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Travelling along Albert Drive past the Woking Business Park, it is doubtful whether the average driver would appreciate that the building bearing the dayglo TAG McLaren logo behind the securely-guarded perimeter fence is the hub of one of the most successful Grand Prix teams in history — the team which re-wrote the record book in 1988 by winning 15 of the 16 Grands Prix, 15 pole positions, achieving ten 1-2 finishes, leading all but 28 laps, and winning both the constructors’ and the drivers’ championships by a considerable margin.
Between the security gate and the high-tech factory is the reception area, more akin to a museum since it houses seven Grand Prix McLarens dating back to 1980, each one being the most successful chassis of its year. On shelves nearby are 149 trophies, just some these cars have won.
This is the home of TAG McLaren, a group name for a series of companies comprising McLaren International (the racing team), TAG McLaren Marketing Services and TAG McLaren Research and Development. TAG McLaren is part of Techniques d’Avant Garde.
Chief executive of TAG McLaren is Ron Dennis. For many in the Formula One world, Dennis is too self-important and too arrogant. Jealousy has its part to play, but if his role can be perceived as that of businessman rather than just as team boss, then it can be seen that he is an entrepreneurial product of the Thatcher decade, comparable with the likes of Alan Sugar, Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch, for whom burning ambition, a forceful way and an ego to match are vital.
The factory itself covers 65,000 sq ft, an increase of 45,000 over the previous premises in Boundary Road, with most of the area devoted to the manufacturing and fettling of the cars themselves. As is to be expected from the man who introduced the idea of painting the floors of their pit garage (to lay the dust) at circuits around the world, the place is spotless.
It is scrupulous attention to detail at every level which has helped maintain the team’s superiority over the last few years. Even at the busiest time of the season, when the cars are arriving back at base on a Monday or Tuesday to be swiftly rebuilt into qualifying trim ready for the next outing, time is still found to strip them of paint and respray.
This is symptomatic of McLaren’s constant search for that extra edge. To keep the pot boiling in its eternal quest for supremacy, there are two test teams which are quite separate from the racing operation. That most known about is the one in Japan for which Emanuele Piero does all the driving and Tim Wright acts as engineer, but there is another team constantly testing in Europe which Prost and Senna and any one of the three engineers attend. In each case all the data is fed back to Woking for evaluation.
While testing is undertaken to hone the racing team in search of the immediate advantage, the research and development aspect tends to be more long-term. From a monetary point of view it constitutes the tuning device, the budget allocated dependent on the finance available. As would be expected, the largest amount goes towards the cost of actually going motor racing, and accounts for about 40 per cent of the annual budget. The rest is split up into fixed overheads, the re-investment programme and then research and development.
Most programmes tend to be evaluated on what they can produce in the way of a performance advantage; any increase, no matter how small, is worked on and any quantifiable gain, irrespective of size, is invested in . The team has to be more cautious, however, in areas where there is no tangible improvement in performance, even if the result is a better understanding of the car.
McLaren has often been approached to work on research and development projects for other companies, but it is an area which has not been exploited as Dennis believes that the correct price can never be charged for the amount of work undertaken. There is also the racer’s instinct of keeping up one’s sleeve as many aces as possible for, no matter the price others are willing to pay, one’s research can never be fully compensated for. All the technology is therefore kept in-house: McLaren’s business is to win, not to exploit its research and development facilities.
Honda’s part in McLaren’s success is never to be underestimated, but it is equally easy for the casual observer to over-estimate its importance. After all, if the McLaren team did not exist and only Lotus had had the use of the Japanese V6 in 1988, there would have been only two victories (in San Marino and Australia), with Berger and Boutsen taking five each in their Ferrari and Benetton respectively.
Dennis is pleased with the relationship between the two companies, which has quickly built up into something never achieved with Porsche. “We were a Porsche customer, which by necessity imposes limitations on any rapport for there is always the question of money, so there is always a scrutiny over the other party’s performances. In the partnership we have with Honda we don’t waste time scrutinising each other’s performance. Much of Honda’s success comes from its total commitment.”
Engines arrive from Japan and are bolted to the chassis along with all the necessary components, but by this stage there has been considerable work undertaken further down the line.
