Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

Former McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh is now CEO of Ben Ainslie Racing. He has maintained a dignified silence since he left Formula 1 at the start of 2014, but was happy to chat to Nigel Roebuck about the manner of his departure, plus other elements of his past, present and future. 

"After I left McLaren at the beginning of last year,” said Martin Whitmarsh, “we decided to go travelling. When the first race – the Australian Grand Prix – came up, I said, ‘Let’s go somewhere where there’s no TV.’ So there we were, on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, both swearing we weren’t going to watch the race – and then we caught each other out, watching the timing screen on the F1 app on our iPads!

“Actually, if anything, it hit my wife even harder than it did me. Debs had travelled with me, and she loved everything about racing – even going to Mokpo, for God’s sake! She liked the paddock and the people, and she became a bit of a magnet for the drivers’ wives and girlfriends – we’d tried to make McLaren hospitality a bit more welcoming than it had been…

“Although we used the app, we really tried not to watch the races – this was a new chapter in life, after all. But after pretending not to care, when it got to Spa… I mean, I couldn’t not watch Spa!”

If Whitmarsh savoured that summer, eventually – inevitably – he began to think about what to do next. “Whatever you might think, being a full-time hedonist isn’t all you might imagine. I think you do want the sense of making some minor impact on this planet of ours – particularly when you realise that your children might be making a bigger one than you…”

After the parting of the ways with McLaren, Martin didn’t lack for offers from other top teams, but all were turned down. “After so long with McLaren, I couldn’t see myself outside their garage in a different coloured shirt: I still loved McLaren, and I always will. When it comes to being a team principal again, I’m not saying ‘never’ – but it would have to be something extraordinary.”

Intriguingly the only offer truly tempting to Whitmarsh was one that could have brought the magical name of Maserati back to Formula 1, but in the end that, too, was rejected.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he said. “When you reach a point in your career that you can say, ‘I’ve got enough money for the rest of my life’, you’re free. My expectations were low enough – and I was paid enough – that I reached that point 20 years ago. I have enough homes, I don’t need a bigger boat, I don’t need… stuff, to be honest. So many people can’t get off the trajectory… they aspire to a million, then two, then five, then 50, and it never ends…”

After nearly 25 years with McLaren, Whitmarsh indeed faced a period of major readjustment, but he isn’t one to brood about what might have been, and indeed felt some sense of liberation. 

“For one thing, I saw more of my children than I had for years.  When I came out of the semblance of education I had, the initial focus was, ‘What do I like doing – and how can I make some money to buy a car, and chase girls?’ That was as deep as I was! I think this generation has a much greater awareness of the world than we had.

“My daughter Harriet is an anthropologist. She specialises in large primates, so she was chasing around after them for a number of years – I got it that she was having a great time, and used to murmur that this was about the sixth gap year she’d had, but I didn’t really get all these projects, with mountain gorillas in Rwanda or orangutans in Borneo or whatever. Now I do.

“There are all sorts of threats to these animals – poaching, destruction of habitat, and so on – and to see my daughter, living in Africa and Borneo, doing what she’s doing, was pretty humbling. 

“The thing about Formula 1 is that it consumes you – I’m proud of my two grown-up kids, who are much more socially conscious than I ever was. If I’m honest, they were neglected, because I was pretty selfish – I hadn’t paid enough attention to what they were doing, and it was much more noble than anything I was doing.

“People who knew me understood I was passionate about McLaren and about racing, but it’s important to keep life in perspective. Because your mug’s on TV, in Formula 1 you become a Z-list celeb, don’t you? You’d walk round London, and people would say, ‘Hello, Martin’, and at first I’d think, ‘Who is that? I must know him – he knows my name…’ There’s an air of familiarity, and you’re not used to it, but that’s just how people are. Then increasingly they wanted a picture – the ‘selfie’ thing…

“I mean, it’s lovely, but you can go one of two ways: you can start to think, ‘You know what?  I’m pretty special…’ or you can think, ‘This is kind of odd – I’ll enjoy it, because generally they’re very nice people’, but if you lose sight of the oddness of it, and start to think it’s deserved… I mean, there’s plenty of endeavours, plenty of noble professions, where people put themselves on the line, doing things that really help humanity like going out with the RNLI or working in care homes.

“In London I used to get stopped about every 10 minutes – but six months out of Formula 1 it was about once every three hours, and now it might be once a day!”

