A tidy prophet
The shiny decals of Rondel Racing might have caused a few sniggers in F2 paddocks 40 years ago, but Ron Dennis and Neil Trundle set new standards in team image – and they had the last laugh in the years to come
By Alan Henry
Forty years ago on April 17, Palm Sunday, the complexion of European motor racing took the first step towards changing forever. Two pale blue Brabham BT36 Formula 2 cars rolled out onto the starting grid at Hockenheim for the opening round of the prestigious European F2 Trophy, the key feeder series just beneath Formula 1 which had long since established itself as a bubbling cauldron of latent talent and promise for the future.
The Brabhams were driven by twice World Champion Graham Hill and Aussie rising star Tim Schenken, and by the end of the day Hill had finished second to Francois Cevert's works Tecno in the second heat. Eight days later, on Easter Monday, Hill stormed to victory in the Thruxton F2 international, putting Rondel Racing's name up in lights.
The men behind this audacious new operation were ex-Brabham Formula 1 teamsters Ron Dennis and Neil Trundle, and their sterling efforts laid the groundwork for the re-branded McLaren F1 squad which would morph from these modest beginnings almost 10 years further down the road.
On one particular visit to the Brabham factory, Dennis bumped into Hill, who was driving for the F1 team that season. The two men chatted and Ron asked whether Graham would be interested in driving a few races for the new Rondel operation. He agreed and duly contested the team's debut race. Rondel Racing had arrived.
Cars that were 'beautifully turned out' were quite a novelty in those oily-rag days, when the odour of Castrol-R hung heavy in the pitlane. Even the Rondel transporter was immaculate. Such fastidious care might have amused a few of Rondel's rivals, but it didn't go unnoticed, either, by the guys who mattered — the sponsors. They liked a tidy backdrop for their logos.
"That is true," says Dennis. "We were proud of our high standards of preparation, but that also masked the scope of Rondel's achievement to a certain extent. Here were two guys who had previously worked for Brabham setting out to start their own team with precious little in the way of resources. Things like that just were not done. It had never happened before.
"Ron Tauranac loaned us three Brabham BT36 chassis; we sold them at the end of the year and paid him the difference. So he effectively created a cash flow, but it was also good for him because we were the only [team] running his cars really competently. We bought the engines from Bernie Ecclestone, which had come back from the South American F2 Temporada series as deck cargo. They were covered in corrosion, but we tidied them up a bit and then went on to use them."
It had originally been decided that Rondel — an incredibly corny acronym derived from 'Ron' and 'Trundle' — should run a single F2 Brabham for Schenken, but then Dennis hit upon an idea that had the potential to generate valuable additional revenue for the emergent team. The financial structure of F2 at the time meant any team running an established 'graded' driver with a proven record of achievement in F1 or sports car racing would attract extra starting money from the race organisers.
With that in mind, Ron approached Clay Regazzoni, winner of both the 1970 Italian Grand Prix for Ferrari and that year's European F2 Trophy crown at the wheel of a Tecno. Negotiations went ahead, but then Ferrari works driver Ignazio Giunti was killed in an appalling accident during the Buenos Aires 1000Kms right at the start of the 1971 international season, and the Commendatore became nervous about permitting any of his contracted drivers to race for an outside team. The deal never came to fruition.
Instead, Rondel turned to Hill, but then young French F3 rising star Bob Wollek arrived with some tasty-looking sponsorship from the Motul oil company. So a third car was fielded and things really began to move.
Of course, the emergence of Rondel was accelerated due to the fact that Formula 2 in the 1970s had a higher public profile than either GP2 or GP3 do today because there were top Grand Prix drivers also competing, and that had several benefits.
"It gave fresh, young racing talent the opportunity to measure themselves against the best," recalls Dennis. "It also offered F1 drivers the opportunity to keep their hand in at a time when intervals between Grands Prix could be a month or six weeks, it boosted their income at a time when financial retainers were not stratospheric, and it gave the spectating public an extra chance to see their favourites racing more than once a year.
"It was also a shop window for team managers like myself, of course. As for F2's effectiveness in bringing on new talent, today's GP2 and GP3 series probably sort out the best newcomers as efficiently."
As far as long-term planning was concerned Dennis confesses that, to some degree, Rondel was flying by the seat of its pants. Yet quite early on the team had identified some trends and traditions which were worth keeping an eye on. So did Ron ever imagine that the road down which he had decided to travel would eventually lead him to F1?
"Teams often spread themselves wide in those days," he ponders. "I recall, for example, that McLaren was planning to build an F2 car for the 1972 season as well as F1 and Can-Am cars. And F1 drivers at the time would fill out their much shorter seasons with F2 drives. For instance, the 1971 European Formula 2 Champion, Ronnie [Peterson], was already proving a spectacular force in F1. And our own main driver [in F21, Tim [Schenken], would have finished third in the F1 British Grand Prix that year if his gearbox hadn't failed in the works Brabham BT33.
"So naturally, Neil and I at least held thoughts about F1 in the back of our minds, but that's where they had to stay. Remember, there were 25 Formula 2 races in this, the fifth and final year of the 1600cc regulations, so trying for success in F2 consumed all our energy and resources. Don't forget either that we didn't design our own car at this stage — in 1971 and '72 we ran Brabham BT36s and BT38s, though we did modify them as we saw fit.
"In short if this 'road we were choosing', as you put it, would eventually lead to F1 then we certainly wouldn't resist it, and our competitiveness in 1971 and '72 was encouraging — Tim finished fourth overall in our first F2 season. But don't think we were ever seduced into taking our eye off the F2 ball."
