Lunch with... Ron Dennis

Ambition, focus and an abiding passion for detail has helped the McLaren Group’s executive chairman build a high-tech empire that extends far beyond racing


Where better to have lunch with Ron Dennis CBE than in the McLaren Technology Centre, which houses most of the companies in the McLaren Group and over 2000 staff, including the F1 team. Curling futuristically around an artificial lake on a 180-acre landscaped site in the Surrey countryside, this immense silver and glass edifice is itself a symbol of everything that Ron wants the McLaren brand to stand for. It is curvilinear and partly subterranean, and the lake is itself an integral part of the structure’s sophisticated cooling system. It was designed by Norman Foster & Partners; but you know that Ron involved himself closely in every stage, from initial concept to final completion. For this is a man who likes to immerse himself in the detail. He is a self-declared obsessive, a perfectionist who believes that every element of a business, or a car, or a building, or a race strategy, or a deal, needs to be examined, evaluated and worked on until there is final acceptance that it is no longer capable of improvement. Compromise has no part in the McLaren DNA.

I have known Ron, but not well, for 40 years, since he was first running his own Formula 2 team. I followed his fortunes as he moved into McLaren, made it his team, persuaded the best drivers in the world to drive for him and the best designers in the world to design his cars, and started to win Grands Prix and World Championships at a prodigious rate. You only have to glance at what he has achieved, from relatively humble beginnings, to appreciate that this is a driven man. Anyone who knows him well understands that he is a complex individual, private, restless, not easy to get close to. But there is an integrity about him, a naïve idealism, which the exterior of the jet-setting Formula 1 boss does not quite conceal. It amounts almost to a vulnerability, a paradox in the make-up of this hard-nosed, relentlessly successful businessman.

The statistics of McLaren’s F1 record can be found in any reference book – 180 victories as I write, 152 pole positions, 149 fastest laps, 20 Drivers’ and Constructors’ World Championships. But in this context, it’s worth examining the record between 1981 and 2008. Ron’s first full McLaren season was 1981, after he’d managed to amalgamate his Project 4 outfit with the team that had taken titles with Fittipaldi and Hunt, but hadn’t won a race for three years. After 28 seasons, at the start of 2009, he stepped down as team principal, handing over direct control of the F1 team to Martin Whitmarsh. In that time there were 458 Grands Prix: McLaren won 138 of them, a hit rate of over 30 per cent. Of those 20 World titles, 17 came during Ron’s reign. So did 123 of the pole positions and 122 of the fastest laps.

But while all that was going on, McLaren was expanding in other directions. The road car company, McLaren Automotive, is now targeting 4000 units a year for its top-end supercar range. McLaren Applied Technologies is working on a variety of projects, ranging from developing sophisticated racing bicycles, via performance consultancy work for GlaxoSmithKline, to providing technical support for some of Team GB’s most successful Olympic teams. Then there’s McLaren Electronic Systems which, apart from aerospace and defence work, supplies highly advanced electronics across all types of racing, including every team in Formula 1, IndyCar and NASCAR. There’s even McLaren Animation, producing CGI-generated TV programmes with Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button voicing their own characters.

So this is not just an F1 team. It’s a group of companies founded on the philosophy of an F1 team – a philosophy that says that any development, however costly in terms of people, time or money, is justified if it can put you a fraction of a second ahead of your competitors. The entire organisation is subject to the same rigours as a team preparing their cars for the next race. That’s why Ron Dennis believes that every single detail matters.

Ron is 65 now, but he remains very much executive chairman of the McLaren Group. “I take ultimate executive responsibility for every action by every person in every one of our companies. But each of the businesses is at a different stage of maturity, each is run by individuals with different levels of experience and knowledge. So I apply my time where it is needed. Do I feel pain when we don’t win a race? Yes, acute pain. But that pain is 90 per cent the racer in me and only 10 per cent managerial responsibility, because in the case of McLaren Racing that is delegated to Martin Whitmarsh as CEO, Jonathan Neale as managing director, and on down through a defined structure: Sam Michael as sporting director, Dave Redding as team manager, technical director Paddy Lowe, engineering director Tim Goss, design and development director Neil Oatley, and so on.


Experience with Jack Brabham inspired Dennis to run his own team as the young mechanic took on more management duties

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“Martin has been with McLaren for 23 years. He’s fiercely competitive and ambitious, he has a tremendous brain and a huge appetite for work. And he believes as passionately as I do in the principles on which we’ve built McLaren over the years. His style is different from mine: I can be overly aggressive, but that’s just me. Under his leadership the team has yet to win a World Championship, but that will come. I may give Martin my opinions, ideas, perspectives, and I think most of the time he takes them as wise counsel. But I avoid coming even remotely close to telling him what to do.”

From the archive

Ron was born in Woking in 1947, the younger of two brothers. “I was always fascinated by anything mechanical. I was an avid user of Meccano, had my train set, built plastic kits of villages. I remember my brother taking me to a Boxing Day meeting at Brands Hatch and being impressed by a formule libre single-seater with a big V8 engine. But it was the creativity of making things that drove me, not wanting to be a racing driver. While I was still at school I spent my weekends hanging around the Brabham workshop at Byfleet, and eventually persuaded them to let me make the tea and sweep the floor, just to get close to the cars. Two mechanics there, Tim Wall and Roger Billington, were nice to me, and took the time to show me important things: like if you’re going to do something, do it well. Be meticulous. Don’t think about starting a job until you’ve prepared for it, like a surgeon laying out his tools before an operation.”

