Features - Interview
DECEMBER 1, 1990
Understanding Mr Dennis: Ron Dennis
BY JOE SAWARD
"Motor sport journalists are really historians," he says. "They are reporting what is going on and colouring the picture in different ways -- some more accurately than others. The amount of time that we can afford to commit to communicating our problems is not only limited, but you don't feel it is a productive thing.
"Identifying and accepting a problem is a painful enough experience without spreading it before the world.
"We have tried to commit the amount of time to make the information coming out of our company more precise, more accurate and more informative. By the nature of the beast -- because it is normally a complicated situation -- the answers do not fit the bill. Much of the media wants the one-liner answer which can only be understood if it is explained in ten lines.
"I find there is a tremendous frustration in trying to communicate what we are about, trying to give people the time to undertstand us better, when in reality they do not want to know.
"They want to position the teams in certain ways and unfortunately when a team has a degree of continuous success there is -- especially in England -- a tremendous desire to knock you down. As soon as companies or individuals get built up, the next thing is to knock you down. I think over the years there has been a great deal of unfair criticism levelled at the company and the press always has the last word, you are in a no-win situation. You could perhaps argue that this is because of the positioning of the company as regards the perception of the public and the media.
"If it is the price that we have to pay to be consistently successful then we will pay it -- because I am not sure that it is possible to have both. I therefore tend to try to keep everybody's minds -- and my own mind -- focussed on what we are trying to achieve as a company."
And what is that?
"To remain competitive, to win each and every Grand Prix, to try to win the World Championship but, more importantly, to grow in a manner that will allow us to continue doing that beyond the life expectancy of any of the key individuals in the company."
The last year or so have not been the easiest for McLaren. After the domination of 1988 the opposition has chipped away and closed the gap. Is this due to complacency?
"We don't evaluate our own performance against the other teams," says Ron, sounding arrogant but not meaning to. "What we look at is our own performance compared to our own standards. There were times last year -- and a period this year -- when we knew that we were not doing as good a job as we could do.
"We were a little lost understanding one specific technical problem. Although the drivers were able to describe the problem they were unsure whether it was a mechanical or an aerydynamic problem. In circumstances like that it takes time to get the understanding and to effect the change that has the desired effect.
"As regards our perception of ourselves within the Grand Prix league table we don't even bother to waste time thinking about it. What we base our performance on is our own assessment of ourselves and we are most definitely not as good as we should be. There is no question about it."
How has that happened?
"It comes from lots of things," he explains. "The difficulties in keeping everybody motivated; the difficulties of handling the growth of the company and then the odd issues that come along -- like re-negotiating Ayrton's driving contract.
"The overall McLaren situation is tremendously complex -- not that we want it to be. We don't like complicated things -- but, in reality, it is very hard to get to be simple.
"McLaren's weaknesses stem from its future strengths. To qualify that we have, over the last two or three years, been going through a transition of how the company is managed and how the end-product is arrived at -- meaning the design processes, manufacturing processes and logistical support. We've just tried to make everything better and de-emphasise the reliance on any one individual -- including myself. Some people will say to the detriment of our performance.
"If we can get it right it will provide for lots of things. It will provide for any individual in the company to have a proper holiday which has got to have a benefit for the company. It will provide for that continuous competitiveness that we are seeking. It will provide for the sort of total security that we almost give to all our employees. I say 'almost give' but I don't think anyone in motorsport does a better job at giving the degree of security our company does.
"You see lots of companies going through difficult financial times and if nothing else they have to lay staff off.
"The down side of changing things is that it takes a long time to make it work. Often the change is for the worse and you have to arrest it and go back and get it pointing in the right direction. I think that there were within the company a lot of people who misunderstood my own desires for the company and in some ways were looking for the catch.
"I think it is sad to see racing team's biorhythmic performance according to the competence of the management or the drivers at a given time. I don't accept that. I don't believe there is any reason why we cannot win every race indefinitely. If we have clear minds and recognise our own weaknesses and, at the same time, have this sort of forward-planning and the growth in the company that will allow us to maintain the momentum.
"We do not accept that there will be a period when we will not win races. Why should we?"
"I think it comes from a lack of foresight, a degree of hand-to-mouth which normally comes through necessity and not enough effort being put into the future. I don't mean the next race or even the next year but the overall long-term positioning of the company. It takes a hell of a lot of work. The thing that brings the consistency is the values instilled in the company which everyone operates by. I have contributed to them, honed them, held them in position but they have evolved there."
"I think that in a company such as McLaren the credibility cake can be big enough for it to be apportioned in a manner which fulfils the ego-related desires of several people. If you are someone who has found within yourself what I believe are the important things in life then it is what you think of yourself that counts and not what other people think.
"I know that there is something to be gained from the pyramid structure but I think that what you end up with is a peaky performance, success followed by a degree of failure. We do not want to have success every three years, our objective is to have success every season. It is not easy. It's very complex and it is not made any easier by unqualified criticism.
