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Zak Brown on McLaren's rise, chasing Red Bull, and more

Jared C. Tilton - Formula 1 / Formula 1 / Getty

Everything about Formula 1 is measured in speed and quickness, and yet almost nothing over the last year can match the rate McLaren has transformed itself into arguably the sport's fastest rising team.

Formula 1 returns to Montreal this weekend and McLaren enters as one of the top contenders for the podium's top step. That's a far cry from where the legendary racing team stood last year when it came to Canada with a measly 17 points.

It's a turnaround the team's CEO Zak Brown calls "amazing."

And while resurgences of this kind involve everyone from the pilot in the cars, to pit wall, to those back at the factory, Brown identifies team principal Andrea Stella as the improvement's catalyst.

"I think to have a turnaround of this size and magnitude is literally a team effort," Brown told theScore. "But if I had to then point the finger at one person that it starts with, that would be Andrea Stella and the leadership he’s provided to the team and the way he's been able to get the team, which outside of a few people are the same people that gave us the start of the year in 2023 that have now given us a winning car, and I put that down to Andrea's leadership."

Stella, with McLaren since 2015, was promoted to team principal right before the 2023 season began, and produced results immediately: McLaren scored the second-most points of any constructor over the last 14 races of last season.

Those results have improved in 2024, with McLaren stringing together a streak of four straight races with a podium, including a win in Miami.

"If you're a baseball manager, you're trying to get the best out of your nine players as a team. A Formula 1 (team) happens to be about 800 players and Andrea has done a beautiful job in getting those 800-plus people to work together as a single unit," Brown said.

With Stella leading the charge, McLaren's been able to do something this year that many could hardly fathom in 2023: Deliver a few damaging blows to the impeccable Red Bull and Max Verstappen. The reigning world champion has finished behind at least one McLaren in two of the last three races, while his only victory in that span came with a margin of less than a second over the fast-charging papaya driver Lando Norris.

"I see no reason why we cannot continue to be on podiums and challenge for race wins but we need to continue to evolve our racing car and racing team at the pace we've been doing ... in order to achieve those goals," Brown mentioned.

However, the McLaren CEO isn't discounting rivals like Ferrari - which scored its second victory of the year in Monaco - and even Mercedes from possibly making some noise.

"I think it's very close between the three teams today," Brown said. "I think we've been very strong, but Ferrari was very strong in Monaco, and Red Bull started off dominating once again. So, I think if we were starting the championship today, it would be a three-way fight, but I still think there's a long way to go."

He added: "If you look at the turnaround we had last year, it would be naive of anyone to be writing Mercedes off for the balance of the year. Maybe too late for them to go win the constructors at this point, but we turned our season midway through (2023) and made up a larger gap in points from where we are today to Aston (Martin) than where Mercedes is to us today."

The household faces of McLaren's project to return to the top of Formula 1 are superstar pilots Norris and Oscar Piastri, a pair Brown calls "the best driver lineup in Formula 1."

Recent results make that claim hard to dispute.

Norris, who re-signed with McLaren this offseason, had his faith rewarded with his first career victory in the Miami Grand Prix. And though Norris endured 109 races and 15 podiums before taking the checkered flag as a winner, Brown said it never seemed to affect the 24-year-old.

"No, not really," Brown responded when asked if he's seen any change in Norris since Miami. "He's always been very focused. He's always been extremely fast. He doesn't strike me as any different today than he was pre-Miami."

"For sure, it's nice to get the win and get that out of the way," he continued. "I'm sure he didn't love the statistic of being the most podiums ever without a win, but he never vocalized it. I never saw it bother him, but of course getting your first win out of the way, when that's what he's been focused on his entire life, must build his confidence and relax him a little bit but I don't notice that."

Piastri hasn't looked far off his first Grand Prix win, either. The Australian already took a sprint victory in his rookie 2023 campaign, and is now coming off a second-place podium in Monaco. If not for a grid penalty in Imola, Italy, he'd also be on a streak of two consecutive front-row starts, as well.

"I think what's extremely impressive about Oscar is he's driving better than ever," Brown said. "He's had a fantastic rookie season, but he has such a mature head on his shoulders. He doesn't act any differently today than he did last year. You know, he didn't act like a rookie last year. Clearly he was. We're seeing in his driving continuous improvement."

McLaren seemingly has all the right pieces to potentially reach Red Bull's consistent level of success. While the team may not be there quite yet as Formula 1 visits Montreal, Brown believes McLaren is on its rival's doorstep.

"If you look at Red Bull the last few years and Mercedes before that, typically the teams that win the championship are kind of the best at everything, not most things," Brown said. "If you look at Red Bull the last few years, they've had the fastest car. They've had the least amount of tire deg. They've had the best pit stops. They've had the complete package to win on a regular basis.

"So, I think we have two great drivers. We clearly have a very fast race car. We have very good pit stops, but have room to improve. Our reliability is much stronger. So, we're knocking on the door. It's just about being a little bit incrementally better everywhere."

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