Sunday’s showpiece final Formula 1 race of the season will see either Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton crowned world champion and Red Bull or Mercedes win the constructors’ title. But a few spots behind the two current big hitters are McLaren Racing.
A team with a longstanding F1 history is now in the hands of Zak Brown. And this season, the Californian has pulled the strings as they have won their first grand prix since 2012 and a first one-two since 2010 – Daniel Ricciardo’s win at Monza.
Even Brown, though, is captivated by what’s at stake in the drivers’ championship on Sunday afternoon.
“Formula 1 is on fire at the moment,” he said, speaking from Abu Dhabi. “I see that continuing and only getting stronger as the competition is getting closer and closer.
“I can’t remember a season more exciting than this one. Whoever ends up holding the trophy at the end, that kind of almost doesn’t matter, because it’s the race by race excitement that Formula 1 has created.”
McLaren have been in a battle with Ferrari for the third place in the constructors’ championship this year and, until the last four or five races, they were in pole position to snatch the best of the rest award.
However, a series of poor results in recent weeks has left the team looking at fourth place.
“We won our first race this year, and especially won it on the track, we didn’t inherit it,” Brown added. “But we still have technical infrastructure that we’re catching up on – most notably our wind tunnel.
“I would not anticipate us competing for the championship next year. Of course, we’re going to give it everything we’ve got but we still have a couple of years of technical catch-up that we just can’t accelerate any further or any faster than we are.
“I don’t want to say our goal next year is to win two [races]. Our goal next year is to continue to get closer to the front of the field.
“But I am not going into next year thinking we’re going to be a championship contender.”
McLaren Racing, part of a group which has investments in IndyCar, Extreme E and are looking into World Endurance and Formula E opportunities, have a Formula 1 set-up that remains without a title sponsor. Instead the team operates in a partner scheme, where there is a buy-in mentality from multiple brands.
In recent days, Mercedes’s sponsorship deal with construction firm Kingspan has been severed after it was highlighted that the company’s products were part of the insulation in Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a huge fire.
Brown recognises the need to commercialise and diversify portfolios when it comes to sponsorship and branding but admits that public perception matters.
“I think who we are associated with is very important to us,” he said. “If you look at the companies that we’re associated with, they’re all global leading businesses or fast moving, fast growing businesses.
“We undertake, before we do any partnership, a lot of due diligence. You can imagine when you land Coca-Cola as a partner, you don’t need to do that much due diligence. But yes, that is something that we do a lot of homework on.
“Who are we doing business with? Are they like minded? Do they share the same passions and brand attributes just saw us? We would not put together a partnership with someone we were uncomfortable with.
“We’re financially doing very well. We’re doing very well with corporate partners. We can now be selective.”
Formula 1 has had its fair share of turbulence in recent years: several teams have disappeared, been sold, or rebranded. But now, with popular Netflix series Drive to Survive, an increased digital product and even short-term free-to-air deals such as Channel 4’s with Sky to show Sunday’s race in Abu Dhabi, the sport seems stable.
“I think the health of the teams has never been stronger,” Brown added. “In Formula 1, there’s always been two or three teams in trouble at any one time. Now you have 10 very well funded teams by very credible individuals or investment groups.”
“Sauber was saved by [Tetrapak heir] Finn Rausing a few years ago. And here he is just a couple of years later, counting down $400m (£302m) for the racing team.
“I’m now getting phone calls on a routine basis, from very significant sports investors, really keen on buying Formula 1 teams, and there’s no team to buy.
“It’s become a seller’s market, and no one wants to sell. Formula 1 has brought in a lot of partners, we’ve brought in a lot of partners, other racing teams have brought on a lot of partners. So I think the overall commercial health of the sport is awesome.”