Episode 16: Better Data, Higher Speed for McLaren

Formula One racing is all about the science of speed. The driver is the engineer who uses data from over 200 sensors for analysis to produce a winning team. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown dives into new advances in racing, simulation and electric cars.
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The Science of Speed and the Ultimate Human-Machine Partnership

Formula One racing is all about the science of speed. The driver is the engineer who uses data from over 200 sensors for analysis to produce a winning team. McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown dives into new advances in racing, simulation and electric cars.

Winning Formula One racing is ultimately done on powerful analytics: McLaren uses Dell laptops, screens, servers and security to power their need for speed. Then they take their learnings and apply them beyond racing, keeping technology at the center of everything they do.

Featured Luminary: Zak Brown

Zak Brown is the Executive Director of MCLAREN TECHNOLOGY GROUP Ltd. This senior leadership role, reporting directly to the McLaren Technology Group’s Executive Committee, sits above the Group’s commercial and strategic operations, and as such plays a critical role in transforming and realigning the entire organization behind ambitious performance and growth-orientated goals. The McLaren Technology Group has just completed the first part of its IT transformation journey toward a high-performing hybrid cloud capability. This includes a modern, agile, automated, performant and highly available set of data centre services, using Dell compute, storage, and infrastructure management software.

McLaren exists to win in everything it does. McLaren Technology Group is globally renowned as one of the world’s most illustrious high-technology brands. Since its foundation in 1963, McLaren has been pioneering and innovating in the competitive world of Formula 1.The Group has built on its successful racing expertise and diversified to include a global, high-performance sports car business, McLaren Automotive, and a game-changing technology and innovation business, McLaren Applied Technologies. McLaren Applied Technologies is an advanced technology, innovation and design company which combines fresh thinking and innovation to solve complex industry challenges and improve clients’ business performance.

“We have over 200 sensors on our race car that develop over 13,000 parameters around analyzing what’s going on with the race car.”

Zak Brown, CEO, McLaren Racing

The Luminaries Hosts

Mark Schaefer (left) is a digital storyteller, podcaster, blogger, author of six books, international speaker and college educator. Douglas Karr (right) is a digital story teller, podcaster, blogger, author and technologist. Together they shine a light on their guests’ technology vision, human side and motivation to build a better future. Mark and Doug have a unique ability to illuminate highly complex technology topics from fresh and very human angles by focusing on technology’s purpose as an enabler of human progress. Take a listen to Luminaries to learn, laugh and be wowed by human potential.


