ESPN F1 ran an article a couple of weeks ago that provided the best and most complete explanation so far in regards to what happened between McLaren and long-time sponsor Tag Heuer, best known for high end luxury watches.
Or course, there are always two sides to every story and in F1 that usually means more like ten sides, but what caught my eye in this piece is a quote from Ron Dennis in which he explains that while it is true Tag chose to move to Red Bull after more than thirty years calling McLaren home, another, more lucrative deal was done by McLaren instead.
“One thing you may not have realized is that the LVMH group had within it another brand, which is the Hennessy Moet brand,” Dennis added. “I never give away numbers but I can tell you that our relationship under that brand is multiples more valuable than the financial situation with TAG Heuer.” (from ESPN F1)
I really don’t give a rat’s ass about McLaren’s Tag-Heuer sponsorship or lack thereof, but this quote made me smile. Ron Dennis is one of a kind. There are many players in Formula One that are intensely competitive and always play their cards close to the vest with a poker face. You could even say there are multiple team principals that are visionaries, geniuses, even dictators. But only Ron Dennis would have no problem cutting off his finger to save his hand, and I have to admire that kind of single-minded focus.
Dennis is one of the only true racers from a bygone era that is still competing in F1. He is literally F1 personified and one of the few team principals that participated in F1’s modern revolution, which I tag as starting with the MP4 series of chassis, John Bernard’s carbon fiber mono-coupe, not coincidentally penned under Dennis’ leadership.
But that is not the whole of it. Did you know Dennis started out as a mechanic, heck it could be he started out pushing a broom in the garage for all we know? His rise is as one might expect. First working for Cooper as a mechanic to Jochen Rindt and later on to Jack Brabham. Dennis ran very successful teams in both Formula 2 and 3, and as you might have noticed also became a shrewd businessman, usually the one part that most team owners never really come to grips with. Later on, due to his success and with Marlboro backing, was at the right place at the right time when Philip Morris decided to buy out the McLaren team and install Dennis to run the operation. The rest, as they say, is carbon fiber history.
It would be the beginning of one of the most successful racing operations Formula 1 has ever witnessed. It would not be overstating the point to say that Dennis basically wrote the manual for building a modern F1 car and running a modern F1 team, a standard that has become so de facto that I suspect newer mechanics, team bosses and drivers for that matter don’t even realize it is Dennis they have to thank.
Presumably Dennis has seen (and done) it all. I can think of only one other team owner/principal with the same level of investment in F1 and that is the relatively mild-mannered Sir Frank Williams, who came up through the ranks in a similar way. However, what sets Ron Dennis apart from his fellow successful F1 players also creates friction everywhere he goes and commonly leaves journalists, experts and fans alike scratching their heads. There is no one else competing in this sport today that has been so willing to sacrifice absolutely everything in pursuit of his or her goals. Can you think of anyone else so totally invested in his team and in protecting his beloved sport (presumably he thinks it is his as well)? Is it any wonder that at times Dennis has alienated others up and down the grid with his personality? When we look at his controversial history from the point of view of a man with an unparalleled, single-minded devotion to F1 and winning (not necessarily in that order), it all falls into place.
His open dislike of the colorful Flavio Briatore. This was reputedly because Flavio wore his team cap in the reverse position similar to hip hop artists and American pro athletes among other things. That’s Ron Dennis protecting the sport.
Team member defections. I think we can assume that Ron’s didactic pursuit of his goals makes him not the easiest person to work for. Paddy Lowe left him for Mercedes. Adrian Newey walked away from McLaren and almost left the sport to draw boats until David Coulthard convinced him to take a chance with then-mid-fielders Red Bull.
Firing Martin Whitmarsh. This one certainly caught everyone off-guard. Whitmarsh had been with the company as Dennis’s right hand man for many years. I won’t pretend I know anything more than what both you and I have been able to read in the press. But it was fairly evident that Dennis orchestrated something that looked similar to a coup and while Eric Boullier took over as team principal for Whitmarsh, make no mistake, it is Dennis that is running the show. I can only wonder what sin of allegiance to the ultimate goal Whitmarsh committed.
