Carbon fibre technnology brought massive performance and safety gains to —Formula 1. Its use was pioneered by McLaren International. Ron Dennis tells Rob Widdows about the early days of the tecnnology and the company formed by a merger between his Project 4 outfit and Team McLaren
The footbridge across the river is exquisite. The gaps between the oblong granite pieces are a perfect natural footstep, accurate to the last millimetre. It feels good to walk this walk. The attention to detail is obvious.
A few seconds before entering the McLaren Technology Centre, glass doors slide apart silently and a charming, smiling member of the media team greets me. Ellen Kolby has been on the front line for seven years, accepting or repelling boarders. She knows how to make a person feel at ease on their way to see The Boss, Ron Dennis.
We wander among the cars and the silver cups. Over there is Bruce McLaren’s old Austin 7, his first racing car, and Denny Hulme’s Can-Am racer. And here are the gleaming trophies, past which employees must walk after leaving the staff restaurant. No lack of motivation here.
The chief executive’s office is eerily tranquil. Dennis strides towards me on his toes, sharp in a perfectly tailored dark suit, snow-white shirt, tasteful tie and dazzling black shoes. The room is low-key smart, all greys, blacks and whites, no pictures on the walls and a total absence of clutter. He indicates a maroon leather chair, some distance away across the grey carpet, next to the expansive curved glass that reveals a view of the adjacent lake. This is the best seat in the house. You can almost smell the sweet aroma of success.
A thousand people work here, in virtual silence. When the racing cars are fired up in the pristine workshop, the bark and growl of a Mercedes V8 does not escape the space within which it is contained. There is simply the merest vibration.
But it wasn’t always so. In the early weeks of 1980 Ron Dennis took some very big risks, not of the careless variety but of the calculated type that separates entrepreneurs from gamblers. The primary task that year was to persuade the men from Philip Morris to back his dream of a new grand prix team, to take his already successful Project 4 into the big league. Dennis and Neil Trundle (who left at the end of Project 3 and later returned to McLaren International) had made money, won races and were much admired for their attention to detail, but Morris brand Marlboro would be the key to unlocking the door into the sacred world of Formula 1.
“I told Marlboro that continuing to sponsor McLaren was a waste of time. The team was down, in a performance dip,” he says. And so it was that Philip Morris supported his proposal of a merger: together with Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander, Dennis formed a new company, McLaren International. He had plans, big plans, that needed action. In particular, there was a John Barnard-designed racing car, the P4/1 (the M for McLaren came later), the first grand prix car constructed from carbon fibre.
“The car was a key part of the proposal to Marlboro,” Ron says, “but it was clear that the company had too much investment in McLaren to go it alone with us, so it had to be a joint venture or a case of losing their support altogether. I’ve always been a risk taker, an entrepreneur, so I saw this as a calculated risk. John Barnard brought his reputation, I brought the money. But neither of us knew how we were going to get this new car built. There wasn’t much asset value in the old McLaren team but it had machine tools and a quantity of Cosworth DFV engines. We contributed the car and leased a new factory.”
This was a seminal moment in the career of a man who started by making tea and sweeping the floors at Brabham during his school holidays, then became Jochen Rindt’s mechanic at Cooper before going his own way into management with Trundle at Rondel and, later, Project 4 in F2. But by far the biggest challenge was yet to come.
“The idea for using carbon as a primary structure in a grand prix car was one hundred per cent John Barnard’s,” he says, “but we knew from our work with BMW on the ProCar championship that the M1 had a carbon rear wing. BMW needed to get 50 cars built for the series. They allocated half the production to Lamborghini and half to us. But by the time Lamborghini had built one car, we’d made all 25 of ours. It was a lot of hard work but we made money from it and John saw the potential of carbon. It was more than a third stronger, for a given weight, than anything else in use at that time. It was my challenge to find the investment, create communication with suppliers and manufacturers and push the project forward.”
But where were they going to find the skills and the knowledge for carbon construction? They’d investigated every likely company in the UK and drawn a blank. “We were running out of options when John remembered a man in America who supplied Champ Car teams with parts and it was he who put us in touch with Hercules Aerospace.
“Arriving at the company’s Salt Lake City factory was a bit of an eye-opener,” he says. “They were making missiles and it all had to be done in separate buildings, spread out over a vast area to minimise damage in case something exploded. But they were can-do people, Hercules, and were working with pre-impregnated carbon and autoclaves. They knew how to get the best from the material. I did a deal for them to work with us on P4/1 in exchange for promotional opportunities on the cars and a sum of money, which was significant at that time, to help us use the material for the structures we needed. With the benefit of hindsight that first chassis was too strong for our needs, but we made it work and slowly the process unfolded. John saw and understood the huge potential. It was pioneering stuff and we shared the workload together, helping each other with our respective insecurities as we went along. Of course we were bullish to the outside world, but we were definitely out on a limb.”
As with all pioneering projects, secrecy was both essential and impossible. The cat was already a fair way out of the bag. “Other people were playing with it but they were way behind us,” Ron says. “Lotus had built a quasi-carbon car that was fraught with problems, but we were going forward rapidly, gaining an understanding of the bonding techniques required to achieve good structural properties between carbon and aluminium. This allowed us to manufacture the aluminium bulkheads at Woking while Hercules was working on the tub in Salt Lake City. The carbon structures were a work of art but we had trouble with the external surfaces, which were wrinkled, crinkly and less than attractive.?
“John saw how to give the structure strength where strength was needed and how to use the material. It was all male tooling then, but now we know so much more about its application and female tooling is commonly used.”
The qualities and complexities of carbon were barely understood outside the aircraft industry and, although it was routinely used in aerospace and high-performance aeroplanes, the material brought with it a near-vertical learning curve. At the time cars were subjected to huge aerodynamic loads and constructional stiffness was vital. The manufacturing process has, for a layman at least, some similarities with papier mache modelling.
Ron tries to explain this as simply as possible: “You are working with many, many layers and orientating each layer according to the structural integrity that you require. You need the autoclaves, the ovens and all those things we learnt from Hercules. Of course this was all very expensive and there were those who thought it all too risky. Years later, in the turbo era, some of those people left, expressing a view that I was putting the company at risk. But I would never, ever have done that.”
The McLaren MP4/1 was taking shape, and by the start of 1981 the team was ready to introduce it to an increasingly curious, expectant world. “Launches were very quiet affairs in those days,” says Ron. “I think we just held it in a car park marquee at our old Boundary Road facility. Not a huge deal, but there was some interest. The early testing was nothing too special and we went to Long Beach in early March to put some laps on the car in practice. The potential was not immediately apparent but the car got better and better as we went along. John Watson and Andrea de Cesaris used the old M29/F in the race and both retired. We stayed with the old car in Brazil, but Watson raced MP4/1 for the first time in Argentina where he retired. But the potential was there, we knew that, and Watson came 10th in San Marino, our first finish with the new car.”
He finished seventh in Belgium but retired in Monaco before putting together a run of three straight podium finishes, which culminated in victory at the British Grand Prix on July 18, the first F1 success for McLaren International. I remind Ron that he was in pretty high spirits in the team’s smart red and white motorhome after that victory in front of an ecstatic home crowd.
“Yes, well, I was actually more concerned about the other car, which de Cesaris had backed into the guardrail at Woodcote, causing quite a lot of damage,” he says, looking irritated even now. “Let’s say I choose desperately to forget that very painful time with de Cesaris. Right from the beginning of the project we’d been concerned about repairs in the field because we had no experience, no previous knowledge of repairing damage to carbon fibre. But, looking back, the first one was built like a tank. In fact, with carbon damage, what you see is what you’ve got, there’s rarely any hidden damage and it’s easier to see what needs to be done. If a carbon car cannot survive an impact, then no car in the world would have survived it, they’re that strong. Carbon doesn’t twist or distort, it delaminates. It might sound simplistic, but you can tap the carbon and if the ring is right, then you pretty much know it’s not delaminated.”
We know now, of course, that Barnard’s pioneering work with McLaren has saved countless lives. “I hope John appreciates that he is responsible for much of today’s driver safety,” says Ron. “Maybe he wouldn’t claim to have discovered carbon fibre but he certainly pioneered its use in racing cars and that has led to huge safety improvements.” Watson finished a creditable sixth in the 1981 World Championship while McLaren was sixth best of the constructors, a position not hugely aided by a solitary point from de Cesaris at San Marino. For 1982 Dennis needed to bolster the strength of his driver line-up as F1 moved inexorably towards an era of ever more powerful turbo engines, delivering in excess of 1000 horsepower, and rock-hard cars that were squeezed on to the asphalt by huge amounts of aerodynamic downforce.
“It was vital that we took on a big star driver,” he says. “We needed race winners and I didn’t realise how important that was until Niki Lauda came to us. He was already a legend and I had seen his work rate. I’d worked with him in ProCar. Niki was a proven product. He had to get fit after a couple of years away, but it wasn’t a big issue. He made a difference, certainly, and ever since then I’ve known the value of having the best possible drivers. We still try to achieve that.”
So did Dennis dream that McLaren International would sweep all before it, as it tested and refined the MP4/1B through the winter of 1981?
“No, absolutely not,” he says firmly. “There were many constraints. We were moving forwards with the car, which was a key component, but we were still using the DFV. We needed a turbo engine, we were trying to put together a Porsche deal and there were issues with finding the money. A lot of risks were being taken, careers were being bet on it and everyone was flat out. Then investment group Techniques d’Avant Garde [TAG] came in with us and its founder Mansour Ojjeh later took a shareholding. He started by helping us with the cost of the engine. People had previously said we could never go our own way with the Porsche. We had to turn around the team, re-motivate people. I was pushing the company down the turbo route and if we had to pay for it, then I would find the money.
“Some decided, shall we say, to disembark along the way. Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander were the first, and then eventually John Barnard went his own way. But size was never the thing for me. It was always ability that mattered within the team, and not its size.”
The demands and stresses of building for the future had little effect on the present. Watson was a world title contender in 1982 thanks to some great drives — notably in Detroit, where he won from 17th on the grid. His enviable natural speed kept him ahead of his illustrious new teammate on many occasions, but in the end he lost out to the consistency of Keke Rosberg and Williams. The team finished second in the championship for constructors while Lauda was fifth in the drivers’ championship, nine points behind Watson. Two seasons later, after some intensive development work on the TAG-Porsche MP4/2 turbo, the Austrian would win his third world title after an epic battle with team-mate Alain Prost, whom he beat by just half a point. This was to be Ron’s first experience of two great team-mates fighting each other for the title. It wouldn’t be the last.
“Bruce McLaren created the spirit of this team,” says Ron, his normally level tones betraying some emotion. “I only met him two or three times, but he was an innovator. He had that spirit and gave it to the team. His cars were always beautifully presented and McLaren always used advanced construction techniques. That is the way I like to do things. I have an obsession, almost a paranoid belief, in the core values of this company, the search for perfection. The vision changes, yes, but I’ve long been determined that McLaren will survive the downturns in grand prix racing and will keep sailing through rough or shallow waters. We’ve lost Brabham, Lotus, Tyrrell and many others over the years. I won’t let that happen here. Passion is a key to McLaren’s success. I am passionate about it and infect other people with that. Yes, I am emotional about it but emotion can be both constructive and destructive. I seek perfection, but I’m in control. I keep the emotions in check. You can’t make good decisions otherwise. I’m not a dreamer but we have achieved more than I could ever have imagined, both materially and financially. I have more than I could ever need, and I enjoy it, but never to the detriment of McLaren. Money is not important — unless you haven’t got any. My mum used to say to me, ‘There’s no point being the richest man in the graveyard’ and I do not intend to be.”
Back to business, to racing cars. Does Dennis foresee another ground-breaking project on the horizon?
“No,” he says, “because the public wants to see close racing and for that you need a level playing field. When we won 15 out of 16 races in 1988 it was a great thing, but maybe not so good for the sport. Also, the cost of innovation is very high, a huge investment. If the public wants to see close racing, the regulations need to be stable, and I am deeply concerned about F1’s future regulation. We have to reduce the gap between the big teams, the big budgets, and the smaller teams. We need to give the have-nots a chance to catch up, at least.”
Surely that must be anathema to this most competitive of men, one who is open about his overpowering desire to win?
“Look at the fan car, six-wheelers and active ride,” he says. “All have been banned. Anyone who comes up with that kind of innovation will have it banned. And I repeat, the public wants to see close racing, with an amount of overtaking.”
By the time you read this, the first race of the 2007 season will have taken place in Melbourne, Australia. We will have some idea whether the recruitment of Fernando Alonso and rookie Lewis Hamilton will help the team to rediscover a title-winning touch that has been absent since 1999.
“We have not, in the past, been in the business of making grand prix drivers,” Ron says, rising smartly from his chair and switching back to the day’s business, “but once you see a talent, there is a great satisfaction in nurturing it. We exist to win races, so we need the best possible drivers, though they might be more costly. With a young driver, you accept that you will often be repairing damage and there’s a cost to that. But Lewis will be an exception to that rule and I am convinced he will be a winner. But we’re not here to talk about the present. In a moment of weakness I agreed to look at some history.” He’s back at his desk, giving me his famous grin.
Ron Dennis travels by private jet. He is a multimillionaire, presides very precisely over a motor racing empire and is one of the most powerful men in his sport. But the man who was once Jochen Rindt’s mechanic is, first and foremost, an enthusiast, a man who cares about motor racing and its future prosperity. The cars are no longer orange, the Kiwi has gone and the original spirit might sometimes be swathed in a blanket of corporate correctness, but that is a reflection of our times, an era in which your local transport company has become a supply chain solution.
Ron is a racer and the will to win is undiminished. McLaren, I get the feeling, has an illustrious past but an even greater future.