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Three years ago I had a long chat with Whitmarsh at the McLaren Technology Centre. “I’m very proud of being the fourth team principal of McLaren,” he said then, “but it isn’t actually going to define me. It’s odd, I think, that Ron [Dennis] still needs that more than I need it.

“I’m pretty fatalistic. I love the job I do, but at some point – it could be tomorrow – perhaps the shareholders will tell me to go. I had a fantastic 10 years in aerospace, then came into this industry, and I’ve got no regrets.”

As well as being team principal, Whitmarsh at the time was the CEO of the entire McLaren Group and deputy chairman of McLaren Automotive. For some years Dennis had been relatively in the shadows, but patently that did not sit well with him, and rumours persisted that his sights were set on regaining control of the company.

In January 2014 Dennis called a board meeting, and following a conversation with him immediately before it Whitmarsh informed him that he would not be attending. At that point Martin left the building, and never went back.

“To be honest, my departure was part rational and part emotional. I left because the business was going somewhere I wasn’t going to enjoy. I’d had a fair amount of influence and, in terms of what the company stood for, I was able to align it with what I thought it should be. Now the way it was going to conduct its business wasn’t how I wanted to do things, and I wasn’t willing to work in that environment.

“I’m not saying it was wrong and I was right – just that it was going to be different from how I wanted it to be. I was in the fortunate position of not needing to accept that level of compromise, and I’m not good at it, anyway! My feeling at that instant was that it was the right time to walk away. I don’t know if Ron was expecting me to go – but I think in his heart that was what he wanted.

“I had nearly 25 years at McLaren, and I had a fantastic time. Was I planning to have more? Yes. But in my assessment I came out of it with my integrity intact – I always did what I thought was right, and I think I was straightforward, in terms of doing what I said I was going to do. I’m sure – I know – there are people who will say I was arrogant, and in some aspects they’re probably right, but there you are…

“I’m not interested in settling scores, or anything like that. You see so many people get involved in feuds – and maybe some think they can derive pleasure from the victory in that, but invariably they’re just eaten away by it. It’s not a matter of liking or disliking Ron: I’m neutral – I’m not going to waste any time and energy on that.

“I don’t think there’s any point in being sad about decisions you take: I’m just not built like that, and anyway I sensed that there could be something else out there that I might want to do. We’ve got a finite amount of time, and I don’t want to waste any of it on dwelling on negative stuff. Frankly, I’m busy enough with the things I want to do not to worry about it.”

Viewed from the outside, the relationship between Whitmarsh and Dennis invariably appeared a tense one, and it surprised many of us that they worked together for so long.

“Well,” Martin laughed, “when I first met Ron in 1988, I actually decided that I couldn’t work with him! When I eventually joined McLaren, I said to him, ‘I don’t need a contract: if I’m going to do this, you’re never going to bully me – I’m not going to put up with that. If you think I’m not doing a good enough job, pull me in and politely tell me, and I’ll go and do something else. Ron’s a street fighter, and I was a pain in the arse to him, because I was the only person who’d give it to him straight. I was well paid at McLaren, but I wasn’t a big spender and never asked for a rise.  

“I have to say that Ron is an extraordinary individual. I think his agenda changed with time, but when I first knew him his desire to win was so high it was fantastic. 

“Looking back, I was very lucky in 1989 to join McLaren. At the time it was a business of about 100 people, with a turnover of £19m, and by the time I left it was a group with more than 3000 employees and a turnover of £660m. Hopefully I contributed to that, and at the very worst I didn’t screw it up.

“I had some wonderfully high moments there. We won over 100 Grands Prix – more than 20 of them when I was team principal – and eight world championships. And along the way I met some extraordinary people… drivers, engineers and so on.”

Something that gave Whitmarsh particular pleasure was seeing not only the business grow, but also the people within it. “Neil Oatley was already there when I arrived, but the majority of people came subsequently, and a lot of them hung around long enough to become technical directors or managing directors of the various businesses.
It was hugely satisfying to watch them develop, to see the transition from bright, ambitious, graduate engineer to something much more significant: you don’t get that if you’re only there for a year or two.

“Whether people believe this or not, throughout it all I acted on my conviction of what I thought was right – both for the business and for Formula 1 as a whole. In acting like that, you don’t always please everyone – you don’t make friends with everyone – and in the end I chose to leave.”

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More than most people in the business, Whitmarsh indeed gave thought to ‘Formula 1 as a whole’, and not surprisingly he played a central role in the sadly brief life of FOTA (Formula One Teams Association).

