Exclusive Ron Dennis interview - the F1 love affair continues 29 Jan 2009
When Ron Dennis announced his decision to step down as McLaren team principal at the launch of the teams new car earlier this month, it came as a surprise to many. But then, since the very start of his career, Dennis has always had a feeling for perfect timing. Now that hes shifted his focus to elsewhere within the McLaren Group, peers from rival teams, including Renaults Flavio Briatore, have spoken candidly about how great Denniss contribution to Formula One has been. For the man himself, however, his role in the sport he loves is far from over
Q: Ron, your stepping down as team principal came as quite a surprise. At a time when all Formula One teams are facing the challenge to reinvent themselves, you're leaving the bridge. Why now?
Ron Dennis: I'm not leaving the bridge, to use your phrase - I'm not leaving anything. As I made clear at the launch of our 2009 car on Friday January 16, the realignment of duties and responsibilities between Martin (Whitmarsh) and me was something that, with his knowledge, I'd been planning for months. After March 1, when the aforementioned realignment will come into operation, I expect to be working harder than ever before. That's because I'll be concentrating on leading and growing the McLaren Group, which comprises more than 1300 employees and of which I'll remain Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.
On March 1, Martin will become team principal of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, which is the corporate name of the McLaren Group's Formula One team. Its cars are designed and built by McLaren Racing, which is part of the McLaren Group - of which, as I say, I'll remain Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. I'll still therefore be fundamentally involved in the activities of McLaren Racing and Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, simply because theyre both constituent parts of the McLaren Group.
Having said all that, I'm delighted to have been able to pass down the team principal position to Martin, because he deserves it and will do the job exceptionally well. I have enormous confidence in him and in all our staff, whether they be senior or junior. Martin and I have worked very closely together for the past 20 years, and we'll continue to work very closely together in much the same way throughout 2009 and beyond.
Q: When did you come to the decision that 2008 would be your last season as team principal? Or, to ask you directly, was it a case of jumping before you were pushed?
RD: With respect, the second part of your question is fatuous: I'm a shareholder in the McLaren Group, I'm not an employee. Besides, I'm glad to say that, as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, I enjoy the full support of every other McLaren Group shareholder - which is to say, Daimler, the Bahraini Mumtalakat Holding Company, and my business partner and friend of many years, Mansour Ojjeh. And, for the avoidance of doubt, I forewarned those shareholders of my intention to pass the team principal position down to Martin in advance of making it public on January 16.
It's well known that in early 2007 I'd privately decided to pass the team principal position down to Martin at the end of that year - but, because of some of the off-track difficulties we experienced that year, I changed my mind. I changed my mind for the simple reason that the situation had changed and it wouldn't therefore have been the right time to do it. But, after the triumphs of our 2008 season - which saw not only Lewis Hamilton being crowned world champion but also the inauguration of (Formula One Teams Association) FOTA, in which organisation McLaren and Ferrari have been working extremely closely together - I felt that the time was right. That being the case, I felt the best time to announce my decision was at the launch of our 2009 car, in front of the cream of the world's motorsport journalists, many of whom I've known personally for many years and some of whom I count as good friends.
Q: You say you'll concentrate on the McLaren Group, and all its constituent companies, but isnt it true that without the iconic Formula One team and its success, those other brands would hardly be thinkable. So arent you passing on McLaren's 'crown jewel'?
RD: No, because Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and McLaren Racing are part of the McLaren Group, of which I remain Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. Martin will become the team principal of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes on March 1, yes, but we're good friends as well as close colleagues; as such, our roles have always dovetailed naturally and will continue to do so.
To answer your question more broadly, though - and to take it to a more interesting level of debate - I firmly believe that the business model of a Formula One team operating as a financial entity on its own is an anachronistic one. It used to work, but it won't work in the future. For teams that are wholly owned by major car manufacturers or other multi-billion-dollar corporations, an unsupported business model can still work - as long as that major car manufacturer or other multi-billion-dollar corporation wishes to continue to finance its Formula One team, that is. The McLaren Group has a number of brilliant shareholders, whom I've mentioned already, and we also have some superb partners. Together, we've achieved a huge amount, and we couldn't have achieved what we've achieved without their cooperation and support. Equally, I'm glad to say that they're all delighted with our recent successes and the return on their investment that those recent successes have delivered. Working together, we're confident that those partnerships will continue to be just as successful in 2009 and beyond.