NARRATOR: Luminaries– talking to the brightest minds in tech.
MICHAEL DELL: And my hope is that we come together to share more than technology, and expertise, and products, but that we share a vision of a future that is better than today. A vision of technology as the driver of human progress.
NARRATOR: Your hosts are Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr.
MARK SCHAEFER: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Luminaries, where we talk to the brightest minds in tech. And you heard that little sound bite we had there earlier. And that gives you a clue of who we’re going to be talking to today. This is Mark Schaefer with my co-host Doug Karr, a.k.a. Dougie Baby. How are you doing, Doug?
DOUGLAS KARR: That was not me driving into the parking lot, I can tell you that right now.
MARK SCHAEFER: Well, we promise you that we’re talking to the brightest minds in tech, and we are going to deliver today. What a very special guest we have today– Zak Brown. He is the CEO of McLaren Industries. And first of all, Zak, congratulations on your new position.
ZAK BROWN: Thank you very much. Very excited. I’ve been a McLaren fan my whole life. So pinching myself getting the opportunity to lead this great team.
MARK SCHAEFER: What a dream job. And we’re going to hear all about it today. And you know, I’ve been kind of an admirer from afar, but as I prepared for this interview, I was surprised to see all of the different things McLaren is into. It’s really quite an interesting, almost diverse holding company. So tell us a little bit more about McLaren as a company.
ZAK BROWN: So we have recently reorganized into a single entity called McLaren Group. And within that, we have three different divisions– McLaren Automotive, which we’re now making more than 4,000 great supercars a year. We have a Formula One racing team, and e-sports, and some other racing activities under McLaren Racing, which I’m a chief executive of. So that’s my primary responsibility– and then a great technology business called McLaren Applied Technologies. Collectively, we have about 4,000 employees. And technology is at the center of everything that we do.
MARK SCHAEFER: Are you are you pretty well spread around the world, or where is kind of the center of the company based?
ZAK BROWN: Well, you know, it depends on the three different companies. As far as the group itself, it’s primarily Europe and England. But as far as where we do business, we’re doing 21 races around the world. We’re selling cars all around the world, North America and Europe being the two biggest markets, and then our applied technologies business is also a global company.
So as far as where we reach out to– we’re global. The heavy concentration of our 4,000 employees would be UK-based, primarily driven by the automotive and racing, at the MTC, which is our McLaren Technology Center. Our headquarters will be close to about 3,000 employees there.
MARK SCHAEFER: Well, it’s just a great company with an amazing history. We’re so glad to have you on the show today.
DOUGLAS KARR: What do you think is the core competency of McLaren? I mean, is an IT company, a marketing company, a racing company? You know, all of the above?
ZAK BROWN: I think it’s all of the above. I think the strand that goes across all three is technology. Because that’s at the heart of our Formula One team. Formula One is the most technically-advanced sport in the world. McLaren Applied Technologies, a bit of a give away of how important technology is there.
And then our automotive business is a lifestyle, supercar business, but with technology at the heart of that product. So I think three different types of companies. But technology bleeds through all of them.
MARK SCHAEFER: One of the interesting similarities I see that I’d like to hear you talk about is this idea of speed. And not just speed of your cars, but speed of innovation. Speed of transformation.
I work with a lot of different types of companies as a consultant, big companies and small companies. And you just hear about this culture of speed. So as the leader of this company, how are you going to embed this culture of speed in everything you do, not just your race cars, but in the advancement of your technology, and in you’re, in ultimately your transformation?
ZAK BROWN: Well, the good news is, the company has had that culture for a long time, ever since Bruce McLaren, our founder, who’s no longer with us, started the company. So I think my role now is to make sure we stay ahead of the curve, continue to retain and bring on great talent.
So while it’s technology, it’s people. You know, Dell was talking about people and machines. And I think we’re the ultimate of our people who are creating these great technologies and these great machines.
So I think lots of education, lots of diversity in the workforce from different industries, and challenge people to kind of think out of the box, as that corny saying goes.
MARK SCHAEFER: And tell us a little bit about your career path, how you got to where you are, and some of your core philosophies as a leader?
ZAK BROWN: Well, I used to race professionally. And I think there’s a lot of similarities in business as racing. You know, when you’re racing a car, teamwork is absolutely critical. It can be life or death– or winning and losing. Life and death is probably a bit more extreme.
MARK SCHAEFER: Well, it could be life and death.