So just how important for Rondel was Hill's win in the Easter Monday 1971 F2 international at Thruxton?
"Important? Very," says Ron. "It went a long way to validating our team and our competitiveness. Most of all, it confirmed in mine and Neil's minds that the leap in the dark we'd taken following Jack [Br abham]'s retirement hadn't been a rash move.
"Of course, Graham was still a world-class F1 driver, so don't think we weren't grateful for his contribution. But Tim also did us proud. The fact that Graham, a two-time World Champion, was willing to drive for our untried team on an occasional basis speaks for itself, I think. He knew we were serious players, and he admired the thoroughness with which we prepared for our inaugural season."
Vet in so many ways Rondel was ahead of its time, both on and off the track. Early on Ron and Neil produced a promotional brochure outlining their aims and ambitions — in itself something of a novelty at the start of the '70s — and a timely sequence of events brought them into contact with someone well qualified to help.
The father of Dennis's former fiancee owned a large antique dealers and told Ron of a Ferrari owner with a taste for antiques who often visited his premises. Ron promptly despatched a brochure to the individual concerned who turned out to be City shipbroker Tony Vlassopulo, a great motor racing fan and a regular commentator at BARC club meetings. Tony took over as company chairman and helped greatly in smoothing out the ups and downs of Rondel's maiden racing season.
Schenken to this day has hugely positive memories of his three seasons driving for Rondel, his overwhelming recollection being that Dennis and Trundle were in effect engineering a sea change in the way people tackled professional motor racing.
"In those days, in terms of transporters, the best you could reasonably hope for outside F1 would be some greasy and grimy Bedford TK truck which had seen better days and was so filthy you wouldn't want to go near it for fear of soiling your clothes," recalls the 67-year-old.
"But Rondel's truck was immaculate and set the tone for some pretty merciless mickey-taking among those who thought Ron was a bit too smart. Some unkind souls nicknamed Rondel 'Team briefcase' or 'Team dream', but I think it's pretty fair to say that he had very much the last laugh as far as those detractors were concerned."
Tim's wife Brigitte also contributes to the recollections of those happy days by reminding us how immaculate Rondel's team base at Feltham, near Heathrow, was turned out, with spotless decor and upstairs offices overlooking the preparation bays. It was another sign of what we could expect from RD in the future, even though it was only for the 1973 season.
After winning the final race of the 1.6-litre F2 category in Cordoba, Argentina at the end of 1971, Tim looked forward to continuing with Rondel as an adjunct to what promised to be a busy '72 as a member of the Ferrari endurance racing team as well as remaining with Brabham in F1 now that Ecclestone had bought it.
"Foolishly I listened to Ron Tauranac, who advised me to keep clear of Ecclestone, so I left Brabham — a bloody silly thing for me to have done — and joined the Surtees team. That was the start of a downhill slide for my F1 career, but when Rondel indicated that they were going to build an F1 car for 1974 I had so much confidence in them that I vowed that I would sit out '73 if necessary so I could be in pole position for the new drive. Then came the fuel crisis and that was the end of that."
Five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell also had a taste of the Rondel magic in 1972 when he was hired to drive one of the team's new monocoque Brabham BT38s in the Eifelrennen at the Niirburgring. "I was leading but had a misfire that the team couldn't trace all weekend, so I had to live with it," he says. "Jochen Mass in the works March overtook me on the penultimate lap to win, but I got the fastest lap which I believe stood for a couple of years."
The '72 season also saw Carlos Reutemann driving for Rondel in certain races, plus Frenchman Henri Pescarolo thanks to added investment from Motul, while Schenken's great friend and Ferrari sports car team-mate Ronnie Peterson was signed up for the end-of-season Brazilian Torneio series, comprising three races on consecutive weekends at Interlagos.
Schenken bagged another final with the Motul M1 in 1973 at the Norisring, while Pescarolo won the Easter Thruxton classic at the start of the year on the second anniversary of where the Rondel Racing story seriously began. Other drivers during that final season included the blissfully talented Tom Pryce, Jean-Pierre Jaussaud and future World Champion Jody Scheckter.
Scheckter, for his part, thought the team was overstretched. "They were running five cars in some races," he says, "and I always felt that they were relying too much on Tim Schenken for chassis set-up work, but I suppose that made sense as he was the senior driver. To this day I've got one of the Motul M1s in my personal collection, but as I recall it was short on downforce."
Dennis regrouped to form three more teams in the late '70s including Project 4, which shared a sponsor — Philip Morris (Marlboro) — with McLaren. The sponsor was so concerned about McLaren's dramatic loss of form from its mid-70s high point that it insisted on a merger (really a takeover) of McLaren by Project 4 in 1980, or it would take its dollars elsewhere. Momentous times. McLaren had the good sense to come quietly after which, towards the end of 1979, Dennis briefed and bankrolled Indycar designer John Barnard to produce F1's first carbon-fibre chassis — a radical leap that wrong-footed every other team. It changed everything, just as Colin Chapman's first monocoque had nearly 20 years earlier and as Rondel had done in F2.
"Being immaculate was indeed part of our strategy, both for Neil and myself," says Dennis. "But you don't keep that sort of priority nailed down for decades, stretching into how we do business at McLaren today, without it being an in-built mechanism. So yes, I truly believe that to be professional you absolutely have to look professional. To look sloppy is to be sloppy."
On such a foundation the next generation of McLaren success was built.