The moneyman with soul

John Hogan has worked out of the limelight during his 40 years in Formula 1. But as the sponsor man from Marlboro, he wielded great power within the sport he loved
Writer: Damien Smith, Photographer: Howard Simmons

Recognise this guy? It would be quite understandable if you didn’t. Yet for the best part of 30 years, he was considered one of the most powerful and influential figures in the Formula 1 ‘Piranha Club’. Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and many more counted him as a trusted friend, while Bernie Ecclestone and Ron Dennis listened when he spoke. Actually, strike through the past tense. John Hogan is still working the boardrooms and paddocks today. He just doesn’t make a song and dance about it.

“One of the things I’ve discovered is you’ve got to stay around young people,” says the 71-year-old known universally in F1 as ‘Hogie’. “If you mix with people your own age you’re going to be in a box before you know it. Being challenged all the time by younger people is what keeps you going.”

Today, Hogie remains forever young as a valued consultant to the JMI empire, motor racing’s dedicated sponsorship and marketing agency. He describes company founder Zak Brown as “inspirational”, but the compliment would surely be returned in spades. They’re cut from the same cloth, these two, as deeply rooted racing enthusiasts with a shared understanding of how to make the wheels turn. Money men with soul? You’d better believe it.

Between 1973 and 2002 Hogie was the real ‘Marlboro Man’. He didn’t wear the hat, but he was the self-confessed “cowboy” who controlled the purse strings of motor racing’s most powerful and prolific spender. These were the frontier years of big tobacco sponsorship, and Hogie was the fastest gun in town…

Without him Hunt wouldn’t have joined McLaren, but if anything Dennis owes him a bigger debt. It was Hogie who pushed him forward as the man to replace Teddy Mayer at the flagging team in 1980, igniting a force in motor racing that has defined generations. But as is common with such men, Hogie reckons it started by chance.

“I’ve been a motor racing fanatic all my life,” he says, Australian roots still audible in his soft tones. “My father was in the army and we were living in Singapore, where there was no motor racing, no TV and little radio coverage.

“Then I went to school in England and had a friend called Malcolm Taylor, who subsequently became Malcolm McDowell, the actor. His father had a pub in Aintree and I went to the Aintree 200 when Jack [Brabham] won [in 1964]. There you go: that was my first real motor racing experience.”

His life in advertising began straight from school, Hogie working for various London agencies on accounts that included Coca-Cola in 1969. “Then I just fell in with a lot of people who knew a lot about motor racing. To cut a long story short, I got to know Tim Schenken, which led to Gerry Birrell, which led to James Hunt and so on. That’s how it all started. I actually got them sponsorship: £500 a race, but that wasn’t bad in those days.”

The defining career move came in ’73 when he joined Marlboro’s parent company Philip Morris. By then he’d already tasted the motor racing life, and struck up a friendship, through Schenken, with Dennis and his partner Neil Trundle at Rondel Racing. The nascent team set new standards of presentation with its F2 Brabhams, inspired by the exacting principles of the former mechanic at its helm, but aided in no small part by the man who brought sponsorship from Motul and 208 Radio Luxembourg.

“Ron had a notion about sponsorship that nobody else had,” Hogie recalls. “At the time, both Ron and Tim were trying to get [Brabham co-founder] Ron Tauranac to put one foot in front of the other. I got wheeled in, as a friend, to talk to him about sponsorship. Can you imagine? He was as uncomfortable as anything. ‘You want to talk about sponsorship?’ – cue spiky Tauranac impersonation – ‘Well, here’s how I see it. We need money to go motor racing. If you can get us some money, that’s fine, we’ll go motor racing. If you can’t, tough shit’. Hmm, bit more to it than that, Ron.”

These were pioneering days in motor racing sponsorship, Hogie and his ilk mining gold in a sport still naïve to the possibilities that lay ahead. But he plays down the speculative visionary reputation. “I was the man with one eye in the land of the blind… I had read a John Whitmore article in Penthouse, believe it or not, and he was an advanced thinker on sponsorship. The references back then were Indianapolis: the Dean Van Lines Special, for example. Not that I had any idea what Dean Van Lines was – I subsequently discovered it was a furniture removal company! But the name sticks, you know? All this slowly went in.

“At Philip Morris I improved it, got better at it. Being at a tobacco company meant there were certain things you couldn’t do. But we were very adventurous, well run and managed. As long as you didn’t make a complete prat of yourself you could do what you liked.

“People used to call us cowboys and at first you get offended by that, but then I realised, no, actually that is what we are and it’s great. I loved being a cowboy! It was fortunate that we had quite a lot of money to spend, so you could let rip on your fantasies.

“When I joined in ’73 the Marlboro brand was by no means international. One of the marketing goals was very clear: it’s got to be on a global scale. There were other potential sponsors around. Player’s Gold Leaf had already come in, but they weren’t as adventurous. They were a British company and were quite happy to be doing well at the British GP. Philip Morris was a great education because it emphasised continuously that the world is international. Even today I get very irritated when I hear the ‘little Englander’ attitude… People who don’t think internationally are very boring, as a general rule.”