Leaving school at 16, Ron started an HND course in motor vehicle engineering at Guildford Technical College and began working for Thomson & Taylor, the UK Alfa Romeo importer and part of the Chipstead Group. When Chipstead took over the Cooper Car Co, and moved it at the beginning of 1966 into the T&T premises in Canada Road, Byfleet, the youngster showed an early flash of entrepreneurial opportunism and got himself transferred for the 1967 season to the Cooper Formula 1 race team, helping to look after Jochen Rindt and Pedro Rodriguez. He was still only 19. “I worked such long hours that I had no opportunity to spend the money I earned. At the age of 21 I was able to buy myself a new E-type Jaguar with the money I’d saved.

“There’s a part of me that grimaces when people say, ‘Ron Dennis used to be a mechanic.’ It hits a nerve not because I used to work with my hands, I’m fine with that, but because people fail to see that wherever you start in life there is opportunity, like a crevice in a cliff, a foothold. As you climb higher up the cliff there is greater risk, and you don’t always have the opportunity to go straight up. I wasn’t affluent, so I had to get into motor racing through the back window; my only way in was as a mechanic. But I was very different from the other mechanics. I would work 18 hours a day, day after day, and I wanted everything to be done perfectly. I was fastidious beyond belief.”


Jochen Rindt was responsible for bringing Dennis from Cooper to Brabham after the 1967 season

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Jochen Rindt approved of the young mechanic who kept his car so immaculate, and when he moved from Cooper to Brabham for the 1968 season he arranged for Ron to follow him. When Rindt switched to Lotus Ron began to look after Jack Brabham’s cars. And always part of his mind was thinking of his next move, looking for the next crevice that would help him to climb further up the cliff.

“In 1970 the last two Grands Prix were America and Mexico. In those days the cars made their way down from Watkins Glen to Mexico City by road, so we had some free days in Acapulco while we waited for the cars to arrive. Jack Brabham had rushed back to England straight after Watkins Glen and left me in charge of everything, including collecting and looking after the team’s start and prize money. I remember lying by the pool in Acapulco, with the money in the hotel safe, and by then I knew Jack was going to retire after Mexico, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. And then it came to me. I was doing everything necessary to run a team, but I was just getting paid a wage. Why didn’t I do it for myself, and make my own race team? The fact that I didn’t have any money was just one of the challenges I knew I had to meet.

“Various privateers were representing Brabham in Formula 2, but I thought that if we could bring F1 standards to F2 we could do pretty well. So when I got back I asked Ron Tauranac, who was running Brabham now that Jack was returning to Australia, if he would loan me two chassis so I could start my own F2 team. He said, ‘I won’t lend them, but I’ll sell them to you at a preferential rate. And you don’t have to pay me until you sell them at the end of the season.’ It was very generous of him; he made it possible for me to get started. I bought some secondhand engines on HP from Bernie Ecclestone that had come back from the Argentine Temporada Series as deck cargo, covered with corrosion, and a converted horsebox as a transporter. Fellow Brabham mechanic Neil Trundle came in with me, and we called ourselves Rondel Racing.

“I talked to the French driver Bob Wollek, who had some Motul sponsorship, and I lined up Tim Schenken, the number two in the Brabham F1 team to Graham Hill, for the other car. As we were building them up at Brabham’s Graham came in and asked us what we were doing. I told him about our F2 team, and he said, ‘Would you like me to drive for you?’ He negotiated his own start money and paid us our share. We got a third chassis from Tauranac, and now we were a three-car team with a World Champion on the strength. Our first race was Hockenheim: Graham was second and Tim was fifth. A week later at Thruxton Graham won.” Team boss R. Dennis was then all of 23 years old.

“Around this time a friend of mine who was a conference organiser invited me to a two-day seminar hosted by Edward de Bono. Those two days introduced me to what de Bono calls lateral thinking, and they had a massive effect on my life. De Bono demonstrated that thought is not linear by necessity. From childhood we’re taught to think in straight lines, domino fashion, but he showed how you can get a competitive advantage by thinking laterally – out of the box, as they say now. I learned that not only do you have to de-clutter your mind and put yourself in the right frame of mind to think; you also have to understand how to think. It’s like playing chess: before I make this move, I’ll think ahead to work out all the possible permutations that could follow it.


Fitting spindly wing struts on Brabham at the 1969 Race of Champions

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“But strangely enough, what helped to push me into management was that I crashed my E-type. I was driving tired after weeks of working round the clock, and I fell asleep. I went through the windscreen, damaged my eyes and lacerated my face very badly. I was in hospital for several weeks, and I wasn’t able to do anything physical for some time. From then on I managed the team and was no longer a mechanic.”

From the start Rondel Racing was a force in F2, and as they became more ambitious – four cars in 1972 for Schenken, Henri Pescarolo, Carlos Reutemann and Wollek, up to six in 1972 with Jody Scheckter briefly joining the driver strength – Ron’s soaring ambition was already aiming higher. Rondel took over premises in Feltham which were refurbished to Ron’s exacting standards, and Ron asked Ray Jessop to design him a Formula 1 car. It was to be called the Motul, as the French petrol giant had agreed to back the project.

“Then came the 1973 oil crisis. Motul pulled out – owing us money – and that really collapsed us. I thought it was the end of the world, until I realised that going home and crying my eyes out wasn’t going to get the job done. Then two things happened. First, out of the blue Graham Hill phoned up saying he was starting an F1 team with money from Embassy, the cigarette brand, and he needed premises. I sold our building to him so well that it paid all our outstanding bills. Neil Trundle went off with the F1 project and it became the Token, and actually raced in the hands of Tom Pryce. Neil, by the way, eventually came back to McLaren, and he’s still with us.”

