We exist to win - Exclusive interview with McLarens Ron Dennis 27 Aug 2008
Last season McLaren found themselves battling on two fronts. But with the courtroom dramas long since decided, this season the British team have been free to focus solely on their racing. And with Lewis Hamilton currently leading the drivers standings, so far things are looking up. For team principal Ron Dennis, the temptation to stay and fight on has proved far too attractive and any talk of retirement has been firmly put on hold
Q: Ron, after the hiccups of 2007, this season must feel like a stroll in the park
Ron Dennis: Last year, McLaren won eight Grands Prix, and the combined total of the world championship points scored in the world drivers' championship by Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso exceeded the combined total scored by any other team's two drivers. That statistic is something that people who like to describe 2007 as a bad year for McLaren would do well to remember. Having said that, of course, 2007 was a year of downs as well as ups, but that's all in the past now. McLaren, Ferrari and the FIA have all drawn a line under the events of 2007, and relations between those three entities have never been more cordial than they are today. This year is also shaping up to be a good year for us, with five victories so far. But we never underestimate our opposition, and we're looking forward to an exciting, sporting and close-fought battle for championship honours as we move into the final third of the season.
Q: Was there ever a moment over the past 12 months when you simply wanted to walk away, sensing that there must be more to life than dealing with daily aggravations?
RD: I've already said on the record that at the beginning of 2007 I'd privately decided to step aside at the end of that year, moving to the role of Chairman of the McLaren Group, leaving the role of Chief Executive Officer of the McLaren Group to Martin Whitmarsh, currently Chief Operating Officer of the McLaren Group. But, as the great economist John Maynard Keynes once famously said, 'When the situation changes, I change my mind.' Well, the situation did change, so I did change my mind. Now, I remain unflinchingly committed to the McLaren Group and the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team, and remain passionately engaged in leading the McLaren Group into exciting new areas of business, exemplified by, but not confined to, the groundbreaking projects currently being evaluated by McLaren Automotive. Having said that, the McLaren Group's senior management team is a fabulously impressive one, and I have complete faith in their ability to take the McLaren Group, working with all our shareholders, on to pastures even more exciting over the next generation. As I so often say, I regard myself as merely in charge of one of the chapters in the McLaren book, not the book itself.
Q: Last year Fernando questioned the McLaren drivers' pecking order, blaming the team for failing to concentrate all its efforts on him, saying that Lewis was at that time too young and inexperienced to realize his chances for the title. Have you learned something from last years situation?
RD: Fernando said a lot of things last year, and so did many other people, and most of it was said in the heat of battle. That's inevitable. That's racing. You never stop learning in this sport, and that applies to everyone - including me. As for Lewis, he drove brilliantly last year and he's driving brilliantly this year.
Q: Isnt the sublime pretence of 'equal opportunity' for your drivers obsolete when compared with the policies of a rival team, which could perhaps be regarded as practising something approaching team orders?
RD: Our policy regarding equal opportunities and team orders is well known. We always aim to hire the two best drivers available, and we always then aim to give them equal opportunities to optimize their chances to win Grands Prix and world championships. Sometimes that policy has been criticised by those who believe that a policy of running a number-one driver supported by a number-two driver, with or without team orders, is a better strategy. Well, we don't accept that. We exist to win - and all our employees, including all our drivers, buy in to that.
Q: To ask the same question in a different way, was the decision to extend Heikki Kovalainen's contract inspired by the thinking that he is the perfect back-up for Lewis Hamilton?
RD: No. Heikki is doing a fabulous job this year - as his recent victory at the Hungaroring showed only too clearly. His qualifying pace has been extremely strong all year, and his race pace is improving all the time. He's a pleasure to have in our team, and he and Lewis have a very good relationship with each other. I'd describe them as competitive and co-operative in equal measure, which is exactly what every team wants from its driver line-up. That being the case, it was never in any doubt that we'd take up the option on Heikki's services, and we're delighted to have been able to knock the silly-season speculation on the head by announcing our 2009 driver line-up so early. To repeat, then: Heikki is doing a very good job for us this year, and he'll continue to do a very good job for us next year.
Q: We have a similar situation in the championship standings as last year: Lewis leading Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen. Is Lewis now ready to go for the title?
RD: Of course.
Q: Lewis became famous overnight - hes got a pop star girlfriend, all kinds of people are whispering in his ear about business opportunities and so on - how are you helping him deal with all those distractions?
RD: Lewis is a thoroughly well brought-up individual, who is both grounded and intelligent. His father, Anthony, is also his manager, and both of them have been part of the McLaren 'family' for a very long time. As such, although Lewis's global appeal is growing all the time, and understandably so, he remains as polite and as unassuming now as he's always been. As regards business opportunities for him, the McLaren Group numbers a workforce of 1300 expert and experienced individuals, specialising in all sorts of disparate yet discrete disciplines; as a result, I feel confident that no other team has the infrastructure to offer its drivers the level of support that McLaren Mercedes does, across a wide variety of areas. Those areas encompass the sporting, fitness, marketing, and communications dimensions and, of course, the commercial dimension - and many other dimensions besides.
Q: Onto a different subject now - Formula One racing will see regulation changes next season. The one that seems to be causing the most controversy, if you can call it that, is KERS. As it doesnt seem to be a financial issue - what is the issue? And what's McLarens stance on it?
RD: Any area of technical development and/or innovation inevitably has an impact on every team's finances - and KERS is no different. Having said that, we support any initiative that will genuinely enhance Formula One's environmental credentials. We at McLaren take our environmental policy extremely seriously - just as we've always supported the excellent work done by the FIA in this area. Since 1995, for the avoidance of doubt, the FIA has been engaging in a tree-planting programme in Mexico, supervised by the appropriate forestry commissions, and that programme has taken into account not only the fuel used by Formula One cars themselves, but also the fuel used by the planes, trains and automobiles that take Formula One cars, drivers and other personnel to all four corners of the globe. Just as important, Formula One is uniquely well-placed to help make production cars leaner, cleaner and greener in the future. How so? Because, riding on the back of environment-focused initiatives such as KERS, the Formula One engine manufacturers will have not only a) the opportunity, but also b) the budget and c) the technical inventiveness with which to develop green technologies that will find their way into the engines of production cars in years to come.
Q: This year we're seeing quite an open playing field, with drivers on the podiums and in the points whom we havent seen before. Next years regulation changes could undo all that, as the advantage may once again lie with the big teams. Isnt that counter-productive, especially as history has also shown that changes rarely save money?
RD: I've often said that the way to encourage close and competitive racing is to maintain regulatory stability - for exactly the reason indicated in your question. Technical development costs money, and the bigger teams will always be better placed to fund those technical developments. In turn, as a result, it logically follows that the performance gap between the bigger teams and the smaller teams tends to widen in periods of regulatory instability - and the consequence of that is inevitably racing that is less close and/or competitive than spectators, viewers and sponsors would ideally like it to be. Having said that, we and our partners at Mercedes-Benz HighPerformanceEngines are working closely with the FIA, in co-operation with our competitors, within the context of FOTA (Formula One Teams Association), to ensure that the regulation changes will trigger as seamless a transition as possible.
Q: Finally, isnt it about time that McLaren grabs the title again?
RD: As I've already said, we exist to win. Does that answer your question?