By now, you might have sensed why James Hunt and Hogie hit it off. Already friends, the ‘Marlboro Man’ was about to create Britain’s next world champion.

“It was actually very simple,” he says. “We got to the end of 1975. We thought Emerson [Fittipaldi] had re-signed and that also taught me something – nothing’s done until it’s on paper. We had agreed with Emerson for 1976. Emerson, meantime, got a very big offer from Copersucar to join his brother Wilson’s team, funnily enough with Embraer, which had constructed the car. Every time I get on an Embraer aeroplane these days, I always think, ‘Shit, I hope the guys who built that car didn’t have anything to do with this aircraft!’

“So Emerson was nabbed by Copersucar. We were up the creek without a paddle and it really came down to only two people, one of whom was Jacky Ickx, who McLaren liked. But I said, ‘Look, I know James Hunt from Formula 3 through Schenken and so on, I think he’s a bright young bloke. Let’s have a shot at him’. He’d won a Grand Prix by then [for Hesketh, at Zandvoort in ’75]. So we went for James.

“It was either a Friday or Saturday night. I tracked him down on the phone at Alexander Hesketh’s house in South Kensington. James was such a straightforward, honest guy. He said [cue plummy Hunt impersonation], ‘Oh, so I’m going to have to negotiate, am I?’ And I said well, that’s what you do, yes. ‘Oh dear’.

“So we had one of those conversations, and ended up doing a deal. A very cheap deal because he didn’t have a leg to stand on, although he had an offer from Lotus. But he wouldn’t drive a Lotus because he reckoned they were death traps. He’d been quite cosy with [Jochen] Rindt and was really shaken up by his accident [at Monza in 1970], even though he was only an F3 driver at the time.”

At this point, I have to ask: what did he think of Rush, Ron Howard’s hit movie about that fabled ’76 season? “It wasn’t bad,” he says. “They had to put a bit of antagonism in, which wasn’t there. There were a few incidents through the year where they got a bit excited, but the pair were very amusing, Niki in his wonderful Germanic manner and James in that Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot way of his.”

For all his commercial nous, Hogie cheerfully admits that he didn’t realise at the time how the ’76 season was ‘Year Zero’ for F1 in terms of its global popularity. But he says someone else did. “By the time we got to the British GP that year, lots of TV companies suddenly thought, ‘Hang on, something’s going on here’. They started following the circus around, and by the time we got to Japan the world wanted to broadcast it. And then Bernie [Ecclestone] said, ‘Yeah, you can have it – but you take every race next year and broadcast it in full’. If you know Bernie, that’s very much his mentality.”

He also credits someone else for recognising the reality of how F1 was changing. “Bernie had immense admiration for Colin Chapman going way back. I remember walking down the paddock at one race where there’d been a startline accident, and there was the usual chaos. The marshal had gone to lunch and couldn’t drop the flag to restart – all of that! Colin came marching along, Bernie was sitting with me in the back of the Marlboro hospitality tent, and said, ‘Bernie, we need to go and tell these people this f****** sport’s a business. They’ve got to get on with it!’”

Hogie retains great affection for Chapman. “At that time I was on the F1 Commission,” he recalls. “And in those meetings I’d always sit next to Colin because if you asked him about something technical he’d have no hesitation in explaining it in terms I could understand.”

What does he think Chapman would make of the increasingly restricted F1 of today? “Colin? He’d be in it right up to here. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be all right!’”

By the end of the ’70s, Hunt’s halcyon days were fast becoming a distant memory for McLaren, which had slipped into ground effect-era mediocrity. Change was needed, but the conduit would be the sponsor rather than the team management. Rondel had morphed into Project 4, and Hogie identified his old friend Ron Dennis as the man to raise McLaren from its doldrums. “Ever since square one I was always impressed by his drive, energy and charisma,” he says. “He was brilliant with engineers and the people who ran his team.”

A golden era followed, under TAG-Porsche power and then Honda, but always in the unmissable DayGlo and white of Marlboro. “It was down to three key drivers: Prost, Lauda and Senna,” Hogie says. “Niki was a clever old fox. He did one lap behind Prost in Brazil [in ’84] and thought ‘f*** – I’m out of here!’ But Prost would say to this day that watching how Niki went about his job was what helped him become the driver we knew.”

Like Jo Ramirez, Hogie was one of the few who managed to remain on good terms with both Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna during their combustible rivalry between 1988 and ’90. “I had a problem because I liked them both,” he smiles. “With Prost, it got to the point where he could tell you if he was going to win during a weekend. I used to hang around with him in the back of the truck, and mostly we’d talk about sex, which was fine!