The second thing, while Ron was pondering his next move, was an approach from Marlboro. “To help their markets in South America, they were proposing to run two slow Ecuadorian drivers in the 1974 Formula 2 season. They’d ordered a couple of Surtees chassis, and they wanted me to run them. I said, ‘I know I’m a bit on my back heels here, but I’m not going to do that.’ Then they said those magic words: Name your price. I thought of a silly number and quadrupled it, thinking that’d make them go away. In today’s terms it would be about $10 million. Marlboro thought about it, and the next day they said yes. So we ran these two no-hope guys, and after a few races I persuaded one of them [Fausto Morello] to give up, and told Marlboro that if we put a decent driver, Tim Schenken, in his car the other one [Guillermo Ortega] might pick up some tips. We had some good races with Tim, and that year earned me enough money to start again properly.”


Rondel Racing quickly became a force in F2 – it had three cars entered for the 1971 race at Rouen

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Ron called his 1975 team Project Three, running F2 Marches for Vittorio Brambilla and other Italian drivers, and in 1976 this became Project Four Racing. Money was still tight and it was a tough struggle. But his cars, always the most immaculate on the grid, were F2 front-runners for the next four seasons, and he expanded into Formula 3 also, winning the British Championship two years running with Chico Serra and Stefan Johansson. Then came his next big break.

“BMW competitions boss Jochen Neerpasch dreamed up a one-make formula called Procar, using their mid-engined GT car, the M1. The idea was to run Procar races at Grand Prix weekends, with the fastest five F1 qualifiers from Friday getting guest drives and joining the regulars. They needed 40 cars to be built, in a big hurry, and decided to get Lamborghini to build half of them and asked me to build the other half. The money was very good, so I dragged in everyone I could find, all the capable people I knew, and we worked night and day in our small premises in Poole Road, Woking to build our batch of 20. We had half-finished cars under tarpaulins, juggling everything to get it done, and by the end all my guys were exhausted and ready to go off to the beach to spend the money I’d paid them. We were just finishing the last one when BMW called and said they’d just discovered that Lamborghini had only finished one car. They pleaded with me to do the rest. I had to tell my guys, ‘We’ve got to do it again – in half the time’. BMW had to pay me a mass of money to do it, and I began to think, Now I can get into Formula 1.

“I approached John Barnard to be my designer. He’d been with McLaren and was now working on the Chaparral Indycar project. I told him I couldn’t afford to pay him, but I’d give him a percentage of the company instead, and eventually I persuaded him. I built a design office for him, and one day he said, ‘I’ve been looking at the rear wing of the BMW M1. It’s made of carbon fibre. I think I can make a car out of that.’ So I began the search for a company with the know-how to make for us what turned out to be the biggest composite load-bearing structure yet built. In the end we found Hercules in America. So we were innovative from the start, with the first all-carbon fibre car.

“We had no sponsor and no drivers, but I’d worked with the Marlboro people in F2 and F3, and with the BMW M1 that Niki Lauda raced in Procar. I knew they were having a bad run in F1 with McLaren, which was run by Teddy Mayer then, and hadn’t won a race since the James Hunt days. So I went to Marlboro and said, ‘Why don’t you drop McLaren, give me the money, and I’ll build you a new F1 team.’ We called our car MP4, the P4 standing for Project Four of course, but the M stood for Marlboro. Everybody assumes that the M in our MP4 type numbers today stands for McLaren, and it does now, but it didn’t at first!


Project Four was a launch pad to F1 for both Dennis and Stephen South, with differing outcomes

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“Anyway, after a lot of consideration Marlboro said no. They felt they had too much money invested in McLaren, whom they’d been with since 1974. So I thought a bit more and I said, OK, I’ll buy McLaren. I don’t want the factory, I don’t want the cars, all I want is their engines and gearboxes, and their Marlboro sponsorship. They liked that idea, so we had a bit of a shotgun wedding, and I got 50 per cent of McLaren. We moved into a former electronics factory in Boundary Road, Woking, which was gutted and rebuilt to our requirements, and McLaren International was born, with me and Teddy Mayer as joint managing directors. The deal was done in September 1980.

“In the final Grand Prix that year, at Watkins Glen, Alain Prost had a big accident in practice. He had a bang on the head and had to miss the race. He said the suspension broke, but Teddy told everyone it was driver error. That so infuriated Prost that he decided to leave McLaren for Renault, even though he was still under contract. That really upset me, because that was a valuable McLaren asset going out the door. But I was able to use that incident to eliminate any remaining objections to the merger, because it was seen as the response from the McLaren old guard to Prost’s accident that had made him walk out.”

Ron’s response to Prost’s departure was typically ambitious. John Watson won McLaren International’s first victory at Silverstone in July 1981, but Ron quietly set himself the task of persuading Niki Lauda to come back into racing. He’d got on well with Niki when running his BMW Procar in 1979, but in September that year Niki had walked away from his Brabham F1 contract, saying “There’s more to life than driving round in circles,” and made a new life for himself running his airline. In great secrecy, some two years after Niki had retired, Ron persuaded him to come to Donington and try an MP4.


Dennis brought Lauda out of retirement for 1982 F1 season

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“He took the test very seriously, got his fitness man Willi Dungl to get him ready for it, and did a lot of laps. Then he said he’d think about it and let me know. I was expecting him to take at least a couple of weeks to make his decision, but as we were going back down the M1 from Donington in pouring rain, Niki suddenly said, ‘Yup, I’ll do it.’ A few months later he won his third race for us at Long Beach.

“He stayed for four seasons until his final retirement, and of course won the Drivers’ Championship in 1984. The thing about Niki was that he brought a mental and physical discipline to the job of being a driver that few other drivers had in those days. He taught me, indirectly by observation, how to get an edge by being always totally focused.

From the archive

For 1984 I got Alain Prost back – and Renault got their comeuppance, because for the first year I didn’t have to pay him. Renault were so upset by his comments in the press that they fired him, but they had to go on paying him for the duration of his contract, and for the first year I only had to pay his expenses. Lauda wasn’t too happy when Prost joined, but one thing about Niki is that he never, ever shied away from competition. However, he couldn’t believe just how quick Alain was. It got very tense because it was hard to get them to share data. Niki’s view was that he set up the car, and then Alain used his settings to beat him.”

The joint MD arrangement with Teddy Mayer at Boundary Road hadn’t lasted long. “Teddy and I agreed a review date when we would sit down and decide how it was going, but we never got there. I came in one Monday morning in 1982 and there was an envelope on my desk, and inside was a note from Teddy saying, ‘This isn’t working.’

“I went into Teddy’s office and asked him what he meant. He said, ‘You can’t have two managing directors.’ I said, ‘What did you have in mind?’ He said, ‘One of us has to buy the other out.’ I said, ‘OK, you tell me the price and I’ll tell you whether I want to buy or sell.’ He came up with a figure, and I went to [Marlboro owners] Philip Morris and asked them to advance me a percentage of my contracted fees over the next few years so I could buy Teddy out. I can’t remember now what the exact sum of money was, but even then, 30 years ago, it was over £1 million.”


Procar contract proved lucrative

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So now McLaren was Ron’s team. It was another major step up the cliff. “Of course there was risk, everything was always a gamble. One of the reasons I didn’t get married until I was 38 was that I felt I couldn’t be as courageous as I wanted to be if I was responsible for a wife and family, and putting food on the table.”

At the end of 1986 John Barnard left for Ferrari. In the three preceding seasons McLaren, now with its TAG-Porsche turbo engine deal, had won three Drivers’ Championships and two Constructors’ titles, and Ron had replaced the retiring Lauda with another ex-champion, Keke Rosberg. But in 1988 came another double coup. Ron managed to sign up both the hottest property on the driver market, Ayrton Senna, and the best engine, Honda.

“Persuading Ayrton to come on board was basically a matter of he wanted to win, and we had a winning car. He made it very much part of the deal that we would use Honda engines, because he didn’t think Honda would be able to get to the same level of competitiveness with Lotus. So we lobbied Honda, and we put together a superteam. Prost had mixed views: he knew he was going to get the best engine, but he also knew he was going to have to race against Ayrton.

“I managed that pretty well for some time, but it started to go wrong when they struck an agreement about the first corner of each race. The idea was that whoever was on pole would be able to take the racing line into the first corner, and the other would not force up the inside. Soon the day came when one maintained that the other didn’t stick to the agreement, and they fell out. Before the next race we had a test at that little Welsh circuit, Pembrey. I flew down in a helicopter, sat them in the back of a hired VW Kombi van, and got very tough with them. In the end they had their arms around each other, begging each other’s forgiveness. That created peace for a time until, as always, one of them couldn’t help himself. There were many small things, but what amplified it was that Alain was always followed around by the French media. Things he said to them got published and then, when translated to Ayrton, made matters worse. That was challenging.”


Barnard (left, with John Watson) designed F1’s first carbon fibre chassis

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Nevertheless, 1988/89 was a period of extraordinary domination for the team. With Gordon Murray now on board as Design Director, McLaren won 24 out of 32 Grands Prix, and both years took the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles by wide margins. The notorious collision between Prost and Senna in the final corner at Suzuka put their relationship way beyond repair, and Prost departed for Ferrari, but the domination continued for Senna in 1990 and 1991, now with Gerhard Berger as his team-mate.

“Ayrton was always very intense, very uptight. He had his own strong values and principles, and he always felt he was fighting the whole world. I conspired with Gerhard to make him have some fun.

“With Gerhard’s practical jokes there were no limits – throwing briefcases out of helicopters, stuff like that. That kept breaking the ice. It would always freeze over again, and then we’d think of another way to break it once more.”

It was during McLaren’s F1 engine relationship with Porsche that Ron came up with the idea of expanding into electronics. “At that time getting an edge in F1 was all about fuel consumption. We were using heavy, complicated Bosch electronic control units, and reliability was a big factor. I built a relationship with a Bosch employee, Dr Udo Zucker, and decided we should set up our own electronics company. Now every F1 car uses our electronics, IndyCar and NASCAR too, and the reliability is phenomenal. I can’t remember when an F1 car last stopped with an electronics failure. We produce monstrously complex systems which are so powerful that there aren’t many commercial applications for them, so we’ve also dumbed them down to make them suitable for more everyday requirements. Our real expertise now is generating ability to collect and process data in real time. We can simulate 6000 Grands Prix in one second, collect that data, transmit it by telemetry, and process it. A blink of an eye represents a billion calculations.”

Gordon Murray also persuaded Ron to manufacture his revolutionary three-seat, centre-drive, mid-engined road car, the McLaren F1. In the end 71 road cars were sold between 1992 and 1998 and, although from the start it was never intended that it should be raced, in 1995 McLaren won Le Mans at its first attempt, and ultimately 28 GTR racing versions were built. “The race cars were a distraction from the core objective, which was to build the road car, but there was a market slump. It definitely generated a lot of spare parts sales, which saved the programme, and cumulatively the whole project did make reasonable money. And now, of course, the cars are very valuable indeed.”

In 30 seasons there have been some two dozen drivers on McLaren’s F1 payroll, but a telling point is how long the team’s relationships lasted with some of its key drivers: like Mika Häkkinen for nine seasons (and two consecutive world titles), and David Coulthard for nine seasons. “Mika was the most loyal driver in the history of McLaren. As for David, as well as everything else he is such a thoroughly decent human being. When he and his girlfriend were in that dreadful plane crash, when the two pilots were killed, we spirited them away to my house in the South of France, kept them away from the media, and then a week later we were in Barcelona for the Spanish Grand Prix. We did a short media conference to say, ‘Please respect that he doesn’t want to talk about the accident.’ He qualified fourth and finished second, to give us a McLaren 1-2. I was amazed by his strength and his discipline.”


Watson took the new car’s first win

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Ron, understandably, feels that it would be inappropriate to talk about McLaren’s current drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, while they are busy with their 2012 campaigns and each successive race moves the story on. Jenson, of course, started the season with victory in Australia and, as Ron and I are talking, Lewis is about to score his third win, and the team’s fifth, at Monza. But Ron mentions his first meeting with Lewis: “It was at the McLaren Autosport BRDC Awards at the Grosvenor House one December. This 10-year-old karting kid asked me for an autograph, and said to me: ‘I want to race for you one day.’ At that time we were helping several young drivers through the lower formulae, and soon after that we signed him for our Young Driver programme. And, as with Lauda and Prost, and then Prost and Senna, we’re still running two World Champions side by side!

“I have a tremendous relationship with the people who have invested in our F1 efforts down the years. I don’t like the word sponsor, which has an echo of charity about it. To me they are partners. We sell media exposure, and an opportunity to contribute to brand-building for various companies. I enjoy building personal relationships with senior executives of big companies in different disciplines, because you never stop learning from the experiences of others.” Down the years those partners have played a vital part in McLaren’s growth, from Marlboro’s role in helping Ron get started, to Techniques d’Avant Garde’s investment. TAG CEO Mansour Ojjeh, a long-time friend of Ron’s, still owns 25 per cent of the Group.

Ron likes to point to McLaren’s role as innovator in countless areas of F1, not just with the use of carbon fibre. “People laughed when we first painted the floor of our pit garage at each Grand Prix, and then when we went one better and tiled it. We were first with fly-away containerisation, uniform trousers and shirts instead of overalls, overhead modules in the pits, bringing data onto the pit wall – all these things which are normal for F1 today were done by McLaren first. That’s aside from all our technical initiatives, from brake-steer to the F-duct.”

One time in McLaren’s history that we have to talk about is the 2007 season. During that summer Ferrari sacked its head of performance development, Nigel Stepney, following allegations that he had shown confidential technical information to someone outside the team. Then McLaren suspended its chief designer, Mike Coughlan, after his wife had been seen duplicating confidential Ferrari documents in a Surrey copying shop. It later emerged that both Stepney and Coughlan had had talks about taking senior positions with another F1 team, Honda. McLaren’s own internal investigations showed that no other member of the team had prior knowledge that Coughlan was in possession of the Ferrari data.

The FIA World Motor Sport Council, in a hearing on July 26, found that as a result of Coughlan’s conduct McLaren did possess confidential Ferrari data, but concluded that there was no evidence that it was used in a way that interfered with the World Championship. Six weeks later, citing the emergence of new evidence, the World Council overturned that decision, stripped the team (but not its drivers) of its points – and fined McLaren the extraordinary sum of one hundred million dollars.

Five years later, Ron retains his absolute conviction that the team did not benefit in any way from the actions of one rogue employee, and that at no time up to the point when Coughlan’s actions emerged was he aware of any wrongdoing. “Doubts were thrown on my personal integrity, but it is a simple fact that at every point in time I said exactly what I believed the truth to be. When I was told the size of the penalty that had been inflicted on McLaren, on the basis of what any court of law would deem to be circumstantial evidence, I felt that my only route was to go to the civil courts. But then I was privately told by two members of the World Council that if I did that, the punishment would be increased to a two-year ban. So against the loss of $100,000,000 I had to set the loss of all revenues for the entire team for two years, a far greater sum, and I had to take a pragmatic decision.


Dennis with a young Lewis Hamilton

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“I could never come to terms, and never will, with my belief that a deep injustice had been done. Nor could I, or can I, accept that the magnitude of the penalty was remotely proportionate. I felt it was vindictive.” He mentions the line in Tom Bower’s book, The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone, which quotes Max Mosley as saying it was “$5 million for the offence, and $95 million for Ron being a twat.” The feeling of deep injustice was redoubled when, three months later, Renault were found guilty of being in possession of McLaren data, and escaped any penalty whatever. For Ron, it defied belief. “That was a draining from our computers of our technology onto the servers of a rival team. Yet nothing happened.

“That year was also a very difficult time in my personal life, because my wife Lisa and I separated. We had been married for 22 years. But what does not kill you makes you stronger. Throughout all of this I had total support from McLaren’s shareholders, management and staff, and from my family too. I know the reality of what happened, and I am pretty happy with where I am. As it happens I had already thought during 2007 about stepping down as F1 team principal. If none of that had happened, and if we had won the 2007 championship – as we should have done – maybe I would have done so. But after that I wanted to stay with it until we’d won again.” Which they duly did the following season, with Lewis Hamilton and the MP4-23.

“My decision to stand down as team principal was only taken on the morning of the launch of the 2009 car. I decided as I drove to work that morning. I walked into Martin’s office and said, ‘Are you willing to be team principal?’ We talked for an hour or more until it was time to go to the press conference, and I said, ‘Martin, you’ve got to say yes or no, now.’ So he said yes. At the end of the press conference I just popped it into my speech. There was no pressure from anybody to do it – because if anybody pushes me, I just push back harder. But during 2007 I had reflected deeply on the failure of my marriage, and I felt I had to put myself in a different place. Also I’d grown ever more enthusiastic about McLaren Automotive, and believed it needed more attention than I was giving it. And I felt that Martin and I trusted each other.