But - and this is a big 'but' - I firmly believe, as I've said, that the successful Formula One teams of the future will be sustained and supported by entities other than merely their shareholders and other partners, and that's why McLaren Automotive is currently investigating the option of launching a high-performance production car. After March 1, I'll devote a greater proportion of my time to those investigations, together with the management of McLaren Automotive, in order that the McLaren Group will remain a sound, robust and profitable business, and continue to grow from strength to strength, in years to come.
So, far from passing down McLaren's 'crown jewel' to Martin, I'm planning to engage more and more in areas of the McLaren Group's business that will sustain that 'crown jewel' into the future.
Q: Will Martin have the same freedom to run the team as you had, or will Mercedes-Benz gain influence?
RD: Martin and I will continue to work closely together, in co-operation with Mercedes-Benz and the McLaren Group's other shareholders. As such, little will change in terms of Mercedes-Benz's involvement. Mercedes-Benz is a fantastic shareholder and partner of McLaren, and has been for many years. We've achieved a huge amount together - three drivers' world championships and one constructors' world championship, as well as the collaboration on the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and its derivatives - and we intend to build on that tally in years to come. Moreover, the work done by Mercedes-Benz HighPerformanceEngines last season, and over the winter in preparation for this season, has been truly phenomenal, and it's clear that every constituent department that comes together to make Vodafone McLaren Mercedes is working exceptionally well together at the moment and will continue to do so in the future.
Q: Now that you've made up your mind to step aside, you probably see things from a different angle. How can Formula One teams survive? Are the cost-cutting measures enough?
RD: A friend of mine once told me that I'm very unusual in that I have the ability to do things which are rarely compatible in human behaviour patterns: pay great attention to detail whilst also seeing the bigger picture. Without being immodest, I believe I can do those two things. That being the case, I've been able to focus on devising ways via which Formula One can continue to thrive for many years, even though I was working as a hands-on team principal, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman at the same time. Now, though, under the umbrella of FOTA, working alongside my colleague (FOTA Chairman and Ferrari President) Luca di Montezemolo, I intend to devote more time to these issues.
The result of our cooperation, supported by all the other teams, has already been profound. The cost-cutting measures that FOTA put forward were agreed by (FIA President) Max Mosley, when we met him in Monte-Carlo on December 10, and were taken further when FOTA met again, this time without Max, in London on January 8. As such, FOTA has already achieved great things, and it will achieve even greater things in the weeks, months and years to come.
But that shouldn't be surprising. You should remember that the FOTA membership consists of a number of Formula One teams - companies - many of which are exceptionally impressive and successful organisations. In good financial times and bad, such companies are well equipped to power through, if I may coin that phrase. We're not complacent; we're not reluctant to embrace radical change; we're not hidebound by on-track rivalries. No, working together for the good of the future of Formula One, we'll continue to devise powerful strategies and innovations intended to improve our sport so as to make it more affordable, more environmentally friendly and more appealing to spectators and TV viewers.
Q: Formula One has come a long way from amateurish garages containing a handful of people. They are now high-tech 'temples' full of hundreds of super-qualified employees. Will the financial situation send the sport halfway back to where we've come from?
RD: In a word, no. Inevitably, cost-cutting will impact on certain activities that cost money; it would be trite to suggest otherwise. But, together with the FIA, we're working on ways to minimise that impact. It's too early to go into detail yet, because at the moment we're only at the scenario-planning stage. But the key aspect of this process that everyone should bear in mind is this: in cutting costs, which we're all agreed we must do, we mustn't erode Formula One's essential DNA. Because it's that essential DNA that keeps Formula One fans glued to their TV sets the world over every other Sunday, and it's that essential DNA that entices the board members of multi-national corporations to invest in Formula One teams as sponsors. Formula One is a great sport; it's hugely successful. Successful sports - successful businesses - power through recessions, as long as they're shrewdly managed.
Q: Will we see you in the Melbourne paddock at the Australian season-opener?
RD: I'll attend most if not all Grands Prix this coming season, for two reasons. The first reason is that I'll have work to do at Grands Prix as an influential member and proponent of FOTA, and as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the McLaren Group. After all, it's via Formula One that we've built the platform on which we now intend to grow the McLaren Group further in years to come. The second reason is that I continue to love the sport of Formula One with every fibre of my being. That'll never change. So, yes, I'll be in Melbourne for the 2009 Australian Grand Prix.