Unwillingness to deal on the rate card. I agree with him completely on this, although he’s been widely criticized. The moment you start to devalue your product is the exact moment you start to lose the interest of the most desirable clients. I have seen this happen with car companies, restaurants, and products alike. It is the beginning of the end when owners of companies or large corporations start to panic and in that panic, second-guess themselves.
During the economic downturn did companies such as Ferrari, Bentley, or Apple discount their products? No. Dennis is absolutely correct to hold his rate card where it is and by the way since we can’t know exactly what goes on in the wing of the MTC that sells space on the car, who is to say there have not been several attempts by vendors or companies to line up as the title sponsor on the team’s chassis only to have Dennis not accept the offer? Who knows, maybe Santander will adorn the front and rear elements (ala the Ferrari of one Spaniard) from next year onwards. In the short term, not having the immediate funds (many millions, possibly 30-40) of a title sponsor must be hurtful, but Dennis is in it for the long haul, he always has been. If any privateer team can weather the storm it is McLaren.
Fernando Alonso vs. Lewis Hamilton. This one was painful for both Alonso and Dennis, not to mention me. At the expense of two championships for the team (Drivers and Constructors), Dennis chose not to fulfill what surely must have been promised or at least implied to Alonso, the number one driver status, by refusing to make Hamilton yield in his rookie year.
Most of the commentary I remember from that time in regards to this fiasco concluded that Dennis made the wrong call. He should have supported Alonso and keep Hamilton at bay, won the championships and then dealt with the driver issue behind closed doors. But he believed competition is the healthiest environment for a team and he stuck to his guns. This might have been a time when his stubbornness had unforeseen, slightly disastrous consequences, but to be fair he could not have predicted how Alonso would react. And who is to say that the alternate path would not have caused equal damage in some way? Hamilton was in no way going to take number two status laying down.
Prost vs. Senna. Do I even need to go into this one? Suffice to say Dennis did not shy away for one minute from this hell firestorm. From everything I know about this pairing, and there are reams of copy dedicated to this rivalry, Dennis embraced it. There are numerous examples of team principals who will pair their number one driver with a driver of less skill or at least one that is less disruptive in order to ensure harmony in a team. Not Ron Dennis.
Would Ferrari truly hire Hamilton if he were available to partner Sebastian Vettel? Or, in Ferrari’s opinion, would that end up throwing the German a curveball and thus better to have only one de facto number one driver so Seb and the team can focus on the task at hand? Taking the easy path has never been Dennis’ style. While I am not against numbers ones in a team (that happens organically regardless of team policy), I have always liked the fact that McLaren let their drivers race. Again, this is Dennis seeing the long-term picture and protecting the sport.
Building a Super Car. The MP4-12C and now the P1, McLaren’s official entries into the world of supercars. This did two things as far as I can tell. Really piss off the people in Stuttgart (the ones that fly the three pointed star, not those other guys that just won Le Mans, again) and take (as would be expected) attention and energy away from McLaren’s racing division.
As far as pissing off Mercedes, I believe that Dennis moving forward with his desire to sell road cars targeting the same clientele as Mercedes is the reason there is not a Mercedes PU in McLaren’s today. Is it such a stretch to think that with so much ego and money concerned, Mercedes were persuaded by Ross Brawn to enter into F1 as a works team just so they could get back at Dennis? Mercedes delivered a top notch engine for many years to McLaren, in some years the very best engine on the grid and he thanks them by taking money out of their coffers? Taking on the big car companies, Ferrari, Mercedes, Porsche, Lamborghini, Aston Martin is classic Dennis. Regarding the second point, this new pursuit did disrupt the racing division in some sort of capacity, but that is more than likely in the past. When all has been said and done, the fact that McLaren now sell cars only strengthens the McLaren Brand and knowing our man Dennis he is probably turning a very nice profit. F1 is a ruthless place and in a valley of such ruthlessness one is either giving the pain or taking it, as James Allen likes to say. Dennis is always on offense.
