How Ron Dennis Transformed McLaren
Posted: Fri Jan 11, 2019 18:08 pm
Damien Smith wrote:Ron Dennis wasn't the first team owner to care about how his racing cars and team transporter were presented. But back in 1971, when he was taking the first steps towards controlling his own destiny, his fledgling team immediately stood out from a motley crowd that tended towards earthy dishevelment.
Professional sheen was rarely a priority in Formula 2, but it mattered to this oddly pedantic 23-year old.
Having served an apprenticeship as an F1 mechanic for Cooper and Brabham, Dennis was ingrained in the grime of motorsport, yet his single-minded ambition drove him towards cleaner air - not to mention cleaner hands.
It was all too easy to scoff at 'Team Briefcase', but we know who would ultimately have the last sneer.
Ron's first eight years at McLaren's tiller established clean air between what had come before, from Bruce the creator's grit-under-the-fingernails foundations to Teddy Mayer's traditional, successful but ultimately limited setup of the 1970s.
From being world champion technical pioneers, McLaren had slipped down the ranks into the midfield (and often worse) by the turn of the new decade. Now they followed where once they led, seemingly incapable of harnessing the monumental forces of ground-effect aerodynamics in the manner of Lotus, Williams and