"I think ambition is a tremendously positively-motivating force and all companies tend to have the corporate character affected by the ambitions of its management. But if the message is told often enough and clearly enough and it is demonstrated to be a good message then people will pick it up and carry it. That process cannot be achieved quickly. It is taking us some time and exposing a few warts but, overall, I think it will have a positive effect."
"The thing is that it is not a personal ambition. It is a corporate ambition and there are a lot of people in the company who believe in it now. There are still some cynics and some people who will never support it, but I believe that as time goes by we will firstly prove to ourselves that it is possible and secondly we will prove it to other people. We do not care about other people but we will do the job."
It is certainly an interesting concept and Ron has one big advantage when you try to argue against it. McLaren wins regularly.
Where the theory breaks down is with the drivers.
"The character make-up of top drivers almost certainly needs to have within it a disproportional element of selfishness," explains Ron, "This is coupled with determination, motivation and commitment which makes them different in their approach to doing their job. We have to accept it, but it is not really a problem because although I have tremendous respect for our drivers -- and a deep understanding of what they want -- in practical terms they step in and out of the car in a manner that is like stepping in and out of the company.
"They very rarely come to the factory because of the degree of testing and racing we have. There is just not the time. It is not a productive use of the time that is left. I would rather they rest than spend lots of time PR-ing it. It's nice to have them there and mix with the people occasionally, to understand what everyone has to contribute, but at the same time they are a little bit out of the situation. They are part of the team but not so much part of the company. It's a little different. Their interface with the company is 95% through the team and so this cultural objective is not really destablised by the different character make up of the drivers."
It's pure Ron-speak. But when you cut away the marketing talk it does make some kind of sense.
Thus far the interview has been a chance for Ron to talk about his theories. Now is the point to go on the offensive -- move the conversation around to the contractual negotiations with Ayrton Senna.
"Negotiations have a tremendous negative effect on the two key individuals," explains Dennis. "In the recent instance myself and Ayrton. It has a lot of effect on the engineers and less effect on mechanics. It is controllable, recognisable, but unfortunately unavoidable."
Why did they take so long?
"We are both very very strong negotiators," he fires back. "Ayrton is an extremely clever guy -- both in and out of the car. We both have an intense desire to attend to every single issue that can possible affect each other's performance. Therefore contracts are very detailed and elaborate."
What were the sticking points?
"That is a question for which an honest answer would take a very long time," he admits. "I don't want to give you a dishonest answer. What I can genuinely say is that the outcome was very good for both sides and all the matters were addressed."
Okay, that is a dead-end. Ron doesn't want to talk about it. Time to switch to another attack. Will there be any personnel changes resulting from the negotiations?
"In any Grand Prix team you are trying to improve the way things are achieved. Any changes which we may or may not make over the next few months would have been made with or without Ayrton being part of the team."
Yes, but were there specific changes included in the negotiations? This is pushing the luck -- and Ron doesn't like it.
"I'll only answer this question if there are no more on the negotiations," he says. I nod in agreement.
"No," he replies.
It is time to lighten up a bit. What is McLaren really like on the inside?
"In the work environment it's a very intense, very hard and demanding organisation to be part of," he says, "but we play hard too.
"I think that it can only get harder, but I hope in a positive way. In some areas we are not as productive as we would like to be and there are some areas where we are downright inefficient -- more away from the circuit. There's degrees of complacency at all levels -- mine included -- and we are working hard at trying to be better."
One thing that annoys many observers is the lack of emotion when McLaren wins a race. Racing is an emotional activity.
"If you have this enthusiastic schoolboy reaction to getting the job done I think by and large it is misread," he replies. "Ultimately it works against you. Our satisfaction for doing a good job comes within the privacy of the team. I can understand that you find it difficult to comprehend not jumping up and down, but we are only doing a job -- what we set out to do. We're not there on holiday. Of course we are suppressing the feelings, because we are being professional. When you see a doctor deliver a child you don't see him jumping up and down. He has a professional approach to something which is an emotional moment. That's what we want to be. The moment you stop being professional is the moment you start on the downward spiral to failure.
"There is satisfaction. The real afterglow on Monday morning is the enjoyable bit. When you win a race the job is not finished. There is one hour when the car can be excluded. This is followed by a very thorough debriefing with the drivers. At the same time there is a practical process going on with the car. One engineer is left behind to supervise and record all the vital statistics of the spent racing car. It's only when you have done all of that that you go 'Hooray'. You do that in a certain way.
"What we like to do, when we can, is go out for a meal together and have a lot of fun. We try to choose a venue where there are no other racing people so we can be the way we want to be.
"You might find it hard to belive but I'm a great believer in the end-of-term sort of thing. We traditionally host an end of season party in Adelaide. That will go on whether we win or lose in any world championship year. That's nothing about getting the job done, it's about having a bit of fun together and trying to finish the end of the year on a casual note.
"It is the right time and the right place."