Dennis is attempting to build a far broader engineering base, in which individuals having specific expertise in certain areas have their contribution co-ordinated into the final design. Various departments within McLaren International are headed by project leaders with whom the buck stops. “You can’t put someone in charge of a project then allow him the luxury of passing on the responsibility of the decision-making process.” Gordon Murray’s role as technical director is therefore more equivalent to that of a technical ambassador, with part of his brief to liaise closely with Honda.
The all-conquering MP4/4 was coordinated by Steve Nichols, and Neil Oatley is project leader on the 1989 car. Although this might seem to be a demotion for Nichols, it is in accord with another of Dennis’ management strictures.
“If you put into effect a structure which is dependent in any respect on any one individual, it is like a house of cards. We are working towards a situation where any one card, or even two, can be removed from the building without it collapsing. The price one has to pay to achieve that is that sometimes individuals may not get out of it what they want.” This indispensability even applies to Ron Dennis himself for he has a desire to work to the position where he has no job! “It’s not easy to achieve. I know I am autocratic which is not consistent with delegation, the ultimate delegation being to step sideways and not even go to the Grands Prix.”
The process is quite removed from the traditional method of build construction, and the dictatorial implementation of the design of the car. It is a structure Dennis hopes will provide a continuous competitiveness both within the company and in its products. While Oatley acted as race engineer to Prost in 1988, his design team was able to devote its time to the 1989 chassis to accommodate the new normally-aspirated V10 Honda engine and, where possible, have parts fabricated and ready in advance.
Using the latest CAD/CAM facilities, which enable every aspect of the design to be transferred direct from the computer screen to the machine tool, the car comes into existence piece by piece. Before a full size example is built, a one-third scale model is manufactured and tested at the National Physical Laboratory in a wind tunnel of which the team has the exclusive use, enabling it to run a virtually continuous programme. Once the overall shape has been decided on, there is the job of designing and building the components. As in any business, especially manufacturing, it is essential to foresee and overcome bottlenecks in production which can cause costly and time-consuming delays.
Although it would seem an impossibility for a racing car manufacturer for whom the intensity of the competition places demands on the manufacturing processes in the off-season and allows a slacker time for the rest of the year, McLaren International tries to iron out the peaks and troughs into a straight line.
Wheels, part of the gearbox and other pieces of heavy engineering are bought-in, but 90 per cent is still manufactured in-house. Every item is individually tested and numbered in batches, so that if one is found to be defective for whatever reason, the rest of the batch can be isolated and checked to see whether they are likewise affected.
Parts which are unlikely to be altered during the season, such as brake calipers, are manufactured as much as possible in advance, with a reserve supply, so there should never be the necessity for the traditional “all-nighters” to get the car ready. “All-nighters” are taboo as far as Dennis is concerned, since they are inefficient and counter-productive. When they have been necessary, Dennis has found they have created great hostility.
He is very concerned that all his employees are kept contented. Not all 150 are interested in motor racing, many having come from an aerospace background, so not all have the overriding passion that will see them work willingly at anti-social hours.
“People need more to their life than just motor racing. The family unit is very important,” says Dennis. “Leaving work mid-afternoon on Friday and being free for the weekend, every weekend throughout the year, they will come back in on Monday morning fresh and determined to do a productive job. Weekend work is not really very desirable.”
Contrary to popular opinion, the work is harder between the last and first races of the season than between races. As Dennis states: “Having fed the animal to a certain weight beforehand, the season is devoted just to maintaining that weight. It is a different set circumstances.” In fact, the machine tools have an eight-hour day, which would make any time-and-motion man weep since the proper cost effective operation of the machines should be at least twenty hours. Dennis counters this by arguing: “We are not getting a full return on our investment from that traditional point of view, but the machine tools are run while the factory is open. What we are getting, though, and what we are prepared to pay for, is the high quality of product at a high manufacturing speed, and the ability to call up the relevant machining programme and remanufacture at a subsequent date. It is very efficient from a motorsport standpoint, even if not from a manufacturing point of view.”
Until 1985, the Hercules Corporation of Nevada, the pioneer of the use of carbon-fibre in Formula One, manufactured the tubs, but since the team now has its own autoclave and can do its own baking, the raw material now arrives in long sheets from America.
