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Exclusive Ron Dennis Q&A: Honda innovation should concern rivals

01 May 2015

Ron Dennis is well versed in winning - his cars and drivers have accumulated no fewer than 20 world titles over the years - but there is little sign of it in 2015. As the team slowly get to grips with Honda’s all-new power unit, the McLaren boss talks to about his plans to see McLaren-Honda - and Fernando Alonso - dominate Formula One racing once more…

Q: Ron having stepped aside to set up McLaren Automotive from 2009 to 2014, for the past 16 months you have once again been leading McLaren Technology Group as CEO and simultaneously setting McLaren’s overall direction as Chairman. You’ve said you wanted to set the compass point to true north, but at the moment it appears to be aiming more towards deep south. How are you planning to effect the massive change in direction you require?

Ron Dennis: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we have a mountain to climb, but climbing it we are and scale its summit we will. That I guarantee. McLaren and Honda share a passion to win in Formula One - we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again. And, for a team to win in Formula One, you need to have a multinational motor manufacturer as your power unit partner, and in Honda that’s exactly what McLaren has got. Look, we enjoyed huge success when Mercedes-Benz was our power unit partner for many years, winning world championships with both Mika (Hakkinen) and Lewis (Hamilton), but the fact is that a team doesn’t tend to enjoy the same level of success when its status is downgraded from power unit partner to power unit customer. Well, with Honda, we don’t have that problem, because Honda is our power unit partner, and a massively committed one to boot.

We knew this season would be tough, but we’re making progress with every Grand Prix. In Australia we were a long way off the pace, but we managed to get one car to the finish. In Malaysia we made a significant step in terms of lap-time deficit to our principal rivals, but our reliability wasn’t there yet. In China we continued to make improvements in terms of pace, and for the first time we managed to get both our cars to the finish. In Bahrain we had reliability problems with Jenson’s [Button] car, but Fernando’s [Alonso] car ran like clockwork all weekend, made it through to Q2 in qualifying, and nearly scored a point in the race. Clearly, results like those aren’t what we’re looking for, but, equally clearly, it’s plain to see that development is going in the right direction. I’m not saying that development will always be linear - on the contrary we’ll sometimes see positive performance spikes and we’ll sometimes see less positive performance dips as our season ebbs and flows - but the overall shape of our performance curve will be upward. And that’s no accident. It’s the result of a huge amount of diligent work by a large number of experienced and expert operatives in both the UK and Japan, and a great deal of careful planning by myself, by Jonathan (Neale) by Eric (Boullier) and of course by Honda’s Yasuhisa Arai-san and his team. We’ve hired some great new engineering talents too, who are blending very well with our longer-established engineers here in Woking and the results are clear to see. I’m excited and optimistic.

McLaren-Honda will see the fruits of all that effort. Mark my words! We’ll win together and, when we do so we’ll do so dominantly. I don’t want to put a timeframe on that prediction, because that would be foolhardy. But whenever I walk around the McLaren Technology Centre, speaking as I do to our people at the sharp end what I encounter is fierce determination, burning ambition, unshakable confidence and unbreakable esprit de corps. That makes me very proud. We’re pulling together, all of us, and we know we’ll get there. Last but far from least, I want to say something about our drivers. To put it simply: in Fernando and Jenson we have the best driver line-up in Formula One. They’re both world champions. Moreover, between them they’ve started 507 Grands Prix and they’ve won 47 of them. In Kevin (Magnussen) we have the best reserve driver in Formula One - a man who finished second in his very first race, let’s not forget. That is a feat achieved once in a blue moon. And in the wings we have Stoffel (Vandoorne), who’s driving superbly in GP2, and Nyck (de Vries), who’s making excellent progress in World Series by Renault 3.5. Those five drivers represent a meticulously selected staircase of talent that’s the envy of every Formula One team, believe me! What’s more, they’re family, they belong, and they know they belong. Honda are with us for the long haul, too. We’ll win together. We’re well set.

Q: Coming back to reality, last season McLaren were fighting Force India - more recently we’ve seen you fighting Marussia. Was such an eventuality ever in your thoughts?

RD: (laughs] Let’s be honest, the premise behind your question isn’t actually valid, is it? As I’ve said, in Australia we were well off the pace, but since then we’ve made steady and significant progress with every Grand Prix. In Bahrain, which was the last Grand Prix, Jenson wasn’t able to put in a qualifying lap, owing to unreliability, and nor was he able to start the race, for the same reason. But Fernando qualified 14th - ahead of not only both Marussias but also a Toro Rosso, a Lotus and a Red Bull - and only very narrowly failed to score a world championship point.

Q: Honda appear to be going down a very different path to the other engine manufacturers. And, yes, the saying goes that if you follow the footprints of someone else you’ll always end up behind - but isn’t the path that Honda are taking just a little too far off the beaten track?

