McLaren lose the key

How are the mighty stalled! For a decade or more, Ron Dennis brought his team to the British Grand Prix as conq uering heroes: uncatchable cars, brilliant drivers, the firm expectation of vic tory. Tomorrow at Silverstone, no such luck. Martin Jacques and David Robson report
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The current condition of McLaren was poignantly symbolised at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last month. Ron Dennis, the boss of McLaren since 1982 and the originator of all its remarkable triumphs since then, had been invited to take a turn at the wheel of a Mercedes W165. This was the car that won the Tripoli Grand Prix in 1939, moments before war was declared, and had not turned a wheel since. Nobody who loves racing cars and admires the heroic history of the grands prix could fail to be moved by the sight and sound of Ron Dennis of McLaren driving the W165 and gunning the howling V8 Mercedes up the hill at Goodwood.

After a spluttery start and a bumpy take-off, the W165 limped a few hundred yards and expired before the first corner. Freewheeling, Dennis steered off the track and on to the verge and took off his helmet. In front of 70,000 people, he sat waiting for the rescue crew to arrive, his bald head reddening in the glaring sun with embarrassment and rage that were almost tangible from 300 yards away.

Finally, a truck arrived to tow him in. He steered the car towards the paddock, staring fixedly ahead without looking at the spectators. "Ron will be hating this," said a leading member of a rival organisation. "God help everybody within 20 yards when he gets behind closed doors."

Pride, arrogance, ambition, coruscating bad temper - all that rides before the fall: these are the constituents of the McLaren story as it is now working itself out. "Hubris" is the word. The McLaren story is not simply that of a team which used to win races and is now, perhaps temporarily, struggling: it involves overweening egos hungry for world domination; immense business interests; hundreds of millions of dollars; and, as a constant sub-text, issues of life and death.

From 1984 to 1991, McLaren's record under Ron Dennis surpassed anything previously achieved in a comparable period this century. The team won the world drivers' championship seven times and the constructors' championship six times. The greatest drivers queued up to drive Dennis's fluorescent red-and-white cars with their Marlboro logos for which Philip Morris paid scores of millions of dollars every year in sponsorship.

Dispensing those millions, Dennis brought together two supreme aces of the epoch, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. When they were not bickering or sulking or aiming at each other on the track, they won more races than anybody since Nuvolari or Fangio. In 1988, McLaren won 15 of the 16 grands prix: nobody had ever done that before; it is extremely unlikely that anybody will ever do it again.

When Ayrton Senna crossed the line at Adelaide to win the last grand prix of the 1993 season, McLaren passed Ferrari to become the team that had won the greatest number of grands prix since Formula 1 began.

A measure of Ron Dennis's personal responsibility for McLaren's success can be taken from the words of Eddie Jordan, founder of the Jordan Grand Prix team. In 1990, when he was preparing to enter Formula 1, Jordan tried to cast his imagination upward to the summit of achievement and ambition in the sport. "I know it sounds far-fetched," he said, "but I want to emulate Ron Dennis. He's won that many grands prix, he's won that many world championships, he's been on pole that many times and he's got the best drivers. Everyone hates him; but they only hate him because he's the best. I believe I'm as good as he is: I believe I'm in the same league; but only time will tell."

While Eddie Jordan's cars have progressed towards the front of the grid and his drivers have entered their names in the lists of championship points, time has told dramatically against Ron Dennis and McLaren. Since Senna won at Adelaide, McLaren has not won a race. This, in itself, is not a record: Ferrari last year ended a much longer losing spell; but the manner of McLaren's failure has been astonishing. The team that once rightfully prided itself on matchless organisation, skill, cunning and talent has been dogged throughout the past two years by mistaken decisions, comical errors and misjudgements.

Last season, McLaren cars ran Peugeot engines that all too often blew up in flames on the starting grid or the first lap. Dennis blamed Peugeot who, in turn, jeered at the design of the McLaren chassis and the team's less-than-ace drivers, Mika Hakkinen and Martin Brundle. This year, Peugeot engines went to Eddie Jordan's cars, which are finishing more races, and are more often in the points, than Dennis's McLarens, now powered by Mercedes.

Worse, far worse, than his awkwardness with engine suppliers have been Ron Dennis's embarrassments with drivers. Above all, the mortification of the damned that came with the Mansell affair.

Dennis signed Nigel Mansell for the 1995 season, for a rumoured pounds 8 million, but in a cockpit designed for Hakkinen, Mansell did not fit. He declined to race in the first two grands prix and demanded that a more commodious monocoque be built. It cost pounds 300,000.

When he finally drove at Imola and Barcelona, there was no joy whatsoever. Mansell blamed the car, and the team accused him of lack of commitment.

How could Ron Dennis have made such a mistake? Even more bafflingly, how could Ron Dennis have allowed such a car to carry the McLaren/Marlboro/ Mercedes colours this year?