“I still go to about half the races. Which ones I do attend is very much determined by meetings at those locations with shareholders or investors, and now of course the road car dealers too. As for my goal of 4000 road cars a year, it sounds ambitious, but you’ve got a world market of top-end sports cars, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bugatti, Aston Martin and so on, which at its height in 2007 was about 140,000 cars. For reasons we all understand it’s now dropped to about 80,000. So we’re looking for five per cent of the current market. We know – and I have to be responsible for some of this – that the McLaren brand doesn’t have much emotion attached to it. Emotionalising our brand for that market is a challenge, and it’s going to take time. We’re up against the maturity of the Ferrari promotional machine. But every subjective test we’ve done has demonstrated what a fantastic car this is. We’ll be on close to 2000 cars by the end of this year, which is ahead of plan, and we have two new models coming before the end of the year: a derivative of the 12C, which I think will be world class, and another car which will be more expensive and quite different.

“I still work pretty hard, and there aren’t enough hours in the day to address everything that’s on my desk. I don’t do e-mail. Too many e-mails are sent on the basis that if I don’t come back to you, you’ll assume the answer’s yes. I understand how it can be used positively, but most of the time it’s used negatively, so my e-mails are monitored by my PAs, and I don’t have a screen on my desk. I like paper, I can scan it, and I can see what’s gone before. I’m sure it’s frustrating for someone who’s waiting for an answer, but I like to think, I like to plan, I like to understand how each bit of the jigsaw fits together. Actually I have four PAs: two at work, who give me the 12-hour support I require during my working day, and two who handle my private life, running my home admin, paying the bills, and dealing with the fact that I hate shopping. I don’t shop, at all. Fortunately my creditworthiness allows for a shop to release quantities of product so I can choose at home.”

Now he is 65, what lies ahead for Ron? He has built up a blue-chip group of companies, and has made himself a very rich man. So what ambitions remain unfulfilled? “I still have a lot of ambition. Much of it sits outside McLaren, in the worlds of art and education. I am a passionate collector of contemporary art, and I love identifying and encouraging young artists of real talent. I have investment in a kinetic art company, and I’m proud of how well it’s doing.”

As for his passion for education, he is a governor of Wellington College and a member of the Imperial College Energy Advisory Board, and has been awarded honorary doctorates by three British universities. “I would like to see a technical university in this country that is better than MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the finest universities of its type in the world]. I have my own Foundation with which I try to make a difference to other people’s lives, people for whom nothing’s going to happen unless somebody does something. But I don’t want to talk about all that, really, it’s a private thing.”

He says no more on this subject, but my researches reveal a large number of families that Ron looks after in Ethiopia and Uganda, with the emphasis on young people getting education and qualifications so they can work and build careers. There are also children in this country whom he’s putting through private school and university. Then there’s Tommy’s, the charity which funds research into miscarriage and stillbirth, of which Ron is co-chairman and trustee. It now has a big permanent staff, with research chairs in London, Manchester and Edinburgh, and a helpline for young people who have become pregnant and don’t know where to turn. Ron does comment on this: “In that area we really do know we are making a difference. I know something of the immense trauma for parents going through stillbirth and miscarriage, because Lisa and I lost a child through it.


“I know I am obsessive about perfection. I am very focused. Focus is thought to be good, obsession is thought to be bad. But basically they’re the same thing. And then there’s ego. Ego is a core ingredient of ambition. Ambition and ego are close bed-fellows. And, like everybody I suppose, I seek happiness. It’s an uncomplicated objective. I don’t see happiness as laughing or clapping your hands. I see it as the opposite of unhappiness, the opposite of anger, of depression. If you can get into that state of mind, you’re going to be far more productive. What we all want is success.

“And what is success? It’s relief, relief that you haven’t failed. My biggest fear is failure. When you win, you can say, ‘Good, I didn’t finish second. I wasn’t the first of the losers.’”

That’s Ron Dennis, the same at 65 as he was at 25. An unusual man, complex, restless – and totally driven.


US Grand Prix, Long Beach
March 27, 1983

The 1981 British Grand Prix was not the most exciting motor race, but for McLaren folk it was memorable, for John Watson’s victory ended a dry spell for the team which went back to Watkins Glen in 1977, when James Hunt triumphed in the unloved M26.

Watson’s win in the Barnard-designed MP4/1 was notable for a couple of other reasons, too. First, it was the first win for an F1 car with a carbon fibre monocoque; second, it was the first since the new regime, headed by Ron Dennis, had taken over control of the company Bruce founded.

More memorable in some ways, though, was a 1-2 scored by the team at Long Beach in 1983 – memorable because it came out of nowhere. Watson and Niki Lauda, after all, had qualified 22nd and 23rd…

At the time the turbo movement was starting to put a stranglehold on Formula 1, and Williams and McLaren were the only leading teams still running the venerable Cosworth DFV – although Frank had a deal pending with Honda, and Ron was awaiting the TAG-badged turbo V6 from Porsche.

Problem was, Renault, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Brabham et al already had turbo motors, and enjoyed a considerable power advantage. Not surprisingly, it was on their quickest cars and teams that the tyre manufacturers – Michelin, Goodyear and Pirelli – chose to concentrate.

Michelin’s overwhelming focus was on Renault, which meant that its tyres were specifically aimed at coping with a lot of horsepower, and those of its teams running Cosworths – notably McLaren – had to make the best of it. In qualifying at Long Beach Watson and Lauda simply couldn’t get enough temperature, and found the ‘qualifiers’ no grippier than the race tyres.

The Goodyear-shod cars fared better, Rosberg and Laffite qualifying third and fourth for Williams (behind the turbocharged Ferraris, also on Goodyears), and the Tyrrells of Alboreto and Sullivan seventh and ninth. John and Niki were three seconds from the Williams duo.

