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Features - Interview

AUGUST 1, 1995

Ron Dennis


McLaren was once the most feared Grand Prix team with a record of success which outstripped even the legendary Ferrari. Ron Dennis's group of companies - co-owned by Saudi Arabian businessman Mansour Ojjeh - had even launched itself into Ferrari's own road car market with the remarkable "McLaren F1" road car. Dennis was launching a World Land Speed Record attempt. But then everything seemed to go wrong. The racing team stopped winning; the supercar market dried up and the Land Speed Record attempt was put on hold. McLaren, it seemed, had lost its way. What does Ron Dennis say when he hears people make such accusations?

"I say that time will prove them wrong - and probably not much time either."

But the lack of success and the criticism must have hurt?

"I ignore it. It doesn't even register with me. If it was productive to use it as a motivating influence on my head then I would read it but it doesn't. It further emphasizes the lack of knowledge and understanding of the vast majority of people who either watch racing or are involved in it, who don't have a clue what it takes to win and to succeed."

But Ron Dennis is a perfectionist, it must hurt him when things do not go right, no matter what outside the company are saying?

"Yes, but that is frustration, which comes from an intolerance to accept that it takes time to do things to solve problems. I want to win each and every race. I want to win the next one."

So where did McLaren go wrong in F1?

"There are many things on the current car and on the engine which have been improved since the start of the year. If you can improve things you could have made it like that in the first place. In general terms, I have done a pretty well-considered mental post-mortem of the last three years and I am very comfortable with the decisions that were taken, at the time they were taken, based on the circumstances that prevailed at the time. That doesn't take away the frustration of not performing right now but it does allow me peace of mind in respect of the past. But, the past is the past although it can serve to give you an understanding of the future. What would you have done with the benefit of hindsight? I am really quite comfortable. I believe in our way, it pushes you towards a consistent performance and whatever that performance is we still have enviable reliability. We still have a team which is clearly disciplined and makes less mistakes than most. It still makes mistakes, but it is not the norm. The company culture is right. What we need now is the performance that should come out of our hard work - and it's coming. We have made significant steps forward."

This is all very well, but do McLaren's sponsors understand and accept the lack of success. or is there trouble brewing for the money-supply in the future?

"There are no problems whatsoever. We have had total support. I have had no fair weather friends. They understand. Of course they do feel comfortable and they want success. They want us to have the highest share of TV figures and all that, but they understand and they have faith. It is not misplaced. We will come back with a vengeance."

Can that be done without changing the engineering staff of the F1 team?

"Yes, but we will always change anything - at any time - if we think it is for the better. There is nothing that escapes that philosophy - including myself. I think I really shocked my people the other day when I said that in a post-race debriefing. I'd thought about it. I asked myself: "Is there anyone to do a better job than me?" I concluded that there wasn't, so I eliminated that option. That comment was made in a period when I was explaining that there are no Holy Cows in the company. There just aren't any. Even if we were winning every single race, if I could see something that could be improved upon whether it was an individual, a component, a part of a mechanism or a system it would be changed. That is why we were able to stay at the top for so long?"

Well does the existing technical staff need to be improved?

"There is a constant process by which we evaluate everybody on the outside and everybody on the inside. That is what you have to do if you are serious about running a company. That applies to all levels of the company. I saw a young chap working in another team and he was in a specific junior position but his motivation, his attention to detail and his commitment shone like a light. I phoned him up personally. He couldn't actually comprehend that it was me phoning. I said: "I think you could take a step forward with McLaren. Would you like to join us?" Now he works for us and the job he is doing is better than anyone in the pitlane. I watch everybody and everything all through my life. I drive myself crazy with trivial things, things that people don't even look at. I just want things as perfect as they can be. In my home I am just an absolute... I don't know how my wife puts up with me sometimes."

Some people say that the root of McLaren's troubles can be traced back to when Honda left the team at the end of 1992. Would Ron admit that he was taken by surprise?

"The situation with Honda was quite clear. Mr Kawamoto (the Honda boss) had a strong desire to continue in Grand Prix racing for another year. I felt that there was a strong possibility of that happening - for a variety of reasons, some of which came from direct conversations with him. Towards the end of 1992 there was a significant swing in the yen-dollar value and a significant drop of car sales around the world as we entered the recession. Even though his heart was in it and he wanted to go forward, Mr Kawamoto had the responsibility of leading the company and he took the difficult decision not to continue. It caught me out. In 1993 McLaren made the best racing car we have ever built. It won five races with an engine which was inferior to many others in the pitlane, including the team which was using the factory engines (Benetton). I think that was the best year McLaren has ever had, even if we did only win five times. We got the maximum out of what we had. It was then made very clear to us by Ford that we were not going to be able to use the Zetec-R in 1994 and it thus made no sense to stay with them. We went for what was a well-considered choice of Peugeot. I think we did a lot for Peugeot and they worked very hard for us and the results weren't too bad for a first year. I am sure they would have been better this year. The reality of the situation is that Mercedes is a stronger company, has a culture and a desire for things which go beyond just Grand Prix racing and that fitted exactly into the strategy of the TAG/McLaren Group."

Group strategies go far beyond F1 goals. Some people say that one reason for McLaren's F1 troubles was that Dennis spent too much time working on McLaren's other projects, notably the McLaren F1 road car.

"There has to be a degree of truth in it, but it is a very small degree of truth. These programmes were structured to function as separate companies, with separate management etc. And they achieved their goals. I believe the F1 road car is recognized as the world's best sportscar. We demonstrated just how fantastic it was at Le Mans. It will never be the commercial success that we hoped for because the supercar market bubble burst just as we entered it. It was bad timing. We still feel we achieved everything but that one commercial goal, so we will lose some money. Did it absorb my time? Yes, it absorbed some of my time. Was that the reason for our position in F1? Not at all. People don't understand. When we took the decision to do the road car I was really struggling for motivation in F1. I was thinking of retirement. I was thinking it is just not enough stimulation. We were winning everything and I needed another challenge. Now I have that challenge. It is to win again. We will and we are not just going to win, we are going to dominate. I am absolutely, firmly and totally convinced of that fact."

What about the Land Speed Record which has been shelved?

"Shelved is not the right word. It is in a sort of suspended animation. And the reason for that is that I don't think it is the right thing for the group to enter into a competition with Richard Noble. He is the current Land Speed Record holder. He is trying to break the sound barrier and he is English. It makes no sense because no matter what the outcome we would have lost. It is like Goliath against David. It is much better to wait and see what his efforts bring and if he arrives at a situation where he chooses to stop and hasn't achieved his goal then there is a very strong possibility that our programme will be reactivated."

Back in F1, you say that you need a total package to win. Right now a total package in F1 must include Michael Schumacher.

"I think that Michael is the best talent in Grand Prix racing at the moment and to attract him you have to have a car in which he believes he can win or which he sees making progress. That is what we are concentrating on. Of course you are running a bit against a time issue. As regards having an option for having him drive the car next year we have to get it sorted out within the next two or three races when he is in decision mode. On the other hand we are in the Mercedes Marlboro Mobil partnership for a good many years yet and we can be patient. Michael can be beaten and the best way to beat Michael is to produce a better car and a better engine - which is exactly the same thing you have to do to attract him."

Is there another driver with the same kind of talent as Schumacher for McLaren to sign up for the future?

"There are some talented drivers out there and I have very strong views. I have very defined and clear goals for next year - but it is impossible for me to think about sharing them with you!"