When the new McLaren appeared - dry ice and a trumpet fanfare - at the Science Museum in February, it bore a stubby little wing behind the driver. Nothing like this had ever been seen on an F1 car and most experts struggled to see the point of it. In pre-season tests, the car performed poorly. Mansell said it was a dog. Hakkinen let it slip that the car was hard to handle in a straight line. By the time of the Canadian Grand Prix in June, the wing had disappeared; but its removal, together with Mansell's, have effected little improvement in the team's performance. In the French Grand Prix two weeks ago, Hakkinen finished seventh while Brundell, in the second McLaren, was 11th. The team lies fifth in the world constructor's championship, hopelessly out of reach of the leaders and even behind Jordan.

Now half-completed, the 1995 season looks as if it could be even more miserable than 1994 for Ron Dennis and McLaren: if so, will Marlboro and Mercedes stick with them? The Mercedes board might already have invested as much as $200 million in their F1 engine development with much more pencilled in for the four future years of the McLaren contract. Will they commit that investment to McLaren if the cars keep losing? Will Marlboro, who have supported McLaren since 1974, stay loyal? It is believed that the contract expires at the end of this year.

The team that once wiped the floor with the rest of the F1 world could be on the slide. The spectre of Lotus looms - once world leaders, they went out of business last winter.

Ron Dennis took over McLaren in 1982 with Mansour Ojjeh, the owner of the TAG company that has its name on wristwatches, among other ventures. As managing director and team principal, Dennis signed Niki Lauda and Alain Prost to drive cars powered by Porsche and designed by John Barnard.

The Dennis/Barnard partnership was a bonding out of Homer - two egocentric, ambitious talents locked together for mutual enhancement in mutual suspicion and hostility. Under Dennis's ruthless organisation, Barnard brought endless innovation to McLaren: theirs became the first team with a carbon fibre monocoque and the first with a four-poster test rig and wind tunnel. They were turning out cracking cars driven by proven champions and backed by the best organisation, the smartest team, the quickest pit-stops, the biggest budgets and an all-round attitude which said, "We will win."

In those years, Dennis set new standards of management in Formula 1. The company's headquarters in Woking embodied his style - the decor of an international hotel, the furnishings of the first-class cabin of a 747 and the spotless purposefulness of a hospital consulting room. It smells as if somebody goes round every five minutes with a scented air-freshener. The reception area is lined with the seven F1 cars that won the world driver's championships under Dennis. The offices are overwhelmingly grey. This is Dennis's choice. "It conveys a smartness," he says. "It is no accident that most suits are grey: it highlights colours very well."

No doubt all this has something to do with his background, his southwest London working-class roots. He was a mechanic who rose to become chief mechanic at Brabham before running his own team. He speaks with a strong London accent, and he is more than conscious of his background. "In Germany and France I am totally accepted by, for example, the Mercedes hierarchy. But here it is different. I am accepted for my wealth, my dress code, what I have done - and despite my accent. But that handicap gave me a charge, has made me determined and resolute."

By 1991, the business magazine Management Week had him on its cover with the question, "Is Ron Dennis Britain's best manager?" Nobody before Dennis had ever applied modern business methods to F1 team management, which he himself describes as being "Like a game of chess: you've got to get all the various elements right, the overall package: the budget, the designer, the engine, the drivers, the organisation." He doesn't mention his own personality, but that is crucial too.

Barnard once said that working with Dennis was "like being in a room all the time where there's a hand-grenade rolling around without its safety- pin and about to go off and make a horrible mess." Barnard is not, himself, famously long-tempered. Both under-educated London boys and chippy with it, Dennis and Barnard could not survive together; the firm wasn't big enough for both of them. They split when Barnard went to Ferrari in 1987. That was the moment when McLaren's most triumphant period began.

Ron Dennis picked up Honda's F1 engines in 1987 when Frank Williams snapped his neck in a car accident. Honda had been supplying Williams but they lost confidence in the team without Frank. In stepped Ron and took command of the best engines in the business. He also had the best chassis, for as long as McLarens were still following, developing and refining John Barnard's designs. And Dennis had the best driver, by far. The years of McLaren's pomp depended on a combination of Honda and Ayrton Senna.

McLaren's years of greatest triumph began when Senna joined in 1987: they ended when he left to join Williams at the end of the 1993 season. Nominally, McLaren was a two-driver team, with first Prost and then Gerhard Berger partnering Senna; but the team focused on Senna; and his relationship with Ron Dennis was McLaren's heart.

Dennis still hasn't recovered from the loss of Senna, which he suffered six month's before the driver's death last year at Imola. His usual style of speech is a measured blend of corporation man and south London kid. When he talks about Senna, however, he delivers straight emotion:

"Alain Prost was a driver of his time, like Niki Lauda. Senna transcended his time. He loved driving a racing car, he loved the knife edge. When he finished a qualifying lap, you could see the reaction of the charge, the exhilaration of having taken the car and himself to the limit.

"We were very close friends. We achieved so much together. We had much in common. We got into serious mind-bending, spending days and weeks over negotiations. Our relationship was so intense we needed a break."

Dennis finds the truth hard to bear. Senna left McLaren because he no longer believed he could win the world championship with them. He joined the Williams team primarily because they had Renault engines. He left McLaren primarily because they had lost Honda.