Come race day, it was a rather different story. In hotter conditions many drivers encountered blistering, and from the beginning Watson and Lauda were right on the leaders’ pace, and soon began to make their presence felt. Tyre changes, not the norm back then, took way longer than today, and also the attrition rate was high, such as Tambay, Rosberg and Piquet accounting for themselves in accidents.

On the McLarens serenely swept. Their ‘turbo’ Michelins may have been too hard for qualifying pace, but they were ideal for 75 laps on a hot afternoon, and by two-thirds distance Watson and Lauda were first and second, which is where they duly finished.

“Don’t ask me how I did it, Nigel,” John said to me at the airport in LA that evening, “because I don’t know!”

Fast forward six weeks to the only other slow street circuit on the calendar, and the qualifying problem came up again. This time neither John nor Niki made it, and at the 1983 Monaco GP, astonishingly, there was not a McLaren on the grid. Nigel Roebuck

Australian Grand Prix, Adelaide
October 26, 1986

Of all the dramatic days in the history of McLaren, none has been more so than that Sunday in October 1986, when Prost took on Mansell and Piquet in the championship decider in Adelaide.

Through the year Prost’s McLaren-TAG had been considerably outpowered by the Williams-Hondas, and if he were in contention for the title, it was because he got the maximum from his car, because his racecraft was unequalled, and because he made fewer mistakes than his rivals.

Prost’s other surpassing skill in that turbo era was juggling speed and fuel consumption. In 1986 each car was restricted to 195 litres for a race, and it took discipline to remember that fact when some of your rivals were charging away into the distance.

Going into the final race Mansell was the heavy favourite: third place was all he needed, and he started the weekend right by taking pole, followed by Piquet, Senna (Lotus-Renault) and Prost. Rosberg, meantime, was preparing for his last Grand Prix, and he was resolved to do everything in his power to help team-mate Prost. After a disappointing season Keke was mercurial this day, into the lead by lap seven.

By lap 23, with Rosberg gone into the middle distance, Prost passed Piquet for second place, after which Nelson immediately spun. For McLaren everything was looking good, but Mansell continued to run a solid third, where he needed to be, and on lap 32 his prospects vaulted, for Prost suddenly slowed, his right front tyre punctured.

After his stop, Alain was way back, but immediately a series of record laps began. “All I could do,” he said, “was push as hard as possible. There was nothing to lose – even second place was no use to me.”

In the pits, Goodyear technicians examined the tyres discarded by Prost, and concluded that the wear rate was less than they had expected. Alain, though, was always uncannily easy on tyres…

For 30 laps there was stalemate at the front, Rosberg still leading from Piquet, a serene Mansell, and a charging Prost, but on lap 63, with 19 to the flag, everything began to change. First, Rosberg pulled off, a rear Goodyear in tatters, and at the same time Prost passed Mansell for second. Still, though, Nigel had a lock on the four points he needed.

From the archive

It was only a lap later that the outcome of the World Championship was settled. Mansell, flat out down the Dequetteville Straight, had his left rear tyre disintegrate, so now it was simply Piquet versus Prost, and each needed the nine points for victory to take them past Mansell’s total – to become World Champion. It truly was ‘winner takes all’, and now Prost was only two seconds behind.

The duel never materialised. After Mansell’s disaster, Williams concluded there was no option but to bring Piquet in for new tyres. Nelson stopped on lap 65, and was still in second place when he went back out. Now it was his turn to apply the pressure, but he made little impression until the last four laps, when Alain dramatically slowed his pace.

“From the halfway point,” he said, “my computer read-out had been telling me I was five litres the wrong side – that I wouldn’t finish unless I backed off. But I couldn’t do that because I was so far behind after my puncture, so I just had to hope that, for once, the computer was wrong…”

For once, it was. Although Piquet set another record on the final lap, Prost’s engine stayed alive, and he crossed the line four seconds to the good.

“These days,” commented Jackie Stewart, “you don’t often see a guy win a Grand Prix in a slower car, do you? But this guy’s won the World Championship in one…” NSR

European Grand Prix, Donington
April 11, 1993

Things were a little fraught between Ayrton Senna and McLaren at the beginning of 1993. Honda, with whom he always had a special relationship, had left F1, and Ayrton was none too impressed by the thought of racing the Ford HB V8 – particularly a ‘customer’ motor, with the latest updates always going to Benetton, Ford’s contracted team.

As well as that, there was a financial dispute between Senna and the team, Ayrton declining to sign a contract, and driving for McLaren on a race-to-race basis, keeping everyone on the hop. At Imola indeed, he arrived at the circuit only on Friday morning, minutes before practice began, having flown overnight from São Paulo. Perhaps it was unsurprising that he put his car in the wall within minutes of going out.

A fortnight earlier, though, there had been no mistakes at all. In the European Grand Prix at Donington, he had no answer for the Williams-Renaults of Prost and Hill in dry qualifying, but race day brought torrential rain, and in those conditions none could live with him.

Senna didn’t have the greatest start, being edged over the kerb by Schumacher, which allowed Wendlinger’s Sauber to get by, so that Ayrton was actually fifth at the first corner. By the last, though, he was in the lead, after perhaps the most stunning opening lap in Formula 1 history. At Redgate he passed Schumacher, then dealt with Wendlinger on the outside of the Craner Curves, went by Hill before McLeans, and finally outbraked Prost into the Melbourne Hairpin.

It was 80 seconds of concentrated genius in appalling conditions, and the race was already set. As the rain eased, then came down again, then backed off, Hill and particularly Prost were into the pits endlessly, changing from one tyre to another, while Senna continued like a metronome, far ahead in a race of his own. His best lap was more than a second faster than anyone else’s, and at the flag he was more than a minute to the good.