ZAK BROWN: That’s reality. You’ve got to have the best equipment possible. You’ve got to have the best technology. You’ve got to work real hard. You’re constantly critiquing what you could be doing better. So as a race car driver, when you are done with a race, you spend a lot of time analyzing, to an inch– you know, how was braking? Did you hit the apex? Did you maximize the exit?
And you’re unbelievably critical of yourself because, if you missed it by an inch, you missed it. And so I think you bring that kind of culture and mindset to a business. And everyone knows that you kind of never really perfect it.
You know, you hear race car drivers all the time say, you know, it was almost a perfect lap. But it’s almost impossible to get a perfect lap. And so, if you take that type of– I’ve got to improve. I can always do better– type of mantra to how you work in the workforce, then you’re always, you’re always pushing forward.
MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah, and you’ve been around the business for a long, long time. I’m imagining you’re seeing quite an evolution into really– it’s becoming a data analysis business, the whole racing business.
ZAK BROWN: Yeah. You know, we have over 300 PhDs, over 1,100 engineers. We have a lot of smart people– way smarter than me– at McLaren. And now simulation is critical. And technology, I think, used to seem expensive.
Now, if you embrace technology, and you know how to use it, it actually saves you a lot of money. And the pace of development, we have over 200 sensors on our race car that develop over 13,000 parameters around analyzing what’s going on with the race car. So the faster you can process that information, understand that information, and react to that information– ultimately, the faster you’ll go.
And so the technology development used to really be more around materials. And you know, we were the first team to develop a carbon fiber chassis. We were the first automotive manufacturer where every one of our cars is a carbon fiber tub.
So it started with materials, and now that’s migrated towards simulation and, really, data predictive analytics. And it’s amazing how quickly a race car that sat on pole, qualified first at the first race of the year, if it didn’t develop, would be last by the end of the year. And that’s the pace of developments.
MARK SCHAEFER: That’s amazing.
ZAK BROWN: We do a whole new part on the race car every 14 minutes.
MARK SCHAEFER: That is an incredible amount of speed of development. And it also occurs to me that race car drivers have got– they have to be able to understand this stuff, too.
ZAK BROWN: Yeah, I think a lot of people who don’t follow the sport closely– you hear kind of sit down on the job. The physical fitness. You know, you’re constantly on. There are no time outs other than a 2 and 1/2 second pit stop. So for an hour and a half, you’re driving around on the absolute limit.
So the mental concentration, which strains you, physically, is unbelievably intense. The driver’s heart rate is anywhere between 140, 180 beats per minute. So it’s a bit like a boxer or a marathon runner, as far as the physical fitness and intensity, with the pulling upwards of a 5 g loads, you’re under braking and cornering, and then that’s just the physical side of the sport.
Then, the drivers need to, effectively, be engineers. Because you can take the same race car, and if it’s not set up correctly, it could be as much as two seconds slower, which is the difference between first and last. So a driver has to be extremely intelligent in understanding what’s going on with the race car, and how to help fix the race car.
DOUGLAS KARR: My heart is pounding just talking about it. I’m going to shift gears, did you see that, Mark?
MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah, it’s cute. This is a podcast, Doug. No one can see what you’re doing.
DOUGLAS KARR: McLaren is also innovating in the world of EV’s– Electric Vehicles. I’m curious what the difference is from, culturally, making that shift from a traditional motorsport company, running on engines, to electric.
ZAK BROWN: Well, we’re not fully electric, I guess I would say, yet. We haven’t set a timetable as to when we will be. I think we still need to see where the world develops. Some people are betting the farm on certain technologies. And I think it might be a little smarter to creep up on it and see where things lead.
But you know, we are very used to, as a company, being on the leading edge and working on tomorrow’s technology. So whether that’s materials, or hybrid, or fuels, that we’re very comfortable with.
And so we enjoy it. You know, we like to look forward and anticipate. And the engineers and the PhDs, they like to look into the crystal ball and try and figure out what the future is and help shape it. So that’s something that our culture embraces.
MARK SCHAEFER: Well, kind of building on that, another one of the big topics in the automotive industry these days is, of course, autonomous vehicles. And you represent sort of the ultimate human machine interface. The ultimate human machine interface.
And so tell me about– I just thought it would be interesting, almost a philosophical discussion with you– since this is your life, and you’ve been a driver, and you’ve felt that adrenaline, and you’ve felt, you know, part of the machine. Talk about this visceral reaction, this visceral need to kind of be part of that machine when you’re racing, and how you see that either standing in front of, or maybe enabling, the autonomous vehicle trend.
