A driven man in the hot seat

The Mansell debacle fuels the belief that Ron Dennis has over- reached himself. Richard Williams reports from Sao Paulo meets Ron Dennis
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The Independent Online
"YOU WANT to know how bad it is?" The man glanced over my shoulder, checking for eavesdroppers in the crowded pit lane at Interlagos on Friday afternoon. "I'll tell you. It's like a pilot missing the runway. That's how bad it is."

To most people, the story of Nigel Mansell's ill-fitting seat is a bit of a laugh. A free gift to newspaper cartoonists. Good for jokes about how he might be able to get into the new McLaren-Mercedes if he took his wallet out of his back pocket first. But elsewhere the reaction was very different. In the boardrooms of several multinational companies, the news represented a catastrophe.

Ron Dennis, the boss of the McLaren team, is aware that last year about 300 million people in 121 countries watched the televised transmission of each of the season's 16 grands prix. Coverage in news bulletins was seen by several times that number. These figures are the reason that a company like Philip Morris, makers of Marlboro cigarettes, are willing to put probably upwards of £20m a year into Dennis's team, since it is the only way they can still legitimately advertise their cigarettes to a mass audience.

"I loathe the word sponsorship," Dennis told me after practice on Friday. "We sell media exposure. But it's more complex than just putting a brand name on a car."

Dennis knows, perhaps better than anyone, that to justify such an investment his cars have to win races. After all, it was Marlboro's impatience with McLaren's lack of success that allowed him to gain control of the team in the first place.

That was back in 1980, when the people at Philip Morris engineered what at first appeared to be a merger between Teddy Mayer's ailing Marlboro McLaren team and Dennis's lean young Project Four outfit, also Marlboro- backed. While paying lip service to the old regime, Dennis brought in his own designers and his own car, and moved the factory from Colnbrook to his base at Woking. Within a year, the team were winning races again, and since then they have earned six constructors' championships and seven drivers' titles: three apiece for Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and one for Niki Lauda.

Now, 15 years after Dennis took control of a small organisation and turned it into a byword for obsessive attention to detail, the McLaren group employ 550 people in seven locations. Apart from the Formula One team, there are divisions concerned with advanced electronic research, with building the world's most expensive sports car, with mounting an assault on the land speed record, and with creating an industrial park to pioneer a new approach to working environments. And all this, the critics say, is the reason why last year was the first since Dennis took over that the team didn't win a single grand prix, and why the Mansell farce was allowed to occur. Ron Dennis may be a visionary, they chorus, but the visions have led him to take his eye off the ball.

If that is so, he has chosen a bad time. During the winter, at a lavish party in the Science Museum, he presided over the launch of a superteam, in which McLaren and Marlboro were joined by the oil company Mobil, said to be contributing £10m a year, and Mercedes-Benz, who are supplying the engines.

Mercedes enjoy a reputation for refusing to come second. "Ja, we really like to win," Norbert Haug, their director of motor sport, said to me. "We know what is expected of us." Their steamroller victories in the Thirties and the Fifties are part of motor racing legend. And they're still at it: last year they returned to Indianapolis to win the 500 for the first time since 1915.That IndyCar engine, made by the Northamptonshire-based Ilmor company, was designed and built for a single race, a perfect example of Mercedes's enthusiasm for taking pains.

It will probably take McLaren at least a month to produce a new carbon- fibre chassis for Mansell. But Haug tried to put the best face on the fiasco. "It was a mistake that we all made together," he said. "And the solution will show how we work. We say, OK, that was wrong. Now let's do it right."

The fact remains that Nigel Mansell will not be seen until Imola at the earliest. And for all Dennis's recent protestations, it seems clear that he did not want Mansell in the first place, but was forced to hire him - at a cost of £7m - by those who wanted to see an established star in the team alongside the promising young Mika Hakkinen. The car was clearly designed around the narrow-hipped Finn, in the expectation that he would be joined by another driver of slender build: Coulthard, Herbert, or even Schumacher. But Mansell it was, and now, instead of the inauguration of an outfit to match the great deeds of the past, Dennis is facing a salvage job.

His enemies, of whom there are a few, claim that it serves him right, since it extends a recent pattern which began with McLaren's unhappy divorce from Ford in 1993. That year, too, Dennis infuriated Chrysler, who thought they had a verbal agreement for McLaren to use their Lamborghini engines, only to find him signing a four-year deal with Peugeot. Chrysler promptly pulled out of Formula One altogether. A year later, Dennis was negotiating a premature break with Peugeot in order to form a liaison with Mercedes. Ford, Chrysler, Peugeot: three important manufacturers, all alienated by a man who insists that his concern for business ethics is paramount.

"My role is to assemble the best ingredients for the team," he said. "And if I can see a way to improve one of those ingredients, then it's my job to do that. But I have never broken a contract with any of the people with whom we have partnerships. Occasionally you find yourself in a contract that you no longer want to be in, and you have to negotiate an amicable solution. That's life."

But hasn't he shown poor judgement in recent times?

"Every decision I've taken has been the right one at the time I took it. But things change. You can live with a decision, or you can change your position. It can relate to business, or to your private life. Only a fool looks at himself in the mirror and says: `Every decision you've taken has been right.' But I'm comfortable with every decision I've taken, in the light of the information available to me at the time. The most important thing is not what people think of you, but what you think of yourself."

Dennis, who is 47 and began his career as a teenage mechanic with the Cooper grand prix team, nowadays speaks the language of the business-studies handbook: he talks about "global positioning", "vertical integration" and "layered manage ment". But he weighs his words carefully, and there was a 20- second pause when I asked if he didn't feel that his company's diversification might be taking its toll on the Formula One team.

"It's more complex than that," he said eventually. "When you've been successful in a discipline for a long time, you do sometimes find that you struggle for motivation. I find the best form of motivation is to stretch myself, and to stretch the company."

Stretching himself too thin, perhaps? If the McLarens do not start winning races soon, a key figure in Dennis's future may be Roger Penske, a 57- year-old former racing driver who gives his name to the Marlboro-backed team which carried the Mercedes engine to victory at Indianapolis. Penske is a partner with Mercedes in the giant Detroit Diesel company and in Ilmor. Most significantly of all, he sits on the main board of Philip Morris. From his base in Reading, Pennsylvania, Penske wields considerable influence within the companies who hold Dennis's destiny in their hands. Might the McLaren boss find himself in the position of his predecessors, of being removed?

"Well," he replied, "the first thing is that it's very difficult to remove someone who owns 40 per cent of the group."

But not impossible?

"No, not impossible. The second thing is that I believe in everybody at McLaren, and I believe in myself. I have, I suppose, a touch of arrogance about my personality. I recognise that. But it comes from self-belief. And I have total confidence in the future. I've made some wrong decisions, and I've effected changes. And I'll continue to effect changes until we're back to winning races."