The traumas of 2007 have failed to kill the passion that Ron Dennis still has for McLaren and for Formula 1
By Rob Widdows
Remarkable man, this Ron Dennis. He’s been through the wringer, and come out the other side as strong as ever. Battered and bruised, yes, but possibly more resolute than before.
When a man faces a crisis, work or personal – and this man has been facing both – he may react in one of two ways. He may break down, or he may raise his chin, square his shoulders, and look life in the eye.
Let me put my cards on the table. I like this man. We first met back in 1977 when he established a new, and enduring, record for the longest answer to any question I ever put during a radio interview. Ronspeak is not a recent affliction. But I don’t mind this quirk because this man is passionate, sensitive and very genuine. He may be tough, he can be ruthless, and he is sure as hell determined. But he is straight. I never believed for one moment the accusations levelled at him last year.
I am not taking sides here. I am simply stating my position when it comes to the man who has spent the past three decades building one of the most successful Grand Prix teams of all time. McLaren runs through Ron Dennis like lettering through a stick of seaside rock.
So, it was with much anticipation that I sat down to listen to his keynote address to a motor sport business forum in Bahrain. And what a speech it was, with a little help from his new PR guru Matt Bishop. This was RD right back on form, allowing himself the luxury of delving into a little history. ‘Once upon a time’ began his speech, and it went on to trace his steady climb from Cooper mechanic to chairman and CEO of the McLaren Group.
Later he would relate how, at the end of the 1960s, he applied to Frank Williams for a job. “Might have been easier for Frank if it had happened,” he grinned.
But although his speech began with an evocative account of his first Grand Prix, the 1966 Mexican, as a Cooper mechanic, it was much more than a self-indulgent record of his achievements over more than 40 years in racing. There was another message. And if I read it right, the headline was – ‘I’m back. I’m a bit battered, but I’m not about to walk away.’
He accepted the applause, long and loud, and answered some questions in those measured tones that mirror the carefully moving cogs of his brain. He even apologised for a lapse into a vintage piece of Ronspeak, which brought laughter from a packed audience.
Afterwards, sitting back on a sofa, sipping a glass of water, he remained immaculate. Black suit, pale mauve shirt, darker mauve tie and sparkling black shoes. Everything neat, smart and tidy, that’s how he likes things. But the eyes are as wary as ever.
“Hope this won’t take too long.” Things to do, people to see, Grands Prix to be won. You know how it is.
“Depends,” I say. “You are now one of the senior citizens of Grand Prix racing and I wondered if you might have considered taking a step back, having some greater input into the future of Grand Prix racing, after all these years.”
“The simple answer is yes,” he says, “but a qualified yes. I know, all too well, what has been in my thoughts and the difficulties that have faced me in the last six months. For me to be in a frame of mind to determine anything beyond the next few months is just not possible,” he says, not a little emotion in the voice. “I have so much ambition left. It’s not all for the company though – there are other things that I had particularly wanted to do, things that I had mentally committed to doing this year. But circumstances beyond my control have meant that I have had to change those plans. I feel that the support, especially from our shareholders, that has been shown to the company and to its management – not just me – has been so extensive that I owe it to all those people to stay involved to bring McLaren to the next chapter of its history. If I could do that tomorrow I would love it, but unfortunately it’s going to take a bit more time. But once I get there, I will most definitely and categorically spend my time in a different way. I completely stay away from this word ‘retirement’. It’s an understandable perception – because it’s normally the fact – that when people retire they don’t go into the office on the following Monday. That is not the way I will ever be,” he says, quietly. “I’ll just do different things and I won’t be under anybody’s feet.”
Always considered, always thought through, these words from a man who has seen the darker side of life in recent times. So what might Mr Dennis be planning to do?
“I have no wish for any position in motor sport outside McLaren,” he says immediately. “I have never harboured any ambition in that direction. If I was asked to contribute to the sport and I felt that the contribution was going to make Grand Prix racing better, then I would contribute, yes, because I am totally passionate about Formula 1. But certainly I have no interest in any position that would require me to be consistently available.”
There can be no doubting the passion that Ron Dennis has for motor racing, and for McLaren. So here at Sakhir seems to be the perfect opportunity to wonder why he decided, in 2007, to sell some of his McLaren Group shareholding to the Bahraini Mumtalakat Holding Company, a business consortium wholly owned by the Kingdom of Bahrain.
“Well, first of all it was both Mansour Ojjeh and I who decided to sell. It was a joint decision,” he says firmly. “It was because all the important decisions that I try to take, with Mansour, have to offer an opportunity to grow the McLaren Group. Therefore we wanted to bring into the shareholder group other people who had visions that were compatible with ours. Also, the Bahrainis are passionate about how they want to build their country, which has achieved some very notable firsts. They were the first Middle Eastern country to give women the vote, the first to move towards a democratic process without being pushed; and, above all, Bahrain is a country that wants to punch above its weight, which is what McLaren has always tried to do.”
The Kingdom is also determined to be at the sharp end of motor sport in the Middle East and it is investing its considerable wealth in future programmes. Was this also of some interest to McLaren?
