Ron Dennis: 'We must improve our appeal. We might even race at night'

A power player at the wheel of change in F1 doesn't want to run the show himself. Nick Townsend meets him
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The Independent Online

Considering that the character at the lectern has just professed his antipathy to public speaking, Ron Dennis has his audience in thrall with such insights into his psyche. It is Monday evening and the team principal of McLaren is on his feet at Marco Pierre White's Belvedere Restaurant in west London's Holland Park, delivering a talk to an invited audience on the subject of "Power".

His words have a highly topical resonance. It is only hours after his driver, championship challenger Kimi Raikkonen, who had started on pole, was forced to retire from the German Grand Prix after his car had sustained a hydraulic failure on the 36th lap; and that only 24 hours after team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya had failed to join the Finn on the front row of the grid, having spun off at the final corner in qualifying.

For once, it is not the intoxicating vapours of burned rubber and fuel exhaust that Dennis inhales, but that of high-grade liquor. One of four Pioneers in the Park - the others include Olympic oarsman Sir Matthew Pinsent - the event is staged to launch Johnnie Walker Green Label. The whisky company's logo will feature on the cars of Raikkonen and Montoya from today's Hungarian Grand Prix (the European Union's ban on tobacco sponsorship meaning that McLaren have had to terminate their association with the cigarette brand West).

After the events of the weekend, which had conspired to propel Renault's Fernando Alonso into an almost unassailable championship lead, Dennis - had he not already revealed himself more of a wine buff - could well have felt like a good session with a bottle of his new sponsor's label. Montoya may have atoned, to a significant degree, by asserting himself sufficiently to claim second after starting at the back of the grid, but it had not been an auspicious weekend for McLaren.

Not that Dennis is prepared to dwell on the Colombian's aberration. "You're massively peed off, because you pay them a lot of money," he tells me, before taking the floor. "You expect them to earn that money by having a level of professionalism and perfection that doesn't allow them to make mistakes. But the important thing in motor racing is to maintain perspective. You have to try to turn all the mental negatives into positives. Use them as a motivating force, with the team, with the driver. Beating the driver over the head with a stick is going to achieve nothing. They go away, and mentally punish themselves enough, anyway."

Some analysts suggest that it is the admittedly commendable freedom Raikkonen and Montoya enjoy to take each other on - at Hockenheim, the Colombian was striving to claim pole from his team-mate - that contributes to such mishaps. "Both our guys are expected to go to the limit, especially in the qualifying round," responds Dennis phlegmatically. "That lap is a singular moment in a grand prix. It's optimum tyre conditions, optimum fuel load, optimum cornering speed; he is expected to go faster around every corner than he's ever going to go that weekend. Those factors can conspire to cause mistakes - and they did."

In truth, there are matters more germane to the whole future of F1 dominating his mind when Dennis arrives to deliver his talk. The Grand Prix Manufacturers' Association, of which only Ferrari are missing from the table of big cheeses in grand prix racing, and of which Dennis is a long-maturing piece of Stilton, is essentially demanding greatly increased income from the sport as well as considerably more input on technical issues.

The rebels have just revealed their manifesto and announced that they are seeking a meeting with the FIA president, Max Mosley. Any changes to the organisation of the sport must satisfy F1's ruling body.

"This has been two to three years in the making and should send a very clear message to the shareholders of the promoting company, SLEC, which is 75 per cent owned by three [investment] banks, 25 per cent by [F1 "ringmaster"] Bernie Ecclestone's family trust," says Dennis. "The message is: come to a point where there is a better and fairer economic balance, transparency and strong world-class corporate governance. If you do not come with us to that point, then we'll go to that point without you. That will happen."

Which begs the question, what odds Dennis to oversee any new world championship series? Now 58, he has been an integral component of motor sport since he was a teenager, firstly with The Cooper Racing Car Company; then, aged 21, as chief mechanic to Sir Jack Brabham. During the Seventies, he ran a succession of successful teams, before merging his own company with McLaren in 1980. In a quarter century, during which McLaren have secured seven constructors' world titles and nine drivers' championships, he has employed such diverse talents as Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, the late Ayrton Senna, David Coulthard, as well as the current pairing of Raikkonen and Montoya.

