Ronald Dennis, the executive chairman of McLaren Automotive and McLaren Group, was also the company’s Formula 1 team principal of McLaren Racing until 2009. As such, he managed some of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport during his tenure – here he reflects on the organisation’s 50th anniversary.
You took control of McLaren in the early 1980s. The team had already won world championships in 1974 [with Emerson Fittipaldi] and 1976 [with James Hunt] and was an established contender, despite having faded somewhat from 1978 onwards. What were your thoughts regarding McLaren at that time? Ron Dennis: Well, it’s difficult for me to comment with [any] of impartiality. Also, of course, I was busy running my own race teams during the late 1970s – my teams were running in Formula 2 and Formula 3 and were building and racing ProCars for BMW – so there wasn’t a lot of time for me to reflect on what was happening in Formula 1, even though it was resolutely my target to get into grand prix racing in the not-too-distant future. McLaren had won world championships with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1974 and James Hunt in 1976, they then failed to get to grips with ground-effect technology, had a few mediocre years, but were down rather than out. However, I understood what McLaren could do when they had a strong car, as had been demonstrated by the strong performances of the M23 in the hands of both Emerson and James. In terms of Bruce McLaren himself, I didn’t really know him, as our paths didn’t really cross, but, of course he and I were in F1 at the same time. I started at Cooper’s in 1966, the same year he brought Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd into F1 – so I like to think there’s a nice symmetry there.
You implemented an incredible amount of change during your first few years at McLaren – not least the introduction of the sport’s first fully carbonfibre chassis. What was your approach to F1, competing and winning during those years? RD: I was always and I still am relentlessly competitive. When I came back to F1 in 1981 I wanted to do my own thing and I had no interest in following the established convention. That approach may have seemed brave – or foolhardy – but, as with most things at that time, it was born of necessity. There was no time to step back and conduct any detailed analysis of the situation. Within the first few months of working with John Barnard, he convinced me that an all carbon monocoque would work and I had faith in our ability to get it done. So we just pushed ahead. Once we’d established the team and tasted some initial success, I think I was able more effectively to quantify what had set us apart – the standards of preparation, the focus on the detail – and we already had a head-start on the opposition to maintain and refine that mindset. So the 1980s were really about a singular approach – find the very best elements, and make them successful through endless preparation, analysis and research. There was no secret – it was just huge ambition backed by a lot of hard work.
That era of the McLaren story is fondly remembered now, but what was it like from the inside? RD: Busy! People forget that we were still a pretty small operation back then. In the 1980s, before we moved to Albert Drive, we were still operating from Boundary Road, which you just wouldn’t believe could be an F1 team’s headquarters if you saw the size of it today. But at that time it was setting new standards. There was a frantic busy-ness about the place – we were still only about 80 people back then, everyone did more than one job, we all knew each other, and we all worked together. They were good times. It really was a feeling of ‘us against the world’ back then – and I think that fighting spirit still manifests itself within the company today. We’re always ready to fight for what we believe in.
Tell us a little bit about the world champions you worked with at McLaren. Your first was Niki Lauda – what was he like? RD: Well, I’d worked with Niki back in 1979 when we were building ProCars for BMW, so I’d got to know him a little. I spent a lot of time in 1981, trying to coax him out of retirement, get him back into F1, behind the wheel of a McLaren. Of course, everyone now knows the outcome of those overtures – in 1982 Niki returned from his retirement, won the third race of that season [the United States Grand Prix West at Long Beach], and took his third, and final, drivers’ world championship in 1984. By anyone’s standards, that was a pretty good comeback. For me, though, what really set Niki apart was his preparation, his analysis, and his ability to study the assets available to him and to know how best to use and exploit them to his advantage. He was very thorough. His attitudes and abilities meshed so well with McLaren at that time, too, because we were developing, and winning races and championships, and Niki’s mindset was a constant reminder that we needed to maximise everything to remain at the competitive forefront.