RD: Honda designs and manufactures more engines than any other company in the world. Honda makes two-cylinder, three-cylinder, four-cylinder, five-cylinder, six-cylinder and eight-cylinder engines for cars; it makes one-cylinder, two-cylinder, four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines for motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and maritime craft; it makes a huge range of engines for power equipment; it even makes engines for aircraft. Some of those are petrol engines, others run on diesel; some are water-cooled, others are air-cooled; some displace just 25cc, others are big V8s of upwards of 4.0-litres. I could go on, I assure you. Why am I telling you all this? I’m telling you all this because, when it comes to power unit design and manufacture, Honda leads the way - globally. Their managers and engineers know their Formula One power unit isn’t yet the best, but it will be. They know that and so do we. So do our drivers - that’s why they want to drive for us. And that’s why a lot of other drivers want to drive for us too, as it happens. So, in answer to your question, no, I’m not at all concerned that Honda may be taking an innovative path when it comes to the design of our Formula One power unit. In the long run, ultimately, in fact, I think that fact is likely to be more of a concern for our competitors.

Q: According to almost all Formula One ‘experts’, Fernando is still hailed as the best driver on the grid - so how does he swallow his new-found proximity to the back-markers?

RD: Fernando is a winner, and that’s why we hired him. McLaren is a winner, as is Honda, as is McLaren-Honda specifically, and that’s why he joined us. When he arrived, at the beginning of this year, as I’ve said, we were significantly off the pace. We’re still off the pace, although we’re making good progress towards our eventual destination, which is the front of the grid. Fernando knows that. He’s won two world championships in the past, and he joined Ferrari with the ambition of returning that famous name to world championship glory. Don’t forget: we last won the world championship in 2008, but Ferrari’s world championship drought is longer still. Fernando won Grands Prix for Ferrari in the five years he drove for them, between 2010 and 2014, but he didn’t quite manage to lift the world championship crown during that period. That’s a regret for him, as he freely admits. But during that time he established himself as, to use your words, the best driver on the grid, and, when he decided he wanted to seek pastures new, he chose McLaren-Honda. We were delighted with that, for he was our first choice too.

People tend to talk a lot of nonsense about the McLaren-Alonso relationship. Okay, 2007 was a stressful year, even though we won eight races and scored more world championship points than any other team that season. But that’s ancient history now. We’ve all moved on - and by ‘we’ I mean McLaren, Ferrari and indeed the FIA. And the Fernando we’re working with today, now, is a fantastically motivated and inspirational man. He’s as quick as ever, as competitive as ever, more experienced than ever, more expert than ever, and he combines those traits with an infectious energy and enthusiasm. Ask anyone in our team - mechanics, engineers, marketing people, PR people, cooks, waiters, cleaners, whomever you like - and they’ll all say the same. And, as I’ve said throughout this interview, we’ll win again, we’ll dominate again, and we’ll do that together, with Fernando front and central. It’ll be a wonderful culmination to his glittering career, and all at McLaren and all at Honda are utterly dedicated to the task of working with him, with Jenson and with everyone else, to help him achieve it.

Q: How is Fernando’s contractual situation? Some say he committed only for one year, hoping to clinch a Mercedes-Benz deal; others say it’s two years with an option for another year; others say it’s three years…

RD: He has a straight three-year contract with us, with no options. It’s as simple as that. That’s what we wanted to offer him, and that’s what he wanted to sign. I can’t make it plainer than that, can I?

Q: So your official line is: everything is fine and the mood is good. But isn’t that something for a faith-healing department rather than for a competitive race team?

RD: Okay, I get the message. Your editorial line is: grill Ron as hard as you can. But isn’t that something for a red-top tabloid [newspaper] rather than for the official website of Formula One? (laughs) I’m teasing you, but I think you get my point. All I can tell you is that the reason I’m saying the mood is good is that the mood is indeed good! And when you stop and take the trouble to consider why the mood might be good - when you weigh up all the positive elements I’ve outlined for you - then I think a sensible and fair-minded reader would be forced to concede that it’s not at all surprising that the mood is good. Very good actually!

Q: McLaren have won 12 drivers’ world championships and eight constructors’ world championships. Your last one was with Lewis in 2008. Seven years is a pretty long time. How much longer will you have to wait for the next one?

RD: As I’ve said, we have a mountain to climb, but climbing it we are and scale its summit we will. That I guarantee. I’ve also said I don’t want to put a timeframe on that prediction, because that would be foolhardy. I’m proud of those 20 world championships - they were won by hard graft, great teamwork and superbly innovative thinking - but I’ll be even prouder of the 21st, the 22nd, the 23rd, and so on.