"I've seen and done it all as a team principal," says the man whose submission, together with Red Bull's Christian Horner, persuaded the governing body to recommend that disrepute charges against the so-called "Michelin Seven" who failed to start last month's farcical Indianapolis GP, should be dropped. "But one thing I don't want to do is run Formula One... just in case you were leading into that. I have no interest whatsoever in running the show."

Where he does want to make a contribution, however, is enhancing F1's appeal. "In five years' time, I'd like to see grand prix racing one and a half times greater in audience, with much more global reach," says Dennis. "I'd also like to see much better promotion, a better spectacle in the type of racing we have, and more teams involved."

He adds: "We have not discounted such extremes such as moving the timing of grands prix as we go round the world to ensure that F1 racing is available to the biggest percentage of our audience prime-time. That has even seen us consider racing at night, under floodlights."

Dennis is chairman and CEO of a group which, as he reminds you, "is much bigger than just F1". "We are sports car makers as well. We make the Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren, three of them a day - that's £3m-worth of cars. My ambition is growing that part of our business and the McLaren brand. Inevitably, the best way to do it is to continue to win grands prix."

Which may require rather more reliability from his F1 cars? "The only reason that Kimi's not already won a World Championship is our failings in providing him with a car," he agrees wryly. "He's made his mistakes, no question. All grand prix drivers do. But every team goes through cycles. He's now fortunately in the up-cycle of McLaren, and he will win, in my opinion, many world championships. The world knows how good he is, but I knew that when I first employed him. I had to be patient while he ascended his maturing curve; equally he has to be patient for us to give him a car in which to win."

It was Raikkonen's maturity off the circuit which was a cause of concern for McLaren earlier this year when the Finn, who, with his wife, Jenni, a former Miss Scandinavia, enjoy a Beckham-style celebrity in their homeland, reportedly danced drunkenly with a lap dancer in a West End club. One columnist opined at the time that "those revelations will not have pleased Ron Dennis", a man whose demands as a perfectionist in all aspects of his life are well chronicled.

As the McLaren chief later relates to his audience, self-mockingly: "My wife tells me I am a compulsive-obsessive. I call it attention to detail. I have been known to straighten all the towels and all the pictures on leaving a hotel room, and I'm not joking. I am very difficult to live with. It's not easy to be around me."

Which suggests that such a stain on his team's reputation as Raikkonen's lap too far will have left him, well, less than impressed? "I know of only one grand prix driver who doesn't drink alcohol," he replies drily. "I know many grand prix drivers, especially at the weekends, let their hair down and have a good time. They go far beyond the boundaries that Kimi has explored. Far beyond."

But presumably he had a discreet word with the 25-year-old Finn? "I've learnt the hard way that you should never tell a driver what to do," he retorts. "I just provide opinions and guidance. Hopefully, my position in the company and the respect people hold me with, means they follow it. I would say that Kimi is a good listener to people who have his interests at heart."

Which is why, under his mentor Dennis, the Finn's career can continue to flourish. If not, you suspect there will be precious little sympathy.


Born: 1 June 1947 in Woking.

Motoring career: joined The Cooper Racing Car Company in 1966. Moved to Brabham Racing and became chief mechanic in 1968. In 1971 launched Rondel Racing and concentrated on F2 and Procar Championships. In 1980 his new company Project Four merged with Team McLaren Ltd to form McLaren Int. He is chairman, CEO and 30 per cent owner of the McLaren Group, and team principal of the McLaren F1 team.

Also: the phrase "Ronspeak" describes the business-oriented way in which he speaks during interviews. In 2000 he was given a CBE. The initials of McLaren Project Four (MP4) are used to number the cars, currently at MP4/20.