The Honda partnership. Leaving Mercedes, in this brave and impossible new world of hybrid technology is more than likely the riskiest thing Dennis has done in quite some time. The all important software, or engine mapping code, as Dennis pointed out to us laypeople, makes the difference between winning championships and just winning races. Looking ahead, McLaren was headed towards de-tuned Merc engines–which is what Williams has. It’s true, with the reliable Merc engine at the very least you can actually complete a race and as Williams has showed several times, start on the first row and finish on at least the two bottom steps of the podium. But that is not Dennis’ goal, is it?
McLaren is (I never get tired of reminding anyone who will listen) the winningest team behind Ferrari if you take both Drivers and Constructors Championships together. They have 20, all of them under Dennis’ stewardship. This man knows what it takes to win titles at the pinnacle of motor racing.
He has lived through some super high highs and also some super low lows. The death of Senna had to be devastating, Spy-gate was very publicly embarrassing and financially punitive, and most recently McLaren’s downward spiral and dismal performance this year have been no fun. With Honda as engine partner the only podium Alonso and Button have reached this year is the one they walked up to in Brazil to ham it up for pics after their double-DNF. This is the first time I can EVER remember that not only will McLaren not finish as a top five constructor, they will finish almost dead last.
Dennis has literally bet the farm. He is all-in. Scraping the bottom of the grid. We are all waiting breathlessly to see what happens.
Can Dennis’s philosophy work many years after the fact? Will he be able to integrate what worked very well in the eighties and nineties into 2016, 2017 and 2018? Equally in question, has the sport passed him by? Is he a relic of a formula that used to work quite well up and down the pit-wall, but in this new F1 era where sponsorship is difficult to come by, development is so incremental and a team’s hands are very much tied in the form of rules and regulations that to really and truly design your way to performance is not only incredibly expensive but takes many, many months, even years. Gone are the days when you could show up in March with a radical idea and bang, you’re immediately on the pace. Now it seems everything is a very long evolution and what used to happen in a year now takes three or four.
I think Dennis has already allowed for that. In my mind it was always going to shake out with Honda as first a development year, second year build on the reliability, third year crank up the performance and year four (sorry Fernando and Jenson) is when all that hard work will pay dividends. It took Mercedes five years to get where they are, Ferrari is two years into this new formula and while it looks good for the reds this year, my guess is Maranello still needs a year or two to really be the quickest on the grid. These things take time.
In all of this what is crystal clear to me is that Dennis is completely woven into the very fabric of McLaren and by default motorsport itself. One can very easily see why he has most recently taken the steps he has; brought Honda on board, (and veto their involvement with Red Bull at the expense of engine development), removed Martin Whitmarsh from his daily duties and install himself back into to the F1 division fold. Trying to raise the capital to buy back McLaren shares and to develop the resources to compete with Mercedes and Ferrari on a their financial level. Finally, holding steadfast to his rate card. Dennis has a plan. And he’s sticking to it because that’s what he does. Press and relationships be damned.
Hollywood loves a good comeback, John Travolta, Rob Lowe, and the best comeback in recent memory has to be Mr. Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. Many years ago Ferrari, after a twenty year drought, put together a spectacular comeback with Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher. So there is a precedent in F1 and I am sure I speak for many a McLaren fan regardless of who is piloting the cars from Woking, that we want to see McLaren back at the front fighting for race wins and championships.
Will Dennis rewrite the history books a second time? It’s anyone’s guess, but all great organizations have one thing in common–they all have a galvanizing, if not at times stubbornly genius individual that does not take failure lightly. These type of individuals also know what it takes to succeed. I can’t help but recall something I read by Dave Richards (who knows a thing or two about racing) a few years back when he was still running an F1 team. When asked his opinion of the McLaren supremo he said quite succinctly he has never meet any one in all his years of racing who is more competitive Ron Dennis.