The McLaren chief is back in charge and with him comes the expectation of greatness
Still perfecting his formula
It’s easy to see why Formula One is the most glamorous of all sports, motor or otherwise. The often exotic race locations, the high-level sponsors, the money and drivers’ ego clashes, the speed and the noise all combine to produce a circus like no other and, when the 2014 season commences in Australia on Sunday, pundits the world over will be keenly watching to see if their predictions have been based on fact or pure conjecture.
Will the new rules and car designs make for a more interesting spectator experience? Will Lewis Hamilton manage to shine like he once did? Will Red Bull finally have its nose bloodied by its rivals? Will Ferrari’s punt on its new driver pay off? All questions that will ultimately be unanswered after a single race when there are 18 more to go, culminating in Abu Dhabi on November 23, but there’s one missing: will McLaren get back to the top of the game now that Ron Dennis, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, is back in charge?
In 2013 McLaren endured its worst season performance since 1980 and, for Ron Dennis, it isn’t taking part that counts – it’s winning. So few people were surprised when it was announced, in January this year, that he was back in charge for 2014. There was just no way he could sit back and watch McLaren fail.
To spend time at McLaren’s UK headquarters in Woking, Surrey, is to peer into the inner workings of Dennis’s head. The simplistic and futuristic architecture of the Lord Foster-designed main building is an example of no stone being left unturned. It sits low to minimise its impact on its surrounding greenbelt environment. There’s a huge lake in front of it, which provides water to cool the equipment used inside, which is then recycled and channelled back into its source. When you enter the building, you’re greeted by a perfectly presented selection of McLaren’s most iconic competition cars (minus the Marlboro sponsorship liveries – Dennis can’t go encouraging visitors to smoke, after all), and see-through, cylindrical lifts provide access to the upper floors.
There’s a hushed, reverential silence that pervades what is still, at the end of the day, a factory. The floors are gleaming white, no matter where you look, and glass walls and workstations that are never more than shoulder height ensure nothing escapes Dennis’s attention. There are no radios permitted, everyone’s desk has to be kept entirely bereft of the normal detritus found in work establishments and, should you wish to visit the factory restaurant for a spot of lunch, no matter who you are, you have to pass through a hallway where every single trophy won by McLaren since day one, in 1966, is on display. Even if you’re Jenson Button, you have to queue up for your lunch with everyone else.
Cold, clinical, precise, obsessed with excellence: that’s the McLaren way. That’s the Ron Dennis way.
Dennis was born in Woking on June 1, 1947, and when he was 14 years old he attended his first motor race at Brands Hatch in the UK. Instantly Dennis was hooked and took to spending time at the Brabham factory in Byfleet, where he made the tea, swept the floors — anything to be able to soak up the heady atmosphere of a Formula One race team.
After leaving school he partook in a vehicle technology course at Guildford Technical College and, once he’d finished that (at the age of 19), he went to work as a junior mechanic with the long since disbanded Cooper team, in the summer of 1966, where he worked on the car of the future F1 champion Jochen Rindt.
By the time he was 21, he had become chief mechanic to the triple world champion Sir Jack Brabham. Brabham retired in 1971 and Dennis formed his first team, Rondel Racing, with another mechanic named Neil Trundle. Funds for the start-up were ridiculously tight and the cars were either borrowed or on hire purchase but Dennis the perfectionist started out as he meant to go on, with a clinically spotless garage and transportation trucks. Rondel Racing got off to a good start in Formula Two and double world champion Graham Hill quickly signed up as a driver for the fledgling team.
Dennis might have been the boss but he was still getting oil under his fingernails (how that must have got on his nerves) by working on the team’s cars. But that had to stop when he was involved in a serious accident. Urgently needing spares for Hill’s car, an exhausted Dennis had driven his E-Type Jaguar through the night back to Rondel’s base in Woking. He fell asleep at the wheel and crashed, puncturing a lung, damaging his eyes and incurring severe injuries to his face, all of which hospitalised him for weeks.
“When you cannot see or move, there is little else to do but think,” he once said of the experience. “People don’t put themselves in a position where they switch the telephone off, close the door, sit down and [consider] things quietly. I had to. It meant, ultimately, that I couldn’t do my old job, so I managed instead.”
In 1975, he founded the Project Three and then Project Four race teams, both of which went on to enjoy success on the podiums, and Dennis was rapidly becoming a wealthy man. But Formula One was where he really wanted to be and, in 1980, Project Four merged with Team McLaren and became McLaren International.
Marlboro, the main sponsor of Project Four, had seen the huge potential possessed by Dennis and had brokered the deal with McLaren. John Hogan, who was a senior executive at Philip Morris, the company that owns Marlboro, once remarked: “Two things impressed me about Ron. The first was his conviction that nothing was impossible. The second was his remarkable clarity of vision. Everything you see in the McLaren pit today, the whole infrastructure, was clearly positioned in his mind back in the early Seventies.”
“I get a mental pain from looking at things that have not been properly executed,” Dennis told the Daily Mail four years ago. “Attention to detail is fundamental to how this company has grown. I’m perceived by outsiders as being in some ivory tower. I’m not, I know exactly what is going on. There are people in this organisation, and I don’t say this with any pride, who are frightened of me. That’s because they don’t understand me. I used to go to bed with the vacuum cleaner going because my mum wanted the house immaculate when she got up. That’s the ethos I grew up with, everything had to be perfect all the time. That’s why I am such a pain to live with. I don’t want chaos; my homes are my tranquillity bases.”
Tranquillity has definitely eluded Dennis over the years in his highly public professional life, but his private life was always kept that: private. “If you make a load of money, own your own jet, have homes in the mountains of Colorado, the south of France and Surrey, plus three wonderful kids and a good-looking wife who mean everything to you, then it attracts a certain amount of envy,” The Observer newspaper quoted him as saying in 2007.
He separated from his “good-looking wife” Lisa a year later in 2008 and he did leave F1 in 2009, handing over the reins to Martin Whitmarsh, but it wasn’t exactly “cold turkey”. McLaren Automotive had been formed as a separate entity, to build roadgoing supercars with which Dennis intended to take on the might of established brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche, and he had decided to oversee that.
But while the car company hit the ground running and immediately became a success, McLaren the race team started to wane and Dennis, having washed his hands of it, had to helplessly watch from the sidelines as Ferrari and Red Bull notched up win after win.
Dennis says he realised halfway through the 2013 season what he had to do. “There was only one of two options. It was either completely step out, or completely step in,” he told reporters regarding his return to the fray.
He had usurped Whitmarsh as CEO of McLaren Group and ended the position of team principal, hiring Eric Boullier as racing director. “The critical date was January 16,” he added. “I went home and I didn’t feel the way I expected to, until 24 hours later, and then everything came back. The passion, the enthusiasm, the focus. I felt like me,” before adding: “We are McLaren, and there is nothing more certain than we will win. How fast? How quickly? I can’t predict. But we will win. We are a great Grand Prix team.”
Ron Dennis CBE: love you or loathe you, it’s great to have you back.