I can still remember some things that were said that heady morning in March 2009 when the newly formed organisation conducted its first press conference in Geneva. “FOTA,” said Flavio Briatore, “is the best thing to happen in years in Formula 1. You’re only going to improve your business if you’re all on the same side – if you create competition, everybody tries to take advantage…”

Whitmarsh spoke about the importance of the calendar, from which America – following the end of the deal with Indianapolis – was then absent. “We can’t turn our back on America,” he said, “and maybe we need a completely different approach. We should go there strategically, rather than leave it in the hands of the promoter, and consider only who’s going to give us the most money to turn up…”

Brave talk, if heresy to Bernie Ecclestone and CVC Capital Partners, but it felt right on an optimistic day, capped by a remark from Luca di Montezemolo: “What’s certain is that the time for ‘divide and conquer’ to rule in F1 is over…”

If only. In no time at all, Ecclestone applied that very policy, which has unfailingly served him so well. When the occasion demands, Bernie can be very quick on the draw with a chequebook.

“At the time FOTA was set up,” said Whitmarsh, “Luca di Montezemolo (Ferrari), Dietrich Mateschitz (Red Bull), Mansour Ojjeh (McLaren) and Dieter Zetsche (Mercedes) had a meeting in Stuttgart, and they all agreed that they would not individually jump…”

It didn’t last long. From Ecclestone, Red Bull got a sweetener of $60m – and they jumped, after which Ferrari, normally the first to jump on these occasions, found an offer – this time $100m – irresistible. 

“Basically,” said Whitmarsh, “Red Bull broke FOTA – for money. After they had taken Bernie’s offer, FOTA’s unanimity was gone, and so was its power. At the time Bernie called me in, and said, ‘Here’s the deal: it’s got a 30 million premium for McLaren on it, on top of all the other stuff.’ I said, ‘I can’t take it – I’m chairman of FOTA. I know others have jumped, but I think this is wrong. You guys do it if you want, but I don’t want McLaren to do it…’

“Eventually, of course, everyone signed – including the teams that have now gone to the EU. McLaren was actually the ninth team to sign: as the others had done it, there was no longer any point in our not doing, particularly as there was still the 30 million premium.

“Perhaps it was unrealistic to believe FOTA would last, but briefly there was a togetherness about the teams that had seemed completely unattainable. McLaren and Ferrari, for example, had spent countless years snarling at each other. I remember the days at Monza when we’d helicopter in, then get in a van to go to the paddock – and the van would be kicked, scratched, spat at, whatever. When Gerhard [Berger] broke down in 1990, they chucked bricks at his car…

“That was how it used to be. When I took over at McLaren, and was being interviewed by Italian TV, instead of snarling about Ferrari, if they’d just won the race I’d give them credit, and if they hadn’t done very well, I didn’t put the boot in.

“The Italians are such warm people, and they responded to it – Stefano [Domenicali] is a friend of mine, and the fact is, I respect what the company is: it’s the biggest brand in Formula 1. Of course I wanted to win, but I didn’t need to be at war with Ferrari. At the time FOTA was formed, everyone seemed to be in that frame of mind…”

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Whitmarsh may no longer work in Formula 1, but still he keeps a close eye on it, and much of what is happening at the moment – notably the endless dissension about engines – makes him sad, if not surprised.

“What’s gone really wrong is that they let the cost of the hybrid power unit run away: without a limit on cost that was always going to happen, and made it unaffordable to many of the teams. You have to give absolute credit to Mercedes, because they’ve consistently invested in their programme, and the others haven’t done that to the same level, or had the same long-term vision. Mercedes deserves to be where it is, but it’s not necessarily in the interests of Formula 1, and whatever you say about [Max] Mosley… I’m no fan of his, but he would probably have managed this differently.”

Starting in 1995, McLaren enjoyed a long and successful relationship with Mercedes, but for a variety of reasons that began to change: at the end of 2009 Mercedes bought Brawn GP, and went into business for itself, and although McLaren continued to use its engines, now it was simply as a customer.

The break-up of the special relationship was cataclysmic for the company, which lost not only its ‘engine partner’, but also a partner in McLaren Automotive, the biggest customer in its electronics business – and its major shareholder, Mercedes having acquired 40 per cent back in 1999. “We did the rounds,” said Whitmarsh, “and we had to find an alternative, a manufacturer who wanted to come into Formula 1. It was clear that was going to be difficult, thanks to the cost, particularly with a new power unit. Before reaching an agreement with Honda, we also talked to Toyota, Hyundai and VW Audi.”

