How McLaren hopes to help F1 with its secret ballots call

After McLaren boss Zak Brown wrote an open letter detailing his thoughts on the direction that Formula 1 is taking, including the use of secret ballots, it opened up a wider discussion on the future direction of the championship and how it decides its rules.

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Brown's main argument was his frustration regarding the current decision making process in F1 – and specifically the way some teams are obliged to follow the lead of their power unit supplier or commercial partner, and how that can potentially skew the voting.

It’s been a contentious issue for decades. Of course, no team is going to vote against its current supplier on specific matters relating to power unit regulations, and everyone understands and accepts that.

However when that support extends to other areas, and smaller teams appear to be backing their big brothers to their own detriment, then it becomes more controversial.

It’s not hard to identify the groupings. Ferrari can potentially call on Alfa Romeo and Haas, both of which not only use Maranello technology but also currently run a young driver backed by their engine supplier. In Alfa’s case there’s also an extra direct commercial connection via the manufacturer that lends its name to the former Sauber outfit.

Mercedes has three partners. In both commercial and technology terms the links are strongest with Aston Martin, encouraged by the close personal relationship between Toto Wolff and Lawrence Stroll.

Williams is one step removed, but the presence of George Russell adds an extra element, while from 2022 the Grove team will also use a Mercedes gearbox. The most arm’s length relationship Mercedes has is with McLaren – a straightforward power unit supply deal.

Of the remaining teams Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri always vote as one, reflecting their common ownership, while Alpine is the outlier, an independent works outfit with no ties to anyone else.

Zak Brown, McLaren Racing CEO, Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing Team Principal, Toto Wolff, Mercedes AMG F1 Director of Motorsport and Frederic Vasseur, Sauber, Team Principal in the Press Conference

Zak Brown, McLaren Racing CEO, Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing Team Principal, Toto Wolff, Mercedes AMG F1 Director of Motorsport and Frederic Vasseur, Sauber, Team Principal in the Press Conference

Sitting around the table (these days a virtual one) at team boss meetings Brown has become increasingly frustrated as he watches the equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas. He wants to see secret votes, which are available, used more often.

“I don't think it would be appropriate for me to kind of comment on specific teams at specific times,” he said in Portimao last weekend.

“One example I'll give you is when we were going for the reduction in the budget cap. You had some teams that are close to the budget cap supporting a larger budget cap, which makes absolutely no sense.

“I can tell you, it happens frequently, that teams vote against what's in their best interests. I've had more than one team on more than one occasion, as we talk during these meetings, [I’ll ask] how are you going to vote? And I'll get a response, 'But I've got no choice, I have to vote this way.'

“I don't think secret votes are going to solve all the issues. But I think we need to start really working on these affiliations. And I think this is just an area that would be pretty easy to implement.

“We can do secret votes as it is, but no one tends to call them. But I think like many votes around the world they're always intended to be secret. And if we can get one or two rules to swing the way of what's in the best interest of the sport, and therefore the fans, then it's just an area I think we can make improvements on.”

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Brown says he will push for secret ballots when he can: “Certainly we will applaud that moving forward. I think a team has a right to ask for a secret vote. So we can either go down the path of every single time we have a vote, we can ask for a secret vote. Or we can just go to secret voting and be done with it.

“I think if you're going to have conflicts of interest in the sport, which we've always had, then you have to set up governance to protect and counter the ability to exercise that conflict of interest. I'd also like to see the [majority] voting go from eight to seven, because some people have alignment of three teams.

“So I'd also like to see the threshold dropped a little bit, so you couldn't have a single entity influence a vote.”

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W11, Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W11, Sergio Perez, Racing Point RP20

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Voting is just one element of the wider issue of co-operation, and where the line should be drawn. Last year’s Racing Point/Mercedes copying saga put a renewed focus on the matter, but Brown says that hasn’t prompted his current campaign.

“The voting isn't really driven by Aston Martin. I think obviously Aston Martin took affiliations to a whole other level, but that really wasn't a voting situation. The voting kind of goes across the board of people voting for various topics, but that wasn't an Aston Martin situation.

“I think Aston Martin demonstrated though that if you copy someone else's car, that's not what a true constructor does in the history of F1.”

Brown wants the issue of team co-operation to be examined further: “I think it needs to be definitely addressed. I think if we look back in the history of F1, we've sold gearboxes before. I think some of the collaborations that happened back then, people buying gearboxes, I don't have any issue with that.

