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Dennis: Fighting spirit still manifested in today’s McLaren

2 September 2013

Ron Dennis believes that the mentality that pervaded the McLaren operation he inherited in the 1980s still exists in the current set-up, despite massive growth – and success – in the intervening years.

Dennis, who now oversees the entire McLaren Group having moved on from the F1 team at the end of 2008, took control of a team seemingly losing its way some years removed from the championships claimed by Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt, but immediately recognised the qualities that it possessed.

“McLaren had won world championships in 1974 and 1976, then failed to get to grips with ground-effect technology [and] had a few mediocre years, but were down rather than out,” he explained in an interview to mark the team's 50th anniversary, “However, I understood what McLaren could do when they had a strong car, as had been demonstrated by the strong performances of the M23 in the hands of both Emerson and James.”

Despite having his hands full with Project 4's F2 and F3 campaigns, plus building cars for the BMW Procar series, Dennis was determined to restore McLaren to former glories.

“I was always - and I still am - relentlessly competitive,” he smiled, “When I came back to F1 in 1981, I wanted to do my own thing and I had no interest in following the established convention. That approach may have seemed brave – or foolhardy – but, as with most things at that time, it was born of necessity. There was no time to step back and conduct any detailed analysis of the situation.

“Within the first few months of working with John Barnard, he convinced me that an all carbon monocoque would work and I had faith in our ability to get it done. So we just pushed ahead. Once we'd established the team and tasted some initial success, I think I was able more effectively to quantify what had set us apart – the standards of preparation, the focus on the detail – and we already had a head-start on the opposition to maintain and refine that mindset.

“The 1980s were really about a singular approach – find the very best elements, and make them successful through endless preparation, analysis and research. There was no secret – it was just huge ambition backed by a lot of hard work.

“People forget that we were still a pretty small operation back then. In the 1980s, before we moved to Albert Drive, we were still operating from Boundary Road, which you just wouldn't believe could be an F1 team's headquarters if you saw the size of it today. But at that time it was setting new standards.

“There was a frantic 'busy-ness' about the place – we were still only about 80 people back then, everyone did more than one job, we all knew each other, and we all worked together. They were good times. It really was a feeling of 'us against the world' back then – and I think that fighting spirit still manifests itself within the company today. We're always ready to fight for what we believe in.”

Having taken the reins, Dennis oversaw seven constructors' and ten drivers' titles before moving over to McLaren Automotive, and is proud of what he helped the team – formed by Bruce McLaren in a cramped workshop on 2 September 1963 – become.

“In terms of Bruce McLaren himself, I didn't really know him, as our paths didn't really cross, but, of course he and I were in F1 at the same time,” Dennis reflected, “I started at Cooper's in 1966, the same year he brought Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd into F1, so I like to think there's a nice symmetry there.

“Then as now, [the team principal's] most important attribute is the ability to provide authoritative leadership coupled with strong commercial astuteness and a total commitment to the team,” he noted, “ In fact, to be successful, the F1 team must become your entire life; only then are you able to create the conditions in which engineers, designers and of course drivers can deliver their very best.

“I always tried to provide a firm but sensitive guiding hand, to ensure that they remained fully focused and productive. Engineers and designers love to investigate technical complexities, some of which may be blind alleys, so they require some direction. But that's not a bad thing. On the contrary, you want your engineers and designers to have enquiring minds. It's then your job, as the team boss, to channel that creative energy in a way that generates optimal team and car performance.

“So, yes, it's certainly true that some of the big-name engineers and designers in McLaren's past not only created some of the most iconic and successful racing cars in F1 history, but they also changed the game, introducing new ideas, new technologies and new practices that revolutionised automotive design. That's quite a claim to fame – and I'm proud of their efforts. But, in order for them to be able to work effectively, they needed inspirational leadership and intelligent management. I did my best to try to provide that.

“However, as I often say, I'm only a chapter in the book. There will be many more chapters in the future, and I firmly believe that our greatest successes are yet to come.

“Today, we aren't currently achieving as much on-track success as we'd like, but our matrix system is empowering more people to deliver across the many different performance areas of our F1 car than in the past. It's a clever system that was originated in aerospace companies and was adopted by Martin Whitmarsh and Jonathan Neale. It's providing a solid base to our operations, which will enable us once again to achieve success in the future.

“That's a cultural aspect of our organisation of which I'm enormously proud.”


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