Whether it is the ordering of the metal or carbon-fibre, or ensuring that personnel are in the right place at the right time, or that the 30 people who travel to each race are correctly booked, logistics play a key role in the operation. Just to get the cars to the circuits around the world is itself complex, and requires a fleet of transport.
Jo Ramirez and Liz Wood look after the movements of three Renault tractor units (which the team is running in a promotional deal with the manufacturer), two trailers (one with the three cars, the other with parts), the two trucks used for team personnel, the motor-home, the test truck and the Shell truck which carries 1200kg of fuel from the Thornton Research Centre.
Another key department in the organisation is marketing, which ensures strings are pulled to maintain the flow of income. In this area Ron Dennis is adamant that his sponsors — a word he does not like to use, preferring instead “investors” — see a sound return on their expenditure. In his mind the word sponsor is associated with a subsidy which the receiver cannot survive without.
“Revenue coming from these companies supports our racing programme and is essential for our survival, but on the other hand I don’t believe there is any charitable act to it. They are buying a commodity, media exposure, and hand-in-hand with media exposure is the image-related element of that exposure.”
A fact he has grasped, and which amazingly some other Grand Prix teams still fail to appreciate, is that it is generally recognised there is a five-to-one ratio which rules the effectiveness of sponsorship: for every pound spent paying for a logo to be painted on the side of a car, another five should be spent on exploiting it. As recipient of that money for placing logos, Dennis argues that if the team is doing its job properly it should also be in the best position to advise the client on how to advertise the fact.
It is not the role of the eight staff of this department, therefore, just to entertain at hospitality suites at Grands Prix, but rather actively to spend time devising schemes which could be pursued by the sponsor. For example, they produce very good presentation packs for their guests at Grands Prix, and have developed a 1/3-scale model for shop window use. Another aspect of their work is to arrange licensing agreements.
Sponsorship, or investment, is not just confined to the cars. Voko has provided all the furniture in the Woking offices in return for the right to use the McLaren name in its own promotions. The team also holds a large promotion for that company once a year, which in 1988 was on board ship at Monaco.
To back up the marketing department, there is a presentation suite which boasts an 18-projector slideshow facility, a satellite television link which can monitor broadcasts in the European satellite system, and an audioivisual display. Luxuriously appointed, the 35-seat cinema not only makes a statement about the company, but is also useful for attracting the interest of potential sponsors. It can also be hired by companies for their own presentations, to be followed by lunch at McLaren’s own restuarant, provided by a first-class chef.
Although his factory may sound the ultimate racing car workshop, Dennis is still far from satisfied and is constantly scanning fresh horizons. He still has the desire to build a self-contained facility including a windtunnel and test track, but his thoughts and wishes go well beyond that fundamental concept. The move is financially possible, the hold-up being planning permission legislation. Even so, negotiations are in progress over three sites at present.
With an eye to the future, Dennis states that McLaren International will always be involved in Formula One and that the name will live beyond anybody involved in the company now, but its work should be more broad based than just Grand Prix racing. Just how that base will be broadened is under constant consideration, but at present it is not clearly defined. Activating new racing projects is the easy solution, but not necessarily the right answer.
After the end of its relationship with Porsche, TAG Turbo Engines (which still owns the engines, tooling, and drawings of the powerful turbocharged engine which powered the McLarens between 1983 and 1987) investigated two major projects with regard to the redundant hardware it had at its disposal. One was the evolution of the engine for a lightweight helicopter, and the other was fitting it into some type of road car.
Feasibility studies were conducted in both areas, and while the helicopter project was successful in meeting the technical objectives laid down, commercial considerations killed it off. The road car project got as far as a Porsche 911 being fitted with a modified engine, but that project too was terminated. Any money to be made from them probably lies more as up-market momentoes than from any engineering future.
The impression created by McLaren International and its premises could easily be construed as that of a clinical, efficient, humourless operation, so one has to thank BBC televison comentator Murray Walker for giving it the hurnan touch. In a speech made at the Autosport Awards ceremony in January, Murray recounted how he was given a personal tour of the factory by none other than Ron Dennis. As they walked from department to department and the chief executive proudly explained what all the high-tech equipment did, “Ron Dennis inadvertently slipped and broke his tooth on one of those space-age pipe-bending machines.” WPK
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