“They’re not blessed with quite the same level of economic resource that some other Middle Eastern countries have available,” says Ron, “but that hasn’t curbed their appetite for growth. Again, that attitude is very consistent with McLaren’s – our appetite for growth is intense and we’re never going to be limited either by my age or by my involvement in the company. When the time comes, I’ll gladly ease myself out of the McLaren organisation for the benefit of McLaren,” – he pauses, choosing his words carefully – “and not specifically for the benefit of myself. Inevitably, as you move out, you have to reduce your equity so that there are other people who have a vested interest in the continuing success of the group. If I thought it was the objective of Bahrain to consume, or take over, the business, then I might be concerned, but I know categorically that that isn’t the case.”
A running theme throughout Ron’s speech had been his desire for stability in Grand Prix racing, on the grounds not only of cost but also continuity. “I fully support the drive to reduce costs,” he said, “but changing the rules always increases our costs. We should never have more than 20 races per season – I regard that as a natural logistical limit. We must preserve the closed season: it’s essential for logistical reasons and to stir up a sense of anticipation in the fans. Formula 1 is all about making the apparently impossible possible. It’s the absolute pinnacle of motor sport – and the day we begin to doubt that status, we are lost. That day must never come; we must never go back to basics; we must never go back to 1966.”
But how far does he feel threatened by the uncertainty in the global economy and by the pressure from the environmentalists who want to see a far greener sport in future?
“There are always those parts of the jigsaw puzzle that don’t fit,” he responds carefully, “and obviously not everybody around the world is going to see motor racing as an important ingredient in their future. But that’s where our entrepreneurial expertise comes into play – you don’t immediately look for a file to re-shape the jigsaw. You work to demonstrate in practical ways the benefits of being in harmony with the world, the benefits every part of our business can bring to meeting environmental challenges. In our apparent inefficiencies in our use of hydro-carbons for sport, we’ve actually brought such sophisticated control processes to the internal combustion engine that the performance per cc of fuel is greater in our Formula 1 engines than in any other area of motoring or motor sport. You can use that technology to get higher levels of efficiency, either by making it economical or high-performance. I believe that we’ve played a crucial role in the development of engine management systems and in the ability to vary how engines function.”
He leans forward: “We have developed sophisticated controls over the way F1 engines idle; we can turn off individual cylinders. All this, and many other things, allow us to save fuel and make the sport efficient. I know that this isn’t the first thing that people grab on to when they talk about Formula 1 – but it’s there and it’s real, as is the huge step forward in structural technologies, the importance of a car having a survival cell and deformable structures around that cell. This has all been achieved with cars that have speeds and energy loadings that are simply incomprehensible in a normal production car. When you’re going to the limit, creating the very best technologies, all these things influence the thinking of engineers developing the production cars of tomorrow.”
The message is clear for all. Grand Prix racing, perhaps belatedly, is making real progress in its avowed intent to be more environmentally friendly. Now the sport must communicate this news to the rest of the world.
“I’m well aware that communication is essential to everything in this world,” he says, allowing himself a wry smile. “So much conflict comes at us through a lack of communication. We try our best, but unfortunately Grand Prix racing isn’t as well co-ordinated as it should be. We’re all very competitive – and competitive individuals, by their nature, don’t always find a common path. It’s definitely a challenge but we’re making progress in presenting Formula 1 more positively. Not all the news is bad. We need to focus on all the positives of the sport and spend less time arguing the competitive positions that we might have between each other.”
We end on a positive note, then. Not even the news that McLaren has been demoted to the nether regions of the pitlane, another plunge of the sword resulting from last year’s bitter confrontations, ruffles Ron’s feathers.
“No, not at all,” he smiles. “We’re very philosophical about things at the moment; our job is to focus on the motor racing. There have been many things to trouble us but we’re looking forward, not backward. Where we are in the pitlane won’t affect our racing – it may be a bit of a squeeze at some circuits, yes, but it’s quieter and more friendly down that end. It may even offer a slight performance advantage in some places.”
Ron Dennis has had Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd under his stewardship for nearly 30 years and he knows only too well how much this means. He served his own apprenticeship under John Cooper, as did Bruce, and he went to his first Grand Prix in 1966, the same year that the New Zealander brought his own cars to the grid. The Austin 7 Ulster prepared for Bruce by his father Les in 1952 sits proudly on show at the 21st century home of the McLaren Group in Woking, as do the orange Can-Am cars. This may come as a surprise to some, but the current chairman and CEO has within him a sense of history. Not always apparent on the surface, granted, but it’s there.
For Ron Dennis, much of the past year has been spent walking on wafer-thin ice. The wounds of battle have not yet healed, some subjects still strictly off limits. But this is a man who has an abiding passion for Grand Prix racing, for McLaren and for a business that has, in the main, been very good to him. Forty-two years ago he climbed in through the back window, a teenager on a mission. That mission is not yet accomplished, but when it is Dennis will surely walk out through the front door, head held high and wry smile in place.
For a full transcript of Ron Dennis’s speech at the Bahrain Motor Sport Business Forum log on to www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk