Ron Dennis at McLaren: the end of an era?

Rumours circulate about McLaren boss's future. TG looks back at his stellar career

Is Ron Dennis’s time running out at McLaren? There’s growing speculation that he is embroiled in a bitter battle with his fellow shareholders for control of the company he took over in 1980, that has since grown into a motor racing, automotive and technology behemoth.

There have been rumours of boardroom discontent since Dennis returned to the McLaren Technology Group as CEO in January 2014. It seems that Dennis is determined to wrest back control of the Group, but hasn’t yet managed to secure the financial backing he needs to do so. Now it is being reported that his contract will not be renewed when it expires at the end of this year. A McLaren spokesman insisted yesterday that Ron Dennis is “categorically not stepping down. He remains contracted as chairman and chief executive officer of McLaren Technology Group”. The Automotive division is a separate entity.

The battle for the soul of McLaren is far from over, and makes Game Of Thrones look like CBeebies

Words: Jason Barlow

This is a story of intense personal and professional ambition, fuelled by some of the most quixotic personalities in the industry. Dennis has a 25 per cent shareholding in the Group, as does his long-standing business partner Mansour Ojjeh, the chief executive of Luxembourg-based TAG, with the remaining 50 per cent held by Bahraini sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat. However, Dennis has fallen out with Ojjeh, and has spent the last two years trying to raise the funds to buy out the Bahrainis. In 2013, he was reportedly in talks with the China Investment Corporation, and during a visit to the country as part of then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s business delegation, he said: “We consider this country to be a core part of the next 50 years of McLaren’s future. McLaren is looking to work closely with Chinese organisations as we seek to develop and expand the entire Group and develop a whole range of businesses in China.”

Last month, McLaren was forced to deny rumours that it was in “discussion with Apple in respect of any potential investment”. This week’s statement also insisted that “over many years, many decades in fact, McLaren shareholders have often entered into dialogue on the subject of potential equity movements and realignments, and Ron and Mansour have always been central to those discussions.”

Indeed. However, the battle for the soul of McLaren is far from over, and makes Game Of Thrones look like CBeebies. Dennis is a divisive figure, but so inextricably linked with the company it’s impossible to imagine it functioning without him. It’s his vision that has taken McLaren from a scruffy industrial estate in Woking to the gleaming Norman Foster-designed Technology Centre, where the company’s racing-derived materials and strategic know-how has been parlayed into the medical, military, retail and electronics world via its fascinating Applied Technology arm. His success in Formula One, particularly in the late 1980s, is well-known, his relationship with Ayrton Senna and the triumph of Gordon Murray’s 1988 MP4/4 a key part of F1 legend. The McLaren F1, meanwhile, remains the touchstone hypercar for the generation that was around when it was launched in 1993, perhaps even more so for the one that came after.

Your correspondent first interviewed Dennis in 1997, the year McLaren’s second imperial phase began, setting Mika Hakkinen on the path to two driver’s world championships. (The team’s constructor’s title in 1998 remains the last time they took the title that most matters to Dennis.) I was also summoned for a 45-minute interrogation following a piece I’d published in late 2004 suggesting that McLaren and Mercedes were getting divorced. Across his black granite desk, he thundered that it was all nonsense, and demanded to know my source. I refused to tell him, and was subjected to the famous Ron hair-drier. The story, of course, was true: the SLR venture had been problematic, and McLaren began buying back Daimler’s 40 per cent stake in 2009. By 2011, Mercedes was out completely.

Stories abound about the man: he dictates his emails, has banned personal pictures or artefacts on employee workspaces in the MTC, that facial hair isn’t allowed, either. But he is undeniably brilliant and charismatic. The day before TG became one of the first to drive the keenly-anticipated, daftly-named MP4-12C, he appeared unexpectedly, and regaled the small media group for 50 minutes. The famous Ronspeak was absent, and it turned out the hair-drier session six years before had left more of an impression on me than him.

Why risk diversifying to create McLaren Automotive? “Because Formula One is a precarious business. Since 1967, 107 teams have come and gone. I’m slightly frustrated that it seems odd to some people that McLaren should do an automotive project.” Despite his legendary devotion to technology, he was sniffy about electric power. “The simple fact is that hydrocarbon fuel sources are still the most economical. The take-up on all-electric power is going to be slower than some have predicted.” Of McLaren’s most obvious rival, he was surprisingly generous. “We benchmarked the 12C against various cars, but when the Ferrari 458 appeared we stopped benchmarking it against anything else. That’s a great car. But choose any value, any measure, and our car will exceed it. We have always been passionate about measuring things scientifically. And we can prove scientifically that ours is the best sports car in history.”

That became a notorious statement. McLaren has become more emotional since then, if wildly off-the-pace in F1. Now the pressure is on in every area. But we’ll say this: the car industry needs more people like Ron Dennis, not less. We’ll be watching this space with the sort of forensic attention to detail the man himself would approve of.

Top Gear interview from 2009:

TG: How and why have Mercedes and McLaren gone their separate ways to develop rival road cars?

Ron Dennis: McLaren’s first production car was the F1 – a car that is still regarded as an icon, an absolutely uncompromising expression of the state of the automotive art. The SLR – which, like the McLaren F1, was designed and manufactured by McLaren in Woking – is also a great car, but it’s a great car with a very different character. It’s a Mercedes-Benz at heart. I have recently been able to spend more time driving my F1 and the differences in my SL and F1 are apparent. The McLaren MP4-12C takes the technological and packaging inspiration from McLaren’s F1 and Formula 1 experience to allow ultimate driving experience in all conditions. During the concept development phase of the 12C, therefore, it became very clear to both Mercedes and McLaren that our performance car paths lay down different roads. The 12C is very definitely a McLaren. It follows the lineage established by the F1, not that established by the SLR. All in all, it’s clear both to us and to our colleagues in Stuttgart that there’s minimal crossover between their automotive brand and ours, and that consequently there’s ample room in the market place for our products as well as theirs.

TG: Can you define the McLaren brand? How will it be manifest in MP4-12C and subsequent products?

RD: There are two phrases we use regularly at McLaren: “good enough is not good enough” and “we do everything for a reason”. Combine the two and it ensures that we always aim to deliver the best products in all fields in which we compete. Their form must follow function, not fashion. Yet presentation is all-important. I love art every bit as much as I love science and engineering. Those values are reflected in everything McLaren makes. As a philosophy, I’d add two more elements: innovative big-picture thinking combined with incredible attention to detail. Those two values are often difficult to combine, and the combination is therefore a rare one; but to win in Formula 1, or be on the podium on average once in every three races over 40 years, you have to be able to combine them. McLaren Automotive has inherited that ability from our race team, and its cars will demonstrate that very clearly.

TG: Technology, efficiency, intelligence, and discretion: these are all core attributes of the new car. Is this what customers in this sector of the market really want? Rival products tend to be rather brash…

RD: As I say, everything for a reason; form following function, not fashion. I tend to think that some of the most beautiful designs ever drawn have been designs shaped purely by function. Look at the SR-71 Blackbird aeroplane; an incredibly pure and, in my view, beautiful form, but it was never styled. If a stylist sets out to create a beautiful shape, what he ends up with is an ornament; and a McLaren will never be an ornament.

TG: Does the near-mythological status the F1 road car has acquired surprise you?

RD: The esteem in which that car is held does not surprise me. We knew exactly what we were doing. We set out to break the mould and do something that no-one had ever done before, and that’s what we achieved. And I have no concerns about saying that we aim to do the same with the 12C – not replicate the F1, but deliver new levels of technology and performance in a sports car. McLaren was the first company to deliver a carbon fibre racing car, the first to deliver a carbon fibre road car and now the first to deliver a road car with a one-piece carbon fibre chassis as its nucleus. These technological stepping stones could one day deliver weight-saving and therefore fuel-saving technologies to the mass market. In the meantime they will offer a genuinely leading-edge high performance sports car to a broader audience than ever before. That is the legacy of the F1 in the 12C.

TG: What are your memories of developing that car?

RD: The experience of developing the F1 has absolutely forged our concept strategy and product plans for the 12C and all others planned in the range. To be ‘pure’, to be the best, and to excite and inspire our people at McLaren, our future retail partners and customers. If we can be talking about the 12C in 20 years from now with as much affection, admiration and pure passion as people talk to me now about the F1 then I know we will have done a great job.

TG: What characteristics do you personally enjoy in a road car? What sort of driver are you?

RD: I enjoy driving, and am really looking forward to driving the 12C in production form. It’s tempting to drive it now and be part of the development process from behind the wheel, but I don’t think that’s my job at McLaren Automotive. One of the most important aspects of management that I try to inspire in the McLaren team is that it is far more effective to focus on your own skill and purpose than to try and digress into other aspects of the business. That is why I don’t get involved in test-driving the 12C. I will drive it when it’s ready to be driven. As I said, I have had the opportunity recently to spend more time driving my F1 and I love it. But it’s not about driving it at full throttle necessarily. For me, it’s more about being smooth and consistent with the throttle, brake and steering inputs, to tailor one’s speed to the conditions. That’s how I enjoy driving and learning about a car.

I enjoyed the nitty-gritty of making split-second decisions during races – of course I did. But I don’t miss it

TG: After everything you’ve achieved, why now give yourself the immense task of building a whole road car company pretty much from scratch?

RD: I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a businessman. And I thrive on the challenge. One of the things I love about Formula 1 is that it’s a business that rewards entrepreneurship. It always has. Yes, when I used to sit on the pit wall at grands prix, I enjoyed the nitty-gritty of making split-second decisions during races – of course I did. But I don’t miss it. Besides, I want McLaren to be not only a world-class Formula 1 team, which it undoubtedly is, but also a world-class Group of companies, all of them regarded as iconic beacons of excellence in their respective sectors. I want to lead that process in the Automotive division and am absolutely committed to this project. You’ve seen the car now and I hope can therefore understand why it’s easy to get passionate about it? McLaren Automotive is a big part of McLaren’s future – the group and the people here. And therefore incredibly important to me.

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