Honda's decision to pull out of F1 for the 1993 season caught McLaren and Dennis totally by surprise. For at least seven seasons, from 1986 to 1992, Honda produced by a wide margin the best engine in Formula 1 and for five of those years it sat in the back of a McLaren. "In the summer of 1992," says Dennis, "I thought Honda were definitely going to carry on. Only in October did the contrary become clear. I pursued the option for as long as possible because there were few others at the time."

Martin Whitmarsh, McLaren's director of operations and a possible successor to Dennis, is blunter: "We made a mistake in misjudging their intentions. We weren't properly prepared for their departure. The engines were taken away and we couldn't test over the winter, a crucial time. We had become too dependent on Honda."

In 1993, with off-the-shelf Ford engines, Senna's virtuosity gave McLaren five grand prix victories against the rampant Renault-powered Williams, driven by his arch-rival Alain Prost. By the end of the season, Senna bad an emotional farewell to his old team and signed for Williams. Ron Dennis still finds it hard to live with this truth. He says, "He wasn't happy with the move, apart from the car, which he never won in."

Niki Lauda believes that Senna's departure remains crucial to McLaren's present malaise. "Senna was a leader. He told them exactly what was wrong with the car. Hakkinen is not in a position to do that, so the reaction time is much longer. Senna motivated the designers."

McLaren entered 1994, therefore, sans the long-departed Barnard, sans Honda and sans Senna. Meanwhile, with the F1 team struggling to accommodate its new drivers and Peugeot engines, McLaren's corporate management had its eye on five different balls at once.

Ron Dennis has long harboured ambitions beyond F1. "I have a vision of satellite companies that supply Formula 1," he said, "and also spin off commercially from Formula 1." Peugeot, his 1994 partners, did not share this vision. "They didn't want other activities to feature in our relationship," says Dennis.

In the past five years, McLaren has announced grandiose plans to build a grand prix circuit in southern England, a technology park, a land-speed record breaking car and the ultimate road car. All these ideas have spun from the brain of Ron Dennis. The road car is the only one to have come to fruition, with McLaren cars producing the exotic F1 grand tourer which costs more than half a million pounds to the few - very few - who might buy it. McLaren F1s won Le Mans this year, in the most successful debut of any car in that race's history. This triumph, bought at measureless cost, may be the only happiness the project has brought to the company and Ron Dennis.

Watching these various commercial schemes take shape in 1992, Patrick Head - the technical director of Williams - said, "It begins to look as if they might be biting off more than they can chew: I do hope so."

While Williams have concentrated undeviatingly, year after year, on their F1 team, McLaren has increasingly in recent years been all over the place. Under the umbrella of a holding company in which Ron Dennis holds 40 per cent of the equity and Mansour Ojjeh 60 per cent, there are presently four companies: McLaren International, the Formula One team; TAG McLaren Marketing Services; TAG Electronics; and McLaren Cars. The grand prix team employs 250; marketing 15; electronics 100; cars 160. Five years ago, the numbers were 220; 10; 50; and 20. While the grand prix operation has grown by only one seventh, other divisions have increased eight-fold.

Dennis denies these activities have detracted from the racing team. "They take up a bit of management time, but not too much," he says. Operations director Martin Whitmarsh, however, admits the group "has become too fragmented. The group is in seven different buildings and the Formula One team is in three." In the next month or so, he said, they would announce a major new expansion programme from the Formula 1 facility which would enable McLaren to recapture its position at the front of the field.

It will take more than a flash new factory to restore McLaren. They painfully need an ace driver and an outstanding designer. There are no obvious answers to these needs.

Michael Schumacher's is the only name currently in Formula 1 to rate with the greats of McLaren's history; but, despite his long-term connection with Mercedes, he must be unlikely to join McLaren in their present form.

John Hogan, vice-president of European marketing for Philip Morris and comptroller of the Marlboro funds for McLaren, has said, "They need some design leadership. Barnard could be one solution but there are three or four other options. We need someone."

John Barnard remains the presiding genius of Formula 1 design. But there is still bad feeling between Dennis and Barnard, and Dennis would resist his return. In any case, Ferrari have Barnard under contract, and he is the technical brains behind their revival. "We won't let him go," says Niki Lauda. "He's the best designer in Formula 1."

Because speed of response, creativity and organisation are at a premium in Formula 1, the business is the original home of flat hierarchies welded together by a charismatic leader. Ferrari, Lotus, Williams, Brabham and Jordan are all exemplars of this style. At its best, it nourishes the talents of all the team members. At its worst, it amounts to tyranny in which every subordinate works in living terror of the leader.

An empire built on the ambition of a sole leader will fall with that leader. If McLaren is to recapture its former triumphs, Ron Dennis must reinvent himself or make way for another ego equally demanding. He says, "I will stay until we are successful again and then I will consider my position."

Eddie Jordan, the up and coming man of the decade, has adjusted the perspectives of his ambition since the callow days when he said he wanted to be like Ron Dennis. Asked to name the teams that might comprise the top three in three to five years, Jordan answered, "Jordan, Ferrari and Benetton. Williams will be there or thereabouts. As for McLaren, I just don't know."