Features - News Feature
NOVEMBER 1, 1996
The McLaren enigma
BY JOE SAWARD
Five years ago McLaren was so successful that one had no reason to disbelieve Dennis. McLaren and Honda - with drivers Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger - proved to be an extraordinarily successful combination. The McLaren-Honda cars won 41 victories in the 74 races between 1988 and 1992. Dennis talked about McLaren becoming a team which would never stop winning. When people pointed out that all empires in the history of mankind have ultimately failed, Dennis refused to accept that the same was inevitable for McLaren.
And then Honda pulled out of Grand Prix racing and McLaren's future went onto a rollercoaster. Dennis's first move was to try to buy his way to the best engine. The Renault V10 was dominant and so Dennis tried hard to buy Ligier's supply of the French engines. In the end he gave up and McLaren was forced to sign a customer deal to use Ford HB V8 engines in 1993. Senna refused to make a decision about 1993 and kept everyone waiting but he went on to win some magnificent victories thanks to incredible driving talent and McLaren's advanced electronic systems.
McLaren also humiliated Ford factory team Benetton by beating Flavio Briatore's men with inferior engines. It was clear, however, that the Ford V8 was not a match for the Renault V10 and as Ford wanted to stay with Benetton, Dennis began searching for a new engine supplier. He had long talks with Ford's big American rival Chrysler and in September that year Senna tested a Chrysler V12-engined McLaren at Silverstone. The Chrysler management in Detroit was confident that they had a deal with McLaren for 1994 and beyond.
Within a month, however, McLaren had signed a last-minute and highly controversial four-year contract with Peugeot. Chrysler bosses were furious.
The switch to Mercedes was McLaren's third engine change in three seasons and, as everyone involved in F1 knows, change is always disruptive for a Grand Prix team.
Back in 1988 McLaren had proved that a good team could overcome a major change. It switched from TAG Turbo to Honda engines and still managed to win an astounding 15 out of 16 races. But it was not the same in 1994 nor in 1995. Criticism was not slow in coming. When he had been in the dominant position Dennis had adopted an arrogant attitude and so when he fell upon hard times his rivals have enjoyed taking their revenge. It was - and still is - hard to find anyone in F1 who feels sorry for Dennis.
After the engine changes came the absurd relationship between McLaren and Nigel Mansell. The former World Champion wanted to make a comeback in F1 but by 1995 Williams was not interested in him. McLaren needed a driver. Despite the fact that Dennis had been an outspoken critic of Mansell over many years he signed a deal with the Englishman. It was a disaster. Mansell could not fit his hips into the cockpit of the ultra-slim MP4/10 chassis - and publicly embarrassed the team by sitting out a couple of races until a bigger chassis was ready. This did not work and the two parties went their separate ways after just two races.
The team collected only a few points but Dennis confidently predicted that McLaren would soon be winning again. His critics, he said, had got it all wrong. They did not understand F1 and time would prove him right. He spoke of "total support" from the team's sponsors and "faith" in the team. He spoke of a Mercedes Marlboro Mobil partnership which would last "for a good many years yet".
In theory the 1996 season should have seen McLaren return to the winning circle. The relationship with Mercedes-Benz was in its second year; the Mercedes-Benz engine was very good; the team had two good drivers in Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. There was no shortage of money. But success never came and a year after Dennis had spoken of "total support" and "faith" from the sponsors, the team's biggest backer Marlboro announced that it was giving up its 23-year-relationship with McLaren. Dennis countered by announcing a big deal from West cigarettes but there is no disguising the fact that the loss of Marlboro was a slap in the face for McLaren.
The lack of success in 1995 and 1996 has also meant that McLaren is under increasing pressure from Mercedes-Benz, which needs results to justify what has been a very disappointing F1 programme to date. Mercedes and McLaren both take special care in covering any cracks which exist between them, but there is no doubt that there is pressure on the team to find a better design team.
Dennis's critics say that McLaren has gradually dropped behind other teams in the race to design the best Formula 1 chassis and that, until recently, Ron Dennis would not even accept that there was a problem. This year at most of his special one-hour chats with the media at races, Dennis defended the McLaren chassis - without coming up with an explanation of why the cars were not performing. The argument was always the same: the critics do not understand F1.