No story about McLaren would be complete without mention of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Between them, they won six drivers’ world championships for McLaren. What was it like working with such a strong and dynamic partnership? RD: There’s a common feeling that working with Alain and Ayrton was like managing fire and ice; it wasn’t. In many respects, they were very similar – both had insecurities, both were incredibly competitive, both desperately wanted to win – and both knew that their biggest opponent was stationed in the garage alongside them, which led to a certain amount of understandable paranoia. Alain was very similar to Niki in terms of his preparation. He was fastidious and fussy about what he wanted from his car, and he derived his successes as much from his diligence as from his outright speed. He may have come across as the more relaxed of the pair, but in reality he was incessantly lobbying for a competitive advantage. Throughout all of this, you have to understand that it’s what we pay racing drivers to be like: show me a satisfied racing driver and I’ll show you a loser. If a driver isn’t asking questions about understeer or oversteer, or about a lack of balance or poor traction, then he’s not driving fast enough. I like racing drivers who aren’t afraid to be vocal in meetings and debriefs. Ayrton had a different level of intensity, which wasn’t always easy to deal with; he could certainly border on the paranoid, and he felt wounded and betrayed if he thought you weren’t giving him your full support, 100 per cent. It was a big managerial challenge, but one that I thoroughly enjoyed, because it worked both ways. We knew we were giving them the two fastest cars on the grid – and they knew it too. But it also meant, if you weren’t winning, that there was pain. And it took a lot of diplomacy to deal with that. Having said all of that, no era of F1 has been as comprehensively dominated by one team as we at McLaren dominated F1 in the two years in which Ayrton and Alain drove for us, namely 1988 and 1989. The statistics speak for themselves: 32 races, 25 wins. Obviously, our cars were supremely competitive during those two seasons, but equally the two guys in the cockpits were masters of their craft and will always be remembered as among the very greatest drivers in F1 history, and rightly so.
What makes a great driver, and how should they be managed? RD: All great racing drivers have tremendous innate talent. But, besides that, they’re also fundamentally competitive animals – they don’t just switch on that instinct when they get in the car – no, their lives are lived with a racer’s mentality. That being the case, I understood that every aspect of their characters, motivation and driving style had to be treated with the same intensity and focus that the team put into the preparation of their cars. Moreover, I realised that you must leave no stone unturned with your preparation, and that you must have an answer for every argument, and the strength of character to refute any challenge. I relished all that, but, of course, even when you run a team with absolute driver equality, which I’m proud to say we’ve always done, there can only ever be one winner and one loser. So when one driver wasn’t winning, there was a pressure and a push by him to find out why – which sometimes meant short-cutting the intellectual and practical realities of that defeat to focus on the emotional, somewhat less rational, side. They were tough times, but very rewarding too.
You worked with some of F1’s greatest engineers and designers over the years. What were they like? RD: Like the best drivers, the best engineers and designers are never satisfied with what you give them: they always want more. Basically, therefore, what you need to give them is a steady flow of money, and that’s why I’ve always regarded myself, as the most senior person in the McLaren organisation, as a businessman first and a racer second. Okay, my wealth of racing experience, gained over a lifetime spent in motor racing, was always an advantage to me, because it gave me a breadth of understanding that other F1 entrepreneurs weren’t able to draw on. But it wasn’t – and isn’t – the most important component in a successful team boss’s armoury. Then as now, his most important attribute is the ability to provide authoritative leadership coupled with strong commercial astuteness and a total commitment to the team. In fact, to be successful, the F1 team must become your entire life; only then are you able to create the conditions in which engineers, designers and of course drivers can deliver their very best. Staying on the subject of engineers and designers, I always tried to provide a firm but sensitive guiding hand, to ensure that they remained fully focused and productive. Engineers and designers love to investigate technical complexities, some of which may be blind alleys, so they require some direction. But that’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, you want your engineers and designers to have enquiring minds. It’s then your job, as the team boss, to channel that creative energy in a way that generates optimal team and car performance. So, yes, it’s certainly true that some of the big-name engineers and designers in McLaren’s past not only created some of the most iconic and successful racing cars in F1 history, but they also changed the game, introducing new ideas, new technologies and new practices that revolutionised automotive design. That’s quite a claim to fame – and I’m proud of their efforts. But, in order for them to be able to work effectively, they needed inspirational leadership and intelligent management. I did my best to try to provide that. However, as I often say, I’m only a chapter in the book. There will be many more chapters in the future, and I firmly believe that our greatest successes are yet to come. Today, we aren’t currently achieving as much on-track success as we’d like, but our matrix system is empowering more people to deliver across the many different performance areas of our F1 car than in the past. It’s a clever system that was originated in aerospace companies and was adopted by Martin Whitmarsh and Jonathan Neale. It’s providing a solid base to our operations, which will enable us once again to achieve success in the future. That’s a cultural aspect of our organisation of which I’m enormously proud.