If any driver will be forever synonymous with McLaren, it is surely Ayrton, and this was one of his greatest drives – although he personally didn’t consider it comparable with his first victory, in the wet at Estoril with the Lotus-Renault in 1985. Why so? “This time I had traction control!” he said. But so, too, did most of his leading rivals… NSR

Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka
October 31, 1999

Whenever discussing his ‘first’ career in F1, Michael Schumacher unhesitatingly names Mika Häkkinen as the rival he feared most, and no surprise there. Many of their fellows, indeed, believed Mika fundamentally the quicker of the two.

That said, it took him way longer to become a winner. Schumacher’s first four seasons with Ferrari did not yield a World Championship, but he already had two in the bag – with Benetton – before he moved to Maranello. Häkkinen succeeded Senna as team leader of McLaren in 1994, but it was the beginning of a fallow period for the team, and not for three years did Mika register his first Grand Prix victory.

Once that was achieved, though, Häkkinen went on a tear, and in 1998 the World Championship distilled to a two-hander between himself and Schumacher. Off they went to Suzuka to settle the issue – and it was Michael who wilted under the pressure, who stalled before the off, then had to start from the back.

Mika was always at his best in situations like this. It didn’t hurt that second place to Schumacher would be enough for the title, but still a beckoning World Championship – particularly a first one – makes for stress. As it was, Häkkinen led from start to finish.

In 1999 the two of them renewed their duel, and again the thing ebbed and flowed between McLaren and Ferrari. At Silverstone, though, their battle was suspended, for Schumacher crashed, breaking his right leg, and putting himself out for some weeks. Now Häkkinen looked a short-odds favourite to keep his title, but although he dominated in Britain, Austria and Germany, he won none of those races – each time through no fault of his own.

Instead of scoring 30 points from three Grands Prix, therefore, Häkkinen’s tally was just four, while Irvine – in Schumacher’s absence, Ferrari’s mainstay – put 26 on the board. On straight pace he was no match for Mika, but the Ferrari was near bullet-proof. With six races to go, Eddie led the championship by eight points.

From the archive

Victory at the Hungaroring and second at Spa put Häkkinen on top again, but at Monza he threw away certain victory by flicking down a gear too many for the first chicane, and spinning into retirement.

At the Nürburgring Häkkinen and Irvine were fifth and seventh, but the championship fight truly ignited in Sepang, where Schumacher made his return. The Ferraris were unstoppable, and Michael obediently gifted the victory to Irvine, but at post-race scrutineering the cars’ bargeboards were found to be illegal, so third-placed Häkkinen was declared the winner – and also the 1999 World Champion, for his points tally, with one race to go, was beyond reach.

For a while, anyway. Six days later, Max Mosley announced that the FIA Court of Appeal had overturned the stewards’ decision in Malaysia, providing an explanation most thought laughable. “In Sepang,” one team principal drily observed, “the bargeboards didn’t fit the regulations – and in Paris the regulations didn’t fit the bargeboards…” Be that as it may, the Ferraris were reinstated, and lo, the World Championship was alive again. The TV companies really liked that.

So to Suzuka, where everyone – save Ferrari people, of course, and perhaps other ‘interested parties’ – was rooting for Häkkinen and McLaren. It wasn’t merely that some found the thought of Irvine as World Champion untenable; many more were sickened by what had happened in Paris.

Eddie was ahead on points, though, and to be sure of retaining his World Championship Mika had to win. I have rarely known tension within a team like that at McLaren in the hours leading up to this race.

The coolest man around, though, was Häkkinen: always perfect when it mattered, Mika seized the lead immediately, and kept it for the duration. Elation was afterwards unbounded. Despite the best efforts of some, justice had been done. NSR

British Grand Prix, Silverstone
July 6, 2008

Life was pretty simple for Lewis Hamilton in 2007, his first year as a Grand Prix driver. At 22, he had been part of McLaren for 10 years, and now he had been put into the F1 team, alongside another new recruit, Fernando Alonso. He still lived in England, wasn’t paid much, and thought about nothing but Formula 1. He was ‘living the dream’, he said constantly, and so he was. How many young drivers get to start their top-level careers in the best car?

Hamilton all but won the title that first season, and it’s arguable that he drove consistently better in ’07 than any time since. The following year, though, he did win the title – just – and at Silverstone produced a wet weather drive for the ages.

He didn’t start from pole position, though – indeed, in dry qualifying, it was his team-mate Heikki Kovalainen who set the pace, by a clear half-second, with Webber’s Red Bull and Räikkönen’s Ferrari also quicker than Lewis.

Come race day, though, it was wet – although ‘intermediates wet’ rather than torrential. Kovalainen duly led away from pole, but Hamilton was quickly on his tail, having dispensed with Webber and Räikkönen, and on lap five snicked by into Stowe. Heikki then spun, losing a lot of time, and Lewis’s serious opposition was confined to Kimi, who had closed right up on him by the time of the first stops.

It was these that settled the day. McLaren gave Hamilton a new set of intermediates, whereas Ferrari left Räikkönen on worn tyres, believing their meteorologists’ suggestion that the damp track would continue to dry out. Almost immediately it began to rain again, and Kimi’s day – in terms of offering any challenge to Lewis – was done.

Hamilton drove that race at an entirely different speed from anyone else. At one stage McLaren radioed him, beseeching him to back off, and that baffled him: “I wasn’t even pushing,” he said, “and I didn’t want to slow down, change my rhythm, because that’s how you lose concentration…”


And so he didn’t – and he won the British Grand Prix by well over a minute. Sometimes it’s so easy. NSR