Barnard on McLaren’s Trouble with Tribbles

Nov. 2, 2015 -- CBS Television Studios announced today it will launch a totally new "Star Trek" television series in January 2017. The brand-new "Star Trek" will introduce new characters seeking imaginative new worlds and new civilizations, while exploring the dramatic contemporary themes that have been a signature of the franchise since its inception in 1966. Pictured: William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk burried in Tribbles in STAR TREK (The Original Series) Screen grab: ©1967 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

I was speaking with a radio station in London ahead of the French Grand Prix, as I normally do on race weekends, and I was asked, “What’s going on at McLaren and is it as simple as having a car setup issue?”

That’s a loaded question as you can imagine and knowing my audience, a few hundred thousand Londoners who may or may not be in to F1 at the level that I am, or you are, I chose my words carefully.

The fact is, I said, that McLaren have more than just a chassis setup issue. They have what I suspect is a systematic breakdown internally that has been going on before Zak Brown got there. I don’t know this for certain, I don’t work there, but you can begin to see the fissures in the mid-2000’s and the board room battle over control of the company with the unlikely ouster of Ron Dennis, no less. The Martin Whitmarsh impact on the team cannot be overlooked and I would imagine that some employees feel it was the right direction while others disagree.

It is internal issue that is festering and found a convenient scapegoat in Honda for three years, but Toro Rosso has shown us that Honda may be different to work with due to cultures, they aren’t beyond making an engine and fitting it to the car. It started quite a while ago when someone brought a cute idea or concept on board and it began to multiply and become a major issue like Tribbles did on the Enterprise in Star Trek the TV series.

Former McLaren design man, John Barnard, feels the entire structure at McLaren could be the issue (or in my case, the Tribble):

“They’ve had this matrix management system installed by probably [former boss] Martin Whitmarsh, and you’ve got to break that down,” Barnard said.

“I don’t think that [system] works. You have to change the thinking.

“I don’t know how long that will take, [or] whether the team can survive that kind of a fundamental turnaround.

“Considering that when we joined McLaren in 1980 the problems I had then trying to change the way things were done, we’re talking about a fairly small operation [then].

“If you take those problems to today with the numbers of people there, I wouldn’t relish that job. It’s like turning an oil tanker.”

I spoke about the struggle for control and at the board room level that saw the back of Dennis. Selling a controlling interest in his team had to be a very difficult situation but sponsirships were difficult both owners, Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh, sold half their shares giving Mumtalakat a 30% holding. Mercedes held 40% but later sold and the Saudi investor ended up with over 60% of the company. This was also on the heels of Spygate. It was also common to heart Ron Dennis suggest that Martin Whitmarsh was putting pressure on him to retire.

Eventually Dennis moved out of the F1 spotlight, due to Spygate, and over to the road car division and in 2009, when Ron got there, Mumtalakat decided to support the road car manufacturing division full speed. This left McLaren with the F1 team/project, road car manufacturing and their applied technology division. This diversification is also what Barnard feels created the current troubles.

“I was always very worried about diversifying,” Barnard added.

“I know Ron’s idea was he wanted this big group of companies, this big mega operation and he would sit over the whole thing, and he achieved it. But I think he achieved it at the cost of the Formula 1 team.”

Barnard feels that Ron should have moved back to the F1 program much earlier as he is the man who could put the pieces back together. I believe that Ron’s departure from the F1 spotlight over Spygate was overkill and he should have remained, but perception is a fickly partner. Barnard said:

“I kept saying to Ron, ‘who is running the Formula 1 thing? You have to be back on the Formula 1 thing pulling it together; no one else can do it, just you’,” Barnard said.

“[Dennis replied] ‘Yeah I’ve got these guys and they’re this and they’re that’.

“I’m looking at McLaren today and thinking maybe if he’d taken a bit of that on board things might be different.”

The issues aren’t easy to define in the F1 program and no one is willing to say exactly what the problems are. Ultimately, it’s like the Star Trek episode where they have issue but for a while, no one knows they have Tribbles in the duct work. No one knows that the TRibbles are eating all the grain and doing so while looking nice and pleasant while doing so. Barnard believes the Tribbles started a while ago as do I and it must pain Ron Dennis to see his former company infested with Tribbles and trying to pet their way out of a bad situation.

Now questions are being raised about Eric Boullier and others and what the team will do now that Mumtalakat has restructured the McLaren group with all three divisions under McLaren Group Limited. There are 3,400 employees and a combined pro-forma annual turnover of £898 million in 2016. That is a lot of responsibility, but it wasn’t Zak’s doing, he’s charged with cleaning it up.

Zak is the proverbial Captain Kirk and you may be right in thinking that he may have transported all the Tribbles to Williams F1 because they’re having even a harder time that McLaren is this season. Does that make Claire, Klingon Captain Koloth?

“Damn it Jim, I’m a driver, not a mid-level manager” ~ Fernando Alonso in Dr. McCoy voice.

Hat Tip: Autosport

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True this and true that NC ! But even if there is squabbling at management level, matrix organisation ( I have been part of one in the past), the real question is the competence of the aerodynamics team at McLaren. They can’t seem to recreate errors and in turn solve them, as a result they don’t have a baseline. Even in matrix organization, there are center’s if excellence, unless you are suggesting that the rot is so deep that they have more managers than do-ers. Also I don’t know what’s expected of Eric Boullier,. Is he the tech leader …no… Read more »

Fast Freddy

The company I use to work for started a matix management system. We had a long meeting to explain it. Very confusing, so I finally asked, who is my boss? Same as it ever was.

Peter Riva

honestly, if you need to peg the beginning of the downfall… it was the day F1 decided not to allow testing. Friends I know who live near Woking used to tell me you could hear cars running at McL all the time, if there was daylight, a screaming engine would be present on the wind, kind of like a motorway nearby.
I suspect without that hands-on daily testing (“try this on the car, run a few laps… result?”) engineering, McL may have been way behind the resources of Ferrari and Mercedes and RedBull…
Just a thought… catch-up is a bitch.

The Captain

One thing that really stuck out to me watching the Amazon show was how bureaucratic McLaren seems to be (culminating in that awful car launch). Like if you asked me what F1 team’s employees spend the most time filling our TPS reports I’d say McLaren in a heartbeat. The team just feels from the outside to be burdened down with management. But I also don’t think that means they can’t branch out and do other things. I mean no one says Ferrari or Mercedes should drop it’s other series or that the Red Bull air race is why RB isn’t… Read more »