As well as working with some great people, McLaren has also been able to partner with some of the world’s best engine providers. What impact on the team has your association with them had? RD: At McLaren we’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work alongside some of the largest, most successful and most ambitious companies in the world. All of our partners have played a major part in our successes – and many of them, such as Hugo Boss, TagHeuer and ExxonMobil, have stayed with us for decades. But inevitably we’ve developed particularly close relationships with our engine providers. In the period since 1981 we’ve won 17 world championships. That success has been achieved while working with some great engine partners, latterly Mercedes-Benz and of course Honda before that. McLaren-Honda was one of the most dominant partnerships in motorsport history. Together we won eight world championships and 44 grands prix. Honda’s world-beating technology, combined with their commitment to McLaren and F1, was a major factor in our success and I’m delighted that, after many successful years with Mercedes-Benz, we’re going to be able to re-unite that iconic partnership.
Like any organisation, you weathered change and adapted to suit the prevailing conditions of the times – so, in turn, how did you change McLaren for the modern era and its successful ongoing partnership with Mercedes-Benz? RD: One thing that I’ve learned to value over the years is the benefit of lateral thinking, which I started to understand many years ago when I attended a symposium conducted by the celebrated author and thinker Edward de Bono. It’s something I then embraced as I developed my motor racing career. And in my view the ability to think around situations has been an asset for me not just in motor racing but in business in general. Anyway, our decision to partner with Mercedes-Benz in the mid-1990s was born of my increasing sense that success in F1 would require greater resources, and that the sport as a whole was gearing up for the involvement of the larger manufacturers. You need to remember that, even as recently as the 1980s, running an F1 team was still a relatively modest enterprise. It wasn’t always on TV, it was still very Euro-centric, and on-car sponsorship was, on its own, still a very viable means of supporting and financing that F1 team. By the early 1990s, though, it was becoming clear that our budgets had to increase, chiefly to finance the extremes of technological progress that our engineers and designers were espousing by that time. So it occurred to me that McLaren would also need to grow and adapt to meet those new requirements. Of course, a literal thinker would have supposed that the route to an increased budget would be merely to increase the sponsorship budget; but, for me, that wouldn’t have achieved the quantum step in the financial support that I was envisaging. Additionally, the input of a manufacturer brings with it a level of technical resource that you can’t put a price tag on, and that led us to Mercedes-Benz, who were and remain one of the greatest innovators in the automotive field. I’d like to be able to say that negotiations were tough, and that the relationship was difficult, but I can’t. In fact, both McLaren and Mercedes-Benz have been and remain extremely like-minded and dynamic organisations, and I still have a lot of long-standing friends in Stuttgart. It’s been an incredibly successful relationship and they’re fine ambassadors within the F1 community. I very much hope we’ll achieve an upswing in competitive form with Mercedes-Benz next season, just as I’m both keen and confident that, in the future, we’ll achieve great things again with Honda.
Going back to the subject of McLaren’s world champions, what was Mika Hakkinen like? RD: Quick! I look back on those days with considerable fondness. Whenever I think of Mika, however, I always think of David Coulthard too, as they were such a fantastic partnership. We were lucky to have two individuals who believed so selflessly in the concept of teamwork. And while it was Mika who walked away from F1 with two drivers’ world championships, it would be inappropriate to overlook just how much David contributed to that success too. He was a fantastically committed driver who, on his day, was as quick as anyone. Mika was an uncomplicated character. He didn’t trouble himself with any of the additional burdens of a racing driver – he didn’t have an entourage, he didn’t get involved in politics, he didn’t worry about the media – all he wanted to do was drive racing cars to the limit, and he lived for that. And while you can never be truly empirical when you’re comparing data or driving styles between different eras, I know that there are a number of people within McLaren who remain convinced that Mika was the quickest driver we’ve ever had – and that’s saying something. Mika had an impish sense of humour that wasn’t easily visible from the outside, as he often chose to hide it from view – but, when you got close to him, you saw that he rarely had a smile off his face. He was a pleasure to work with; he was someone who you knew would always reward you because, at the end of the day, he was just so fantastically quick.
Lewis Hamilton is perhaps most famous for the way McLaren nurtured his career, developing him from a young karter into an F1 world champion. What sort of satisfaction do you derive from his success? RD: I recently read a very nice quote from Lewis in which he said that, unlike other drivers who had joined McLaren once they’d already raced in F1, his apprenticeship with the team in his youth meant that he was a seed that had grown within McLaren, which I thought was an extremely eloquent way of putting it. Lewis knows that he’s part of the McLaren family and that, like that seed, he’s grown deep roots within our organisation. Last year I didn’t seriously seek to prevent his efforts to explore new pastures with the Mercedes AMG F1 team – perhaps it was a necessary part of his maturation – but I’ll always remember his time with us very fondly, just as I’m very proud of having been McLaren’s CEO and team principal when he became world champion with us in 2008. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the impact he’d make on F1 when he first arrived. Certainly, although we’d signed him on the basis that he’d be quick, we’d anticipated that his first season would be an apprenticeship, and that he’d be learning on the job, and that there would inevitably therefore be mistakes and errors. The fact that he adapted so quickly was not only a mark of his hunger and ability, but also a tribute to the quality of the education and support that McLaren had spent so many years providing for him. While it wouldn’t be unfair to call Lewis ‘an overnight sensation’ in F1 – and many commentators did – we at McLaren know that it took many years of unseen hard work to make him one.
