x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh happy to duck the Formula One limelight

The team principal enjoys life in the fast lane but relishes his time away from the track, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Martin Whitmarsh enjoys a quiet lifestyle when he is away from the Formula One paddock.
Martin Whitmarsh enjoys a quiet lifestyle when he is away from the Formula One paddock.

When it comes to Formula One's fastest-moving figures, we know an alarming amount of minute details about their lives.

We know Jenson Button recently had a tribal tattoo inked into his upper body, we know Lewis Hamilton has a dog called Roscoe and we know Sergio Perez is friends with Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez.

We know Mark Webber owns a pub in England. We know Sebastian Vettel adores The Beatles. We know Romain Grosjean used to work in a bank and Fernando Alonso is dating a Russian model.

In the celebrity-focused world of Formula One, we know everything. Or we know, at least, that we know a lot.

And yet whenever any of these famous faces achieves their target and finds themselves stood on a podium at any given race weekend, the first people they tend to express gratitude towards are their team: the men and women in the shadows; the men and women we know so little about. Some of these men and women, the drivers even call boss.

Does Christian Horner have any tattoos? Does Monisha Kaltenborn have a pet dog? Does Stefano Domenicali have famous footballer friends?

We do not know and seemingly we do not care. But is that the case or have we simply overlooked them because they are not young, ripped athletes who risk their lives for their sport's highest reward?

"Ultimately, the sport is about drivers, it's not about us old farts," Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren-Mercedes's team principal, said grinning as he sat down with The National.

Yet the Englishman is not completely correct: As his drivers are ever quick to point out, it's a team sport, and the 55 year old is, like all team principals, a key decision-maker in that team.

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On April 29, 1958, Martin Whitmarsh became the newest member of what was already a sporting family. His father, Kenneth Whitmarsh, was a successful professional cyclist who won British racing championships. His grandfather, Albert Lee, had been a professional footballer who reached the FA Cup final with Southampton in 1902 and was capped by England in 1904.

The young Martin enjoyed playing football and rugby as well as surfing, but his real passion was for engineering and aerospace.

He did not, he says, "grow up scribbling under my school notes pictures of racing cars", although by his late teens, a combination of James Hunt's derring-do and the introduction of carbon fibre monocoques had piqued his interest in F1.

"I had a technical interest and I liked sport, so it was a perfect combination," says Whitmarsh, who graduated from England's Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1980 with a degree in mechanical engineering before joining the aerospace industry, where he remained for 10 years.

He joined McLaren in 1989 as head of operations, a role he held until 1997 when he was appointed managing director of the English company's F1 division.

It was this move that saw him become more involved in the competitive side of operations, frequenting grands prix and the famous F1 paddock.

"If you're an engineer who likes sport and competition, there is nothing in the world quite like this," he says, relaxing into his chair.

"The speed of response is light-years ahead of most conventional industries, while the sport has the competition, the intrigue and all the human factors as well."

Arguably, it is the human factors that allow fandom to ferment and with official television figures suggesting more than 500 million viewers tune in regularly throughout a season, the sport is filled with personalities, both good and bad.

A stroll through any of the exclusive paddocks can open your eyes to several undesirable elements of F1: narcissism, sycophancy, autocracy.

Whitmarsh, having been appointed McLaren Group chief operating officer in 2004 and team principal and chief executive five years later, is now recognised often enough that he can rarely fill his road car with petrol without being asked by a stranger to talk him through the previous race.

And yet he has maintained an impressive humility. He is humble to a fault.

"In England, actually in most of the world, it's surprising how much you do get recognised," Whitmarsh, who is also chairman of the Formula One Teams Associations, says. "If you go out for the day, you can be recognised four or five times a day.

"Most of it is pleasant enough, but it's odd for your children because it's just their father, yet people want to be photographed with you or sign their cap or whatever.

"It creeps up on you. A few years ago when people said 'Hi Martin', I am so bad with names and faces that I thought 'I probably know them', so I felt terribly rude. What do I do: Bluff it out or say 'I'm sorry but I don't know who you are'? And you get a lot of people looking at you; it's strange. But I'm definitely Z-list."

Whitmarsh repeatedly insists his ego is big enough that he does not need the fame that comes with the job.

He says he looks forward to the day he can slip back into the shadows and regain his anonymity.

"I put up with it and I don't mind it, but I won't miss it because it does intrude a little into your private life," he adds.

For now, his solution has been to buy a small house on a French island in the Atlantic where he can escape the attention, drive his 1971 Citroen Mehari and focus on his family.

He has been married to wife Debbie for 34 years and is under no illusions that her willingness to travel with him to each grand prix has provided their marriage a vital sense of stability.

"How I managed to find a girl who likes Formula One, I don't know," he says.

"It was just a very fortunate twist in my life and it has made this much easier for me. She travels with and is probably better known in the paddock than me - certainly more popular than me. I try to be the good father and husband, but the job has taken priority at times and it takes a lot of time out of your life. "

The couple also have two grown up children, Ed and Harriet, who Whitmarsh says are "remarkably balanced regardless of the fact they were fathered by me", and a huge weimaraner dog called Harvey.

Whitmarsh owns a little boat and dreams of the day he will have the time and patience to use it to go fishing.

"I don't have an expensive lifestyle, so I could stop tomorrow. I am not fabulously wealthy, but in comparison with people, I guess I have earned a reasonable living for a few years," he says.

"I also know the things I enjoy: being with friends and family, walking the dog along the beach, being on a boat, chugging over to an adjacent island.

"I have a number of good friends in the paddock, but I have a life outside also. I still have friends from 30 years ago who are important to me."

Whitmarsh's closest friend in the sport is Pedro de la Rosa, the former McLaren driver who is now employed by rivals Ferrari.

For the past decade, the two men have enjoyed an annual skiing trip to Courchavel, France, even though "it has changed terribly over the years and I keep saying we have to stop going". He also, somewhat heartening, enjoys a strong friendship with rival team principal, Domenicali.

"You spend an awful lot of time being around the paddock and, as in any walk of life, there are plenty of complete idiots who you wouldn't want to spend your time with, but there are a handful of some really good people too," he says.

With McLaren enduring a poor start to the 2013 season, Whitmarsh's future has been brought into question.

The team, one of the richest in the sport, is now without a constructors' title since 1998 and this year does not look like ending the drought.

Having recently turned 55, he accepts that in F1 "you are not in control of your own destiny". He does, however, show some certainty when it comes to his post-F1 future.

"When the time comes and I am not here - and it might be of my choosing or might be my shareholders' choosing - when a grand prix is happening, it will be interesting," he says, adding that even now he only watches race repeats on TV if he knows McLaren win.

"I see lots of people come through here who get terribly screwed up about leaving and I really don't think I will because I have this balanced life.

"What I don't want to be and am determined not to be is one of those people who just drift around the paddock, wishing to be on the periphery.

"This has been a fantastic thing and massive in my life, but I don't just want to be hanging in there.

"If it is time to go, then it is time to go. Get out, wish good luck to whoever replaces you and don't get in their way because they will probably do it better."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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