Mercedes has of course completely dominated the ‘hybrid era’ thus far, with Lewis Hamilton adding two further world championships to that won with McLaren in 2008. 

“Lewis,” said Whitmarsh, “is hugely talented, and underneath it all he’s a nice guy. Certainly for the last two years he’s got the job done, but before that he often came off the rails, and I think if he has a weakness, it’s that he wants to be something else: if he could be comfortable with being one of the greatest drivers in the world, he’d probably be a happier person.  

“What I think about him, I suppose, is ‘You’re a motor racing superstar – just do that, because you’re not a rap star or whatever.’ I find it sad that he’s trying to be something he’s not, and it kind of detracts from the genius that he is.

“I used to say to Lewis, ‘Jenson [Button] is cool, because he’s so natural – he’s just himself, not trying to be anything else.’ It’s so easy to underestimate Jenson: he’s an extraordinary talent, but he manages to compartmentalise it, and when he gets out of the car, he’s a normal bloke. In my opinion, he doesn’t get enough credit.”

Prior to his abrupt departure, Martin was also instrumental in persuading Fernando Alonso to return to McLaren. The two had a meeting at Suzuka in 2013.      

“Fernando is the most complete driver in the world. OK, in 2007 it went wrong for various reasons, but he’s matured a lot – and he’s the best, no question. You get drivers who don’t get the results that the car deserves, drivers who do get those results – and then a very few who get  better results, more points, than the car deserves: year in, year out, Fernando did that with Ferrari, and it’s in his DNA. He’s a phenomenally bright, talented, ruthless, racing driver.”

Given the dreadful season Alonso and Button have endured with the Honda-powered McLaren, many have been surprised that Fernando has largely kept a lid on his frustrations in 2015.

“Well, I’m quite surprised, too! As I say, though, he’s matured, hasn’t he? The most entertaining things he’s done this year have been on the radio! I’m just glad he hasn’t flipped out and gone – for McLaren that would have been catastrophic…”  

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After a year or so away from it, Whitmarsh realised that he was indeed missing Formula 1. McLaren, after all, was only the second employer he had ever had.

One of the experiences that led Martin to racing, strangely, was that previously, in the course of a successful career with British Aerospace, he had experienced a war – not first-hand, but the effect of a war – for he was involved with military aircraft at the time of the Falklands war in 1982.

“The armed forces were not equipped for a conflict in the South Atlantic – in fact, it was very fortunate that we didn’t have a strong opponent, because we’d have lost! What we had was a modest collection of aircraft carriers, and an even more modest collection of Sea Harriers to go with them. Suddenly we needed to take RAF Harriers out there, and operate them – they were not prepared for maritime use, but British Aerospace had to respond to that war.

“What I found inspiring was that, because of the imperative of war, we did things within a five- or six-week period that would normally take five or six years of procurement and committee and bureaucracy and decision-making and sign-off and approval...

“It was a very exciting time for a young man, as I was then, in terms of cutting through it all and getting things done, and at the end of it I was one of many who said, ‘As an industry we have to learn from this.’ Not only did we do a good job, in that we met the requirements, but we also did it in an incredibly short period of time – and we did it cheaper! It was win-win-win…

“What it showed was what we could do, as an industrial sector, so this surely was an opportunity to reappraise MoD procurement processes – we can save the tax-payer a fortune doing it like this! Initially, there was talk of setting up working groups, and I wanted to be involved in that – but of course it never happened, because another war didn’t come along, and the osmosis of the system consumed all that impetus.

“It might sound over-dramatic to say this, but one of the things I found appealing about motor racing was that it’s like going to war, in the sense that it’s all about time frames because there’s an imperative for action: the entire organisation is aligned with the end goal, which is to do everything you can to win – that’s what you do in wars, and also in motor racing.

“It’s a tremendously addictive feeling, and although I always used to say, ‘I don’t want Formula 1 to define me’, when you come out of it, for all you seek to convince yourself that you don’t care about it, and you’re not going to watch it, you do miss it. Of course there are some aspects of it – including some of the people – that you don’t miss at all, but you really do miss this focus, this imperative of action.

“The problem is that if you’ve been in racing, it’s difficult to replace it. Even when it goes badly wrong, and you’re standing in a garage at midnight, with the broken bits in your hand, and tomorrow there’s qualifying or the race, you can’t commission a working group to go and look at the integrity of the suspension. You don’t need to walk round the garage, saying ‘It’s important we fix this tonight’ – they all know.