ZAK BROWN: Yeah, so I think autonomous vehicles are obviously on their way. I think– and this is, of course, just personal opinion, and everyone has one. You know, I think autonomous will be more about transportation, getting from point A to point B. I think it will definitely play a great role there.
You know, I’m a vintage car collector. So I’m still driving cars with carburetors and gear shifts that are no longer relevant even, you know, today. And that’s because I enjoy the sound, the feel, the driving. And I don’t think that’ll ever go away.
So I think it will probably take market share away from today’s vehicle. I think the infrastructure required to have an all-autonomous world, none of us will probably be around by the time that becomes reality. I remember the cartoon the Jetsons, and everything there that seemed quite fantasy, but now pretty much three-quarters of what happened then is here today.
So I think it probably will go that direction. But for people that like to drive, I don’t think you can ever replace having a steering wheel in your hand.
MARK SCHAEFER: Can’t imagine that’s going to be a priority for you in your car design.
ZAK BROWN: No, people that buy our cars–
MARK SCHAEFER: They don’t want a DIY car.
ZAK BROWN: No, they want to drive a awesome-performing and sounding supercar. And you know, obviously, Formula One and the drivers are a big part of the sport. And so if you had autonomous cars racing, you wouldn’t have any drivers to cheer for.
So I think they’ll have their place. But I personally think it will be more transportation– you know, buses, shipping, delivery, that type of thing. Because not everyone wants to drive a supercar. But I do.
DOUGLAS KARR: Well, let’s talk about this. Not everybody can drive a supercar. But McLaren is getting into simulated racing a lot as well, which does provide the opportunity. Can you talk about that crossover? Obviously, I’m guessing that’s part of your motor sport as well, is that simulation is part of it. But now you’re extending that, with Alienware, into the consumer market, too.
ZAK BROWN: So yeah, we’re the first Formula One team to move on an e-sports platform last year, called The World’s Fastest Gamer. And it was across all different platforms to, ultimately, find the best e-sports driver out there, who’s now one of our– gentleman’s name is Rudy– who’s one of our full-time simulator drivers.
And I think what’s happened is, simulation and e-sports is so real now that we find that that can help us build our race car. So it’s an important part of our overall motor racing. And I think it’s great because motor racing is an expensive sport to get into. So unlike baseball, soccer, football, basketball, which are kind of–
MARK SCHAEFER: You need a ball.
ZAK BROWN: You need a ball. And you can even make up the goal with a couple posts.
MARK SCHAEFER: I mean, when I was a kid, I had a pretend ball. I was a weird kid, but that’s a story for another day, folks.
ZAK BROWN: And so motor racing is quite expensive. So I think what’s also great about e-sports is, not only is it very relevant, but it’s going to be a less expensive way to really almost become the grassroots form of motor sports.
And I also think, in some markets, like Asia, e-sports is huge and is probably bigger than motor racing itself. And so that’s a great way to bring on the younger audience, expose people to driving earlier, and then the simulation, you know, we have someone in our simulator, which is a pretty awesome version of e-sports, who’s helps us develop the car over the weekend.
So if we are on track Saturday in Spain, while we’re on track, if we want to try something, but we don’t want to try it on the race car yet, we will have the driver in the simulator, real time, same track, same setup, saying, go try this. Try it for two or three laps. If it works, we report it back to the racetrack. We try it. And so that’s very important for the success of our race team, but then also thinks it’s going to broaden to a wider, younger audience, which we’re all trying to get these days.
MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah, sure that’s really a fascinating insight, Zak, that you are using this gaming technology, really, to develop a real life race car experience and success. This has got to be a really big part of your job, to look at what other technologies are out there that can give us an edge. And something like e-sports, that’s not necessarily intuitive. I mean, gaming, so that was a really interesting insight for me.
So what else are you looking at? How do you look at that? What’s your process to scan the world of technologies and say, yep, we need to invest in this?
ZAK BROWN: Well, ultimately, we come to events like Dell Technology World, and CES, and the Mobile World Congress, and ultimately immerse herself with the technology leaders. That’s why it’s so important for us. You know, when we have commercial partners with our racing team, there are some that help contribute to the race team financially, and we help promote their brand, and then there’s others like Dell technologies that not only do that, but more importantly, or as importantly, help us develop our business.
And so what we do is, we’re affiliated with some of the world’s best technology companies. So I think that’s really important. And then having the right people, and making the right levels of investment, and always trying to look to tomorrow. Because what is good today might be slow tomorrow.
