndyCar Series in 2010, Sato had blazing speed, but often drove over the edge.

Simply put, he crashed a lot.

In recent years, Sato has been able harness that speed and it has helped him excel. He has a better understanding of the race-craft.

“He is making a lot fewer mistakes than he used to make,” Rahal said. “Some of that is having confidence in the car and the team. People forget, I retired when I was 45 and as still finishing on the podium. Takuma still has some good years left to win races and get on the podium.

“He works very hard off track. Sometimes, I think too hard to be honest because he is a very busy guy. We like him being on the team and having him as part of the team.”

Sato splits his time between his home in Tokyo with his family and his racing family in the United States. That makes him the most well-traveled driver in the series.

“Takuma was fundamental in NTT becoming the sponsor of the series,” Rahal said. “A lot of people don’t know that. He spends a lot of time in Japan taking care of his sponsors and it is demanding for sure.

“I think he travels too much. But, he’s not afraid to do it.”

He is also very popular with the sponsors on the team.

“Everybody likes Takuma,” Rahal said. “It’s fun to be around him.”

Sato first joined the team in 2012 and returned in 2018.  He has earned five wins in the series to date, three of which coming with the team.  The 2020 season will be his third consecutive with RLL, and fourth overall.

“I am very happy to continue our path together again after this season,” Sato said. “Every single member of the team is extremely loyal and have given me unbelievable support. I truly feel at home here and I am so proud of the team. We have had another great season this year and even had some tough times, but it only made our relationship stronger. I can’t thank Bobby, Mike (Lanigan), David (Letterman) and the entire team enough and I am looking forward to finishing the season strong and also looking forward to 2020.”

Sato has made 168 starts in the IndyCar Series since his rookie season in 2010.  His Indy car highlights include wins in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, 2018 Portland Grand Prix, 2019 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama and Bommarito 500 at WWT Raceway, with three of the five coming with RLL.  Of his 12 podium finishes to date, eight have come with RLL and he has earned nine Indy car poles, two of which are with RLL.  Prior to joining the IndyCar Series, he competed in 90 Formula One races between 2002-2008 with his highest finish of third at the 2004 United States Grand Prix.