“So being at the sharp end, whether in the factory or the pits, is addictive. After doing it for a few years, for me the test was that – after a winter of busting everyone’s balls to get the new car ready for January – you’d go off to Jerez or somewhere, and on the first morning, as you pulled into the paddock you’d hear a Formula 1 car being fired up, and you’d feel that tingle going up and down your spine…

“Before a race, I’d always leave the grid with five or six minutes to go – not least because I’ve got enough engineering imagination to know that, at a standing start, if you break a driveshaft you turn left or right, depending on which one breaks. Unless they really need to be there, why people – whether they’re engineers or luvvies – want to stand alongside a Formula 1 car
at a standing start, I really don’t know!

“I used to walk away, with my heart beating at about 180rpm. You’d have these conversations with yourself… you’ve done this loads of times before, you can’t be on the pitwall at the start – you’re standing in the garage, and you can hear the radio, but you can do nothing now until you run across to the pitwall halfway through the first lap. I came to the conclusion that if ever, at that point of the weekend, I found myself calm, then it was time to go…”

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How, then, to replace the narcotic of Formula 1? As Whitmarsh said, he didn’t believe the answer lay in simply signing on the dotted line for another team. After his relaxed summer in 2014, he was ready for a new challenge, but from where he didn’t know.

“A few people contacted me, and said, ‘This Ben Ainslie America’s Cup thing is really exciting – it would be right up your street…’ Again, the old arrogance: I thought, ‘Well, if anyone’s interested, I’m not that difficult to find, but I’m not going chasing anything…’

“I’d met Ben a couple of times at races, and been impressed by his humility and intelligence, but I didn’t spend that much time with him. At the Grands Prix I hope I was always polite, but my head was in racing mode.

“What happened was that the shareholders there believed that the team needed someone to manage it, and I got calls from Adrian [Newey] and David [Richards], saying, ‘You’ve got to do this…’ Ben then came to my house, and after a short time I just said, ‘OK.’ He was a bit reticent about getting into the whole numbers thing, so in the end I said, ‘Look, I’ll make it easy for you: I want to do this. There’s no negotiation – I just want to do it.’  

“I was getting a bit stir crazy, to be honest – I may have everything I need, and I don’t need to work, but as I said, being a professional hedonist is not all it’s cracked up to be! Originally I agreed to do it part-time, and I don’t actually have a contract. I hope I can help: I’ve brought a few Formula 1 people in, some of them from McLaren, and we’re getting more technical…”

Whitmarsh has an apartment in Portsmouth, close to the HQ of Ben Ainslie Racing, of which he is the CEO, and when he gave me a tour of ‘the race shop’ he looked and sounded just as in the McLaren days: “These things do 60mph, you know… have you ever seen a carbon fibre wing that size before?” They are indeed remarkable devices – one hesitates to call them ‘boats’ – and I’ll admit I was spellbound. 

“When we had the races here in Portsmouth in July, the second day was stormed off, unfortunately, but on the first day there were 120,000 people watching!

“As the boats came out I followed them out to the race course – and I felt the old tingle of going racing, and that’s important to me. It feeds some of what I need as a person – and the only other way I can get it is to be back in Formula 1. There are some incredibly bright and creative people here, and some extraordinary athletes of sailors… the paddock, if you like, is a big boatyard, but there’s the same sense of camaraderie, technicians, mechanics, sailors rather than drivers, and I love it.”

I wondered how much Newey was involved in the project, and Whitmarsh said not as much as he would ideally like. “I was thinking that if Red Bull didn’t get an engine deal for next year, maybe I’d have him a bit more, but unfortunately that’s sorted now! Adrian’s conscious of my desire to increase his contribution – he wants to be involved, and he is committed to it. Considering the aerodynamics of these boats – what we call ‘the platform aerodynamics’ – he’s not going to be able to give us weeks of his time, but as an inspiration to the team working on the concept, he’s certainly having an effect.”

My impression of Martin in his new environment was of a man very much at peace with himself, and he said that was indeed how he felt. “Occasionally I think to myself, ‘Look back over the last year, and remember the moments you really enjoyed…’ It can be walking the dog on the beach, sitting in pubs or bistros, being relaxed with
my wife and mates… the things that give me the greatest pleasure don’t cost much money.

“That’s just how I’m made, and I’m very fortunate. Life’s pretty bloody short, and I want to keep on enjoying it…”