DOUGLAS KARR: We’ve covered a lot of ground in this conversation. I am curious, when you look at the next, you know, maybe two to three years in racing, what technology is being implemented today that’s just going to take it to the next level.
ZAK BROWN: Simulation continues to be– and rapid prototyping. You know, the quicker we can develop something on the car, and understand that it correlates to the racetrack, and then the quicker we can produce it– so it’s all about speed to market, and having good data, and crunching that data as quickly as possible, understanding that data.
So I think it’s about speed, ultimately, and analytics. And then, you know, the specific technologies that go around that, with Dell, where everything from laptops, to our screens, to our servers– and then, ultimately, security. Because we’re transmitting on a lot of what’s going on at the racetrack real time back to the factory in [INAUDIBLE]. And so security, like all of our various businesses, is super important to us.
MARK SCHAEFER: I wanted to hear a little bit more about your applied technologies division. I mean, obviously, there’s got to be some connection to the Formula One program. But are you looking at ways to apply that to broader commercial needs?
ZAK BROWN: Yeah, yes so that business–
MARK SCHAEFER: Maybe you could give us some examples of what you’re doing.
ZAK BROWN: Yeah, so we’ve got there, you know, it’s really a connected business. So sensors, predictive analytics. We’re doing things, you know, WiFi on trains. Working on some autonomous projects, believe or not, not through our motor division.
And then the other is hybrid and electrification. And we’ve had stuff on the Mars Lander. So we’ve you know, areas you wouldn’t expect us to be in. A lot of the stuff we do is pretty confidential. We’ve done some government work.
So we’ve got, within that business, motorsports, automotive, transportation, and health care. So those are the fields that we tend to focus on, and then do that through connectivity and then through battery hybrid technology. So it’s a pretty fascinating business.
MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah, and I can– one of the things that’s just been such a joy talking to you is that you’re obviously just so passionate about this. And, as I was preparing for the interview, I read a little bit about your background.
And racing has just been part of your life, really, from the beginning. Tell us a little bit about your background, your racing, and how you got to where you are today.
ZAK BROWN: So I started to race at an early age. My family was not in the racing business. I’m originally from Los Angeles, but my dad used to take my brother and I to the races, just kind of as a father son thing, [INAUDIBLE] see it in the newspaper, let’s go to the race for the weekend.
And then, like a lot of boys that age, fell in love with cars. And then a strange twist, I went on Wheel of Fortune teen week and won a bunch of watches. And I went and sold those watches at a pawn shop– which I think you have to be 18, but they bought them anyways. And then I went and bought a Go Kart.
And so that’s how I got started in racing, and won the US Karting Championship, and then didn’t go to college, barely did high school because I just wanted to go racing. And there wasn’t a class for racing in high school.
So I had success there, then started doing my own sponsorship. I moved to England in ’91. Got a deal with Porsche to come back and race in the states. My sponsor at the time, TWA Airlines, said, hey, we’re sorry we’re losing you. You must know the guys and gals in pit lane. Can you replace your sponsorship with someone?
I went, yeah, I can do that. And that kind of stumbled into a business which I then had for 20 years, became the world’s largest motor sports agency, sold that in 2013 to a company called Chime Communications, and then had a good opportunity to go to either Formula One itself, or McLaren, and ultimately chose McLaren because it’s been my favorite racing team ever since I’ve started following motor racing.
So I kind of lucked into that, and here I am today with what I think, for me, is the coolest job in the world, maybe next to Fernando Alonso, because he actually gets to drive them.
MARK SCHAEFER: And it all started with Wheel of Fortune.
ZAK BROWN: It all started with Pat Sajak.
MARK SCHAEFER: You know, I’m kind of just trembling right now knowing that I’m one degree of separation from Pat Sajak is really amazing. I didn’t expect that to happen today.
ZAK BROWN: And Vanna White. Don’t forget Vanna.
MARK SCHAEFER: I can’t even handle that. So Zak, thank you so much for your time today. This has been such a pleasure. It was so very interesting.
And I’m sure people listening today will want to know more about you. And we’ve just really, you know, touched the surface of your amazing company. So we’ll put links in the show notes to your company and everything that you’re doing. So we just want to thank you so much.
And on behalf of Doug Karr, this is Mark Schaefer thanking all of you for joining us on Luminaries. We appreciate every single one of you, and we just love that you listen to us and spend your time with us. And until next time, this is Mark Schaefer, Doug Karr for Luminaries.
NARRATOR: Luminaries– talking to the brightest minds in tech. A podcast series from Dell Technologies.