“Personally, I don't like two teams that are affiliates using the same windtunnel. So I'd like to see there be a restriction on sharing of windtunnels if you have a direct relationship. I think sharing windtunnels is again also good for a team that owns the windtunnel, getting some resources in, and also a few teams can't afford their own windtunnel.”

Obviously McLaren has its own agenda on every subject. However Brown insists that the team’s views are allied with those of the championship.

“I believe what's best for the sport is best for McLaren,” he said. “All I'm trying to do is get the sport to where may the best team win. But everyone has the same size bats and same amount of players on the field, whatever sport analogy you want to use, I think that's in the best interest of definitely F1. But I also think that's what's in the best interest of McLaren, and quite frankly, of all the racing teams.

“The reason now is, in my four years being here, some of these meetings become very frustrating, because they become as you would imagine, very political, there's definitely a kick the can down the road strategy by some teams, and things that should get solved in one meeting, you'd be amazed that issues can just be around for three months, six months, a year.

“And I wanted to put out there the areas that I think are opportunities for F1, because I think F1 is in great shape. So my commentary is not intended to be critical of the sport, but areas of opportunity and room for growth.”

Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, and Zak Brown, Executive Director, McLaren

Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, and Zak Brown, Executive Director, McLaren

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Brown’s other key point concerns the areas of expertise of the guys in the room when votes are cast. The current crop of team bosses is dominated by technical guys and engineers, and Brown is one of the few with a background in marketing.

“In my experience, sitting down in these meetings, a lot of the times, there are topics that we touch on that we don't have the subject matter expertise on,” he said.

“We tend to spend the majority of our time on the technical side of the sport, and we need to realise that the commercial side and the importance of the fan base and the entertainment is equally as important, and it doesn't get the equal amount of airtime.

“And then when you look around the table at the team bosses, the majority of them come from a technical background. And given that I come from a more commercial marketing background, I think those are the areas that I want to bring forward that again, I think are what's in the best interest of the sport. And the faster we can change, the quicker we can accelerate the growth of F1.”

Brown cites a lack of personal involvement in social media among his fellow team bosses as a sign that they are not as in touch as they could or should be.

“What I suggested, and I have one today at McLaren, and I've had one my whole business life, is an advisory group,” he said.

“We'll sit in a meeting and we'll talk about social media, and I'm just using this one as an example, but you probably have seven of the 10 guys sitting around the table that aren't even on social media.

“And yet, that's who's driving our social media conversations. So I think the sport could do with having a marketing council, or an advisory group, whatever you want to call it. People that have subject matter expertise.”

The logical extension of Brown’s ongoing frustration with his fellow team bosses would be to remove them (and thus himself) from the decision-making process.

“I would support that,” he said. “I could see us having like a commissioner, which is obviously Stefano [Domenicali]. And this is what they do in the NFL, they vote in the commissioner, but then the commissioner's kind of got the power. And really the only power that teams have is to remove the commissioner, if they think he's not doing or she's not doing a good job.

“I believe F1 and the FIA will always work in what's in the best interest of the sport, and what's in the best interest of the fans. And I would rather go to the extreme of giving them total control than what we have now.

“My agenda is if we can get a level playing field, that's what's in the best interest of McLaren, so we can compete fairly and put the same amount of players on the pitch that other teams do, because right now, it's still out of balance.

“But it has got a lot better with the new regulations. So again, everything I'm putting forward, I see this opportunity to be even better, as opposed to being critical, because I think we've come a long way in the last three years.”

As the pandemic took hold a year ago the teams, working closely with FIA president Jean Todt and then F1 boss Chase Carey, made some big decisions - notably postponing the new rules until 2022. It was a case of keeping the sport alive though the crisis, and everyone understood that.

However it was far from easy to define crucial details such as a reduced level of budget cap.

“Jean and Chase, they wanted the budget cap around $135m,” says Brown. “I think they would have maybe even gone slightly lower, maybe $125m. So ultimately, we got there, but you get there through a lot of arm-wrestling, and it takes longer to get there.

“The sport will accelerate in its growth if we allow for quicker decision making. There will be some mistakes along the way. But then you also give F1 and the FIA the ability to correct some of those mistakes. I don't think anyone's perfect, there is no perfect solution.”

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