“After that silly Senna film, I bumped into him in Abu Dhabi. I hadn’t seen him for years, went up to him and said ‘Listen, I’ve just seen Senna and I think it’s crap’. He said ‘Don’t worry, John, don’t worry’. But it was unfair. Let’s put it this way: Senna was no angel. I was there in the back of the truck when they agreed the first-into-the-first-corner thing at Imola in ’89 – and Prost was first into the first corner. Ron subsequently went apeshit and had Senna in tears. But that was Senna’s weird, religious guilt complex. It was the deep Catholicism in him: provided the penance was big enough he could get away with being a shit.

“Senna wasn’t a very amicable individual. But towards the end of his time at McLaren he got to know James very well. I don’t know what James used to talk to Senna about, but regular conversations with him were usually about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and I think that opened Senna’s eyes. ‘Is that what you’re supposed to do with girls?’ His manager Julian Jakobi told me that once, after dinner, when Ayrton may have been persuaded to have a glass of red wine, James said to him, ‘Have you ever driven an Austin A35 van? It’s a traditional British kart! I’ve got one just around the corner and use it all the time’. They drove it to Cadogan Square and started doing laps… When Senna stopped the thing started to melt.

“In that last season [’93] he really started to mellow. And I used James to tell him in so many words to stop being a prick on certain things. Ayrton was very upset when James died.”

Hogie also recounts the ‘million dollar a race’ deal of that ’93 season. “Ron said ‘I haven’t got the money to pay Senna. If you want him, you pay’. Thanks, Ron. So I agreed a million dollars a race. And of course I hadn’t allowed for how intransigent Senna could get. When we got to Imola, he phoned from Brazil and said ‘I’m still in São Paulo’. The money hadn’t arrived. ‘When it arrives I’ll get on the plane’. He made the Varig flight land in Rio and wait there until the money arrived, then they could take off – with the other 360 passengers on board!”

In ’97 a pair of McLarens lined up for the first Grand Prix of the season in colours other than DayGlo and white. Marlboro McLaren, an F1 fixture for nearly a quarter of a century, was no more – and again, it had been Hogie’s call. Marlboro Ferrari never did trip off the tongue in quite the same way.

“We didn’t really switch, we were already with Ferrari in a small way,” he says. “It was a question of whether we should ratchet up that involvement to a proper level and bail out of McLaren. I could see, and it didn’t take a genius to spot it, that Ron had got himself sucked into Peugeot, they tested the Chrysler [Lamborghini V12] and the early Mercedes, which was nowhere near ready – and I could see years of pain. I’d been through it before, in 1978 through to ’81 without winning a race, and you can feel the Bunsen burner… I was determined not to go through it again. And bluntly, Ferrari is the only team you can go to and have a bad year. So I decided we had to play safe.”

A tough conversation, given his long friendship with Dennis? “Hmm… actually with Ron it wasn’t! I remember very clearly it was the Spanish GP and I had all the press releases, and the lawyers outside – they wouldn’t come in with me! He said ‘I know why you’re here’. And I told him we were going to have to pull the plug. Ron being Ron, he very quickly had Ekrem [Sami] on the plane up to Germany talking to the West tobacco company. It was the end of a long relationship, which was sad.”

The Ferrari/Marlboro partnership would, of course, flourish once the Michael Schumacher superteam properly kicked into gear at the turn of the century. But by 2002 Hogie realised he’d had enough. “You get to a point in your life when you have to decide to move forward or stay still. I was coming up to 60. The next career step within the company was huge and I probably didn’t have the appetite for it.

“It was getting to the point that even motor racing was getting boring. The thought of having another demo from Michael Schumacher – who is a lovely guy, by the way – didn’t thrill me. And you get old! I’ve always had a thing in my mind that I never want to be the silly old prick. I’ve seen plenty of those in companies.”

He’d probably rather forget the next chapter, when Jackie Stewart tempted him back into the frontline with Jaguar Racing, a team he recalls as a “huge, unmitigated disaster”. Interestingly, he reveals that during his short time at the team he suggested the brand return to more familiar territory.

“I was trying to encourage them to go back to Le Mans,” he says. “It was something I learnt from some of the engineers at McLaren, there’s always an opportunity in every set of regulations. And at that point of time in sports car racing there really was a chink of light and we could have won Le Mans. I tried, but they didn’t want to know. Richard Parry-Jones was out there doing his Joan of Arc act, trying to prove everybody wrong that you could run an F1 team on £150m a season.”

Now John has been coaxed back again, but you sense in JMI he has found natural bedfellows. And while he is predictably frustrated by some elements of the modern world – “There’s a dependence on analysis instead of decision-making. It can work to a point, but it’s got to be instinctive” – he believes F1 remains a great sales pitch in a more competitive, more complex commercial world.

“Bernie feels, probably rightly, that there should be more GPs,” he says. “NASCAR runs 38 races a year, but that’s different. In F1 I think they could get up to 22, 23 races.”

And what’s his assessment of Ecclestone today? Hogie’s been around too long – and is too loyal – to be drawn. “He’s taking it all with him,” is all he says. “In his own funny way, he’s worked it all out. The car collections, the art and so on – when he goes it’ll be chaos…”

There’s a twinkle in the eye as he says it. They speak the same language, just as they did when first they met 40 years ago.