McLaren chief Ron Dennis is renowned as one of the toughest negotiators in the Formula 1 paddock. So how do you make him part company with one of his most cherished racing cars? Charles Bradley finds out.
The man with the magic touch when it came to achieving the seemingly impossible is F1 sponsorship guru Zak Brown.
A renowned racing car collector and historic racer, as well as a contract-clincher extraordinaire, Brown pulled off perhaps the deal of his life when he persuaded Dennis to part with a 2001 Mika Hakkinen British Grand Prix winning car.
So how long did it take to achieve?
“It took about two years,” Brown tells Motorsport.com. “He keeps in his briefcase a list of all his cars; he’s got about 125. It was combination of Ron and Martin [Whitmarsh, the former McLaren COO], I have to give Whitmarsh credit – he helped get the deal over the line.
“It was a Martin/Ron deal: I’d been bugging Ron, and Martin knew I’d been bugging him, and I’ve done a lot of business with them over the years – both in sponsorship and in GT3.
“When I was finally successful in convincing him I was surprised I got the caliber of car that I did – a British Grand Prix-winning Hakkinen car [the only British GP that Mika ever won – Ed].
“It was exactly what I wanted: I’ve got four British GP-winning cars, and Hakkinen was one of my favourite drivers – it was good to get such a great car out of the collection. The only other West car I know of in private hands is Adrian Newey’s – but that’s a Kimi Raikkonen car, and I’d rather have a Hakkinen all day long.
“It’s an unbelievable car to drive – it took 14 of them to run me at Silverstone. The electronics is the tricky part, it takes a crew.”
Brown’s car collection is maintained and run by his racing team, United Autosports, which has been a regular in GT racing since 2009 and is about to make a move into prototypes in next year’s European Le Mans Series.
Run by former F3000 racer Richard Dean out of workshops in Leeds, England, it has built a reputation for immaculately-presented machinery – much in the image of its owner.
Dean explains: “Zak started collecting cars and we were looking after them. Then other clients came along, and we started to race them in the big historic events.”
What’s the key to success?
Brown has been credited with many high-profile deals in recent history, and has also been responsible for pulling in the most ‘new money’ sponsors in the paddock.
It’s the relationships he’s built by generating revenue streams for teams that has led to him being able to obtain the seemingly unobtainable.
“I’m doing business with these guys, and it’s the same with the sponsorship – it’s persistence that pays off,” he says. “I’ve sold you something, now give me something.
Dean quips: “They give him something just to go away!”
For example, Brown’s involvement in the Martini title sponsorship at Williams allowed him to grease some wheels to obtain the cars he desired from Sir Frank.
“I’ve got the Alan Jones championship-winning ’80 car, the Mansell ’87 car that won the British GP and another four races, and Jacques Villeneuve’s rookie-season car that won the British GP and a couple of other races,” he smiles.
Also in his F1 collection: an Ayrton Senna ‘86 Lotus, a ‘90 Nigel Mansell Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton 2013 Mercedes. Of the latter, “That took some arm-wrestling as well!”
He adds: “I’ve got good relationships with them all, so I can get cars that are not for sale – the Hakkinen car, the Jones and Villeneuve Williamses and the Lewis car, they weren’t for sale at any price tag. You gotta know when to ask… and that’s when they want something!
“We’re fortunate we’ve got relationships that mean we’re able to get access to cars that other people might not, and ability to work on them – like with Mercedes, we got spare engines for my Hakkinen McLaren. Those aren’t for sale from Mercedes, you gotta lean on some relationships…”
The deal is just the beginning
Once the car is in his hands, the real challenge often begins in terms of getting it out on track. While the Hakkinen McLaren was painstakingly prepared at Woking, not all the cars arrive at United’s door in perfect fettle.
Dean explains: “We rebuilt the Alan Jones Williams FW07 as a ground-up project. When we started to explore and pull it apart there were a few bits that weren’t quite original. For example, it was originally a ground-effect car, and it had clearly suffered some damage in the past, so they’d built some standard pods – same shape, and it looked right, but it didn’t have it exactly how we wanted it.
“So with Zak’s relationship with Williams, we got onto them and they couldn’t have been more helpful. They’ve got one in their museum, let us pour all over it – and even got the drawings out – so we were able to get it just right.
“We ran it at a Williams day at Silverstone and they were delighted to see a big part of their history running on track again. Dickie Stanford was the guy who helped work it out for us, and he worked on it originally – you can’t get any better than that.
“At Silverstone, he said: ‘You’ve got it spot-on’. A nice endorsement for our guys.
Brown adds: “I think they like to see the cars out there. They want them in the right hands, they don’t want them driven by a car dealer who’ll go flip ‘em.”
So what comes next?
You get the feeling that Brown isn’t someone who sits still on his spoils of victory for long, and that there’s always another deal in the offing around the corner.
How about the toughest of nuts to crack: Bernard Charles Ecclestone?
Everyone knows he has a bunker full of Brabhams – and many other true classics – hidden away. How about it, Zak?
“I’ve tried,” he says. “I want one Brabham, and he’s saying ‘if you want one, buy the other 44 too and then sell them’.
“I have been trying to get a Brabham out of him, but I’m not interested in buying 44 cars. I’ll stay on him, I’d love to have a Brabham. He’s got them all sitting in his shop. A Piquet car would be the one I want.”
Well, if anyone can… And you get the feeling it’s the passion for making an ‘impossible’ deal possible that drives him on.