Mansour Ojjeh said: ‘Why do I have to go to Italy to buy a supercar?'

After funding Frank Williams in F1, Mansour Ojjeh switched to McLaren, heralding decades of success and a unique road car

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Sadly, the early death of Mansour Ojjeh, on June 6, was not unexpected but he will be sorely missed. This strikingly handsome Franco-Saudi had really been brought into the motor racing world by two intensely persuasive and magnetic Brits – Frank Williams and, perhaps more so, by Frank’s friend, supporter and sponsor-hunter, Charles Crichton-Stuart.

Charlie was related to the Marquess of Bute. A young cousin would become the 7th Marquess, and a Le Mans winner – Johnny Dumfries. Charlie had joined the RAF, becoming a Vampire pilot, racing during leave. He was very much part of the Piers Courage, Charles Lucas, Frank Williams set of young London-based racers. In 1966 he won the Argentine Temporada F3 Championship in a Brabham.

Into the early 1970s he became Harrods owner Sir Hugh Fraser’s personal pilot. The young Lord Hesketh offered him a similar job, but the 1974 oil crisis intervened. Charlie, wings clipped, became a salesman for HR Owen, Kensington. One Ferrari customer was young Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman. They kept in touch and after Charlie joined Frank Williams as team sponsor-hunter, that dynamic duo flew to Denver, USA, where Sultan was at university, to seek Saudi sponsorship.

In January 1978, Frank Williams “…got myself to Riyadh – rang Prince Sultan and he took me to see his cousin, Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, second eldest son of the king…” and Frank left with the Prince offering help. Prince Muhammad’s trading company was Albilad, handled in London by Jonathan Aitken MP… who had been at Eton with Piers Courage.

Aitken told Frank when Prince Muhammad would be in London, where Frank showed him the brand-new FW06 car, in the bus lane outside his hotel. Albilad duly backed Frank’s Williams FW06 season of 1978 with some £200,000. The Prince leaned on Saudi friends – not least Saudia airlines – to donate.

Prince Sultan brought some friends to the 1978 Monaco GP. Charlie and Frank ensured they had a great time. One of the party was Mansour Ojjeh, whose Syrian-born father Akram had created a high-technology company – Techniques d’Avant Garde, TAG. Mansour loved enterprise and TAG’s name gained global exposure as a Williams team backer 1980-81.

But if Frank’s personal spring-steel resilience was an asset, his inability to recognise more sensitive souls was not. During the engagement phase he would totally embrace and charm a newfound potential backer, but once they were hooked they could feel rather neglected. In 1976 Williams saviour Walter Wolf had felt taken for granted and Frank was ejected from his own team. To some extent Mansour Ojjeh followed Wolf…

Akram Ojjeh was ailing. Mansour ran TAG with his brother Aziz. Late in 1981 Ron Dennis and Teddy Mayer at McLaren had committed themselves to a costly Porsche turbocharged F1 engine project. Dennis targeted Mansour as a potential investor. He was interested but only if they supplied Williams too. Ron offered a shareholding in McLaren.

“I think Ron was keen to see a ‘British Ferrari’ appearing at some point”

Frank and partner Patrick Head saw little attraction in Williams becoming the number two Porsche-engined team, so chased a partnership with Honda instead. Williams’s TAG backing diminished through 1983, Mansour switching to McLaren-TAG Turbo-by-Porsche for 1984-87. The rest is history.

Geneva-based TAG steadily diversified – an aeronautics division distributing Bombardier aircraft amongst other services. TAG bought Heuer watches and would redevelop Farnborough Airport as a London bizjet hub while its part-ownership of McLaren diversified.

The idea for the McLaren F1 road car programme was seeded during a conversation between Mansour, Ron Dennis, Gordon Murray and Creighton Brown while awaiting a delayed flight at Linate Airport, Milan, in 1988.

Dennis and Ojjeh wanted to expand McLaren’s engineering beyond Formula 1. They had a reputation for success, excellence, vast technical expertise, and no debts – so where next? Indycar, long-distance racing, commercial R&D, even aerospace, all discussed – and dismissed. Ron and Mansour both relished association with an achievement or a product “of which one can be proud”. Ron: “As the discussion developed we were all agreed that one of our motivations was to leave something worthwhile behind us at the end of the piece.”

The late Creighton Brown told me that: “The simple truth is that all four of us there that day were essentially car nuts. I think Ron was keen to see a ‘British Ferrari’ appearing at some time, and Mansour absolutely agreed, saying, ‘Why do I have to go to Italy to buy a supercar?’”.

In December 1988 a follow-up meeting at Mansour’s flat in London’s Piccadilly resolved to launch a world-standard road car marque. It should be very British and would set out to produce the very finest car that McLaren could possibly create, regardless of cost.

Ojjeh was thoughtful and involved. Said Creighton: “…then Mansour put his finger on it by saying, ‘It needs to be the type of car you could drive from London to the south of France in genuine comfort.’”

Gordon: “As far as I can recall at that point no one mentioned any possibility of it also becoming the world’s fastest production car” – much less a Le Mans 24 Hours race winner at first attempt – “and in the end Mansour said simply, ‘Well let’s do it then!’”.

And they did.

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s