There is, however, considerable evidence to suggest that the McLaren chassis problems date back to 1990. At the time Senna publicly admitted that the McLaren chassis was not the best in the field. That year he fought for - and won - the World Championship against Alain Prost's Ferrari.
"I did not have as good a car as he had," said Senna, "but I was able to get on with the team, with the mechanics and engineers, to put together things when it really mattered in such a special way that we were able to beat them."
That year Senna won six races, the following year he won seven but in 1992 he would win only three times as the competition - notably from Williams - became increasingly strong.
The MP4/8 chassis of 1993 worked well with the electronic systems available to the team but in 1994 there were complaints from drivers about the MP4/9 chassis. In 1995 Nigel Mansell had so little faith in the MP4/10 that he quit after just two races. The team worked incredibly hard to produce B and C versions of that car but neither made much of a difference. This year's MP4/11 has regularly been a second a lap and more slower than the Williams-Renaults.
On the few occasions when the McLaren MP4/11 showed well it was usually on circuits where engine power is more important and chassis handling is less of an issue. At no point did the car look like a winner, except perhaps at Monaco where David Coulthard harried eventual winner Olivier Panis to the flag in a most unusual race. But to finish second to a Ligier these days is not a glowing recommendation for a car.
In the last few months there have been well-founded rumours suggesting that Dennis has finally accepted that something needs to be done with the chassis and has been trying to sign up Williams's designer Adrian Newey. To date that campaign has not been successful - Newey is under contract - and that means that it is already too late for Adrian to have any fundamental effect on the design of the MP4/12 for 1997. Perhaps the McLaren design team will come trumps this time - but the past record would suggest this is unlikely.
This is a little unfair to the McLaren design team. They are not idiots.
"There are a good bunch of engineers at McLaren," says one insider, "but no-one is coordinating the whole thing. You need someone to push the whole project along, balance the input of the different departments and yell when mistakes are made. That just doesn't happen at the moment."
Dennis has long had unusual beliefs about the management of a Formula 1 team. While most successful Grand Prix teams have operated around one or maybe two inspirational - and often egocentric - leaders, Dennis argued that McLaren could be turned into a company which could not only survive but also be successful without high-profile individuals. His argument was that mutual respect and company ambition could be made to triumph. As part of this philosophy Dennis tries to avoid firing people or losing staff to others. If people leave, he used to argue, they were not doing the right job and it was his fault. This is admirable in many respects but human nature being as it is, there will inevitably be less of "an edge" because people are not worried about losing their jobs.
The irony is that McLaren was made successful by Dennis and engineer John Barnard in the early 1980s at a time when both were inspirational leaders: Dennis was quick on his feet and made a series of brilliant deals which put him on the top of the F1 pile, while Barnard took risks and built a formidable reputation as an innovator while at the same time being a very hard taskmaster.
When Barnard left McLaren to go to Ferrari back in 1986, it was an acrimonious split and many in F1 believe that it was this divorce which formed Dennis's attitudes towards designers. He did not want another star. He wanted team players. Barnard was followed by Steve Nichols - who was poached by Ferrari in 1990 - and then by Neil Oatley. A talented and experienced engineer at both Williams and FORCE prior to joining McLaren - Oatley has been in charge of a committee of engineers ever since.
There is no doubt that the McLaren management by committee style does not appeal to many F1 designers. The top F1 designers are all men with big egos, who think that they are right and everyone else is wrong. In many respects they have to be like this in order to put up with the stresses and strains of the jobs on their way to the top and they want recognition for what they achieve. They do not want to be part of some corporate entity. They are stars and wanted to be treated as such.
But are the critics right? It is certainly not an open-and-shut case. Dennis is a man of many exceptional talents. To have achieved what he has achieved is remarkable. McLaren is a formidable organisation with incredible production capabilities and a highly skilled workforce. The facilities are spectacular and there is no shortage of money. But all this is nothing if the results are not there and so Dennis's reputation - once shining bright but now a little tarnished - is once again dependent on the design of a car because that car will reflect the management structure which he believes so strongly in.
If the MP4/12 succeeds Ron will be vindicated.