After Lewis’s world championship success, you chose to step down as team principal and have since spent the past four years pursuing a strategic role as chairman of McLaren Group and McLaren Automotive. How has your role changed as a result? RD: I love racing and I always will. F1 is in my blood and always will be, but these days I’m focused on helping McLaren become a world-class group of ultra-high-tech companies. That’s what drives me today. McLaren is already an enormously respected brand because of the success we’ve enjoyed on track and latterly because of our ground-breaking production sports cars. Moving forward, I’m now focusing much of my attention on trying to ensure that in years to come McLaren will also be known and respected for the contribution we’ve made by utilising our collective intelligence to develop world-beating technologies, many of them in areas of activity that have nothing to do with racing or even cars. Innovation has always been a cornerstone of McLaren’s ethos, and it remains the case today – and tomorrow too.
How has McLaren Automotive developed in that time? Can you give us an overview of that company and what it’s doing? RD: McLaren Automotive is still a new company, but so far we’ve met all the challenges we set ourselves. We’ve recently brought three models to market – 12C, 12C Spider and P1, which will set entirely new standards of performance, following in the wheeltracks of the F1, the iconic three-seat sports car that is now fetching sums of more than £5 million sterling at auction. We’ve also established a global dealership network, we’ve built a unique and world-class production facility, and we’ve targeted that the company will become profitable this year. The automotive world seems to have recognised that we’ve achieved a great deal already, and I firmly believe that McLaren Automotive has an extremely bright future. To have achieved all that in such a short space of time is a truly remarkable feat, and it’s the result of a huge amount of very hard work by everyone involved. Yes, I’m the chairman, but I’m only part of the leadership team that has delivered that success. And that leadership team is now very well positioned to build on what we’ve already achieved, and to make McLaren Automotive even more successful in the future, as a luxury brand producing iconic and world-beating high-performance sports cars.
What is your vision for McLaren as a whole? RD: McLaren has been hugely successful for decades, and collectively we should be very proud of what we’ve achieved. Our first aspiration must therefore be to maintain the very high standards that we’ve already set, to regain success on the track, to develop and sell the world’s most exciting and best-in-class road cars, and to exceed the expectations of our partners in every field in which we do business. Looking to the future, my vision is to evolve and grow the Group by creatively exploiting our world-class technology and expertise. We have a chance to develop a truly scalable new business by doing just that, with a capacity to tackle international problems of an almost unlimited array of varieties. Whether it be developing the world’s best electric motors for myriad applications, or working with GSK to improve people’s health, or helping IO to reduce the CO2 emissions from data centres; applying the intelligence we’ve gained through decades at the top of motor racing will enable us to grow our business and improve people’s lives. That feels like a worthy aspiration.
Finally, what does ‘McLaren 50’ mean to you? Is it an appropriate time for reflection, a marker in the sand, or the spur for future ambition? RD: For me, personally, Monday September 2nd 2013 is merely a day and a date, but of course it also has great significance to McLaren – I fully acknowledge that – but anyone who knows me won’t be surprised to hear me saying that I’m not a person who likes to look back. So, yes, I think there’s a justification for us to acknowledge our origins and successes, and I suppose our 50th birthday is quite a suitable milestone at which to pause, to take stock, and to measure our achievement and progress. Most important, though, it provides an opportunity for every single McLaren employee to realise that he or she is an utterly crucial part of an organisation with a history and a culture that really mean something. McLaren started as the dream of one man, and it’s since grown to encompass the hopes and dreams of more than 2000 men and women, who work as tirelessly as Bruce McLaren himself once did to ensure that everything we do reflects well when compared with everything we’ve ever achieved. Call it McLaren’s DNA, if you like. Call it McLaren’s brand continuity, if you prefer. Call it McLaren’s corporate culture, if you will. Call it McLaren’s undiminished hunger to win in everything we do, and you’d probably be getting closest to what I mean, what I think, and what I feel. Thirty-two years ago I was clear in my vision for McLaren. Today I see its future with the same clarity, and I remain as passionate and committed to the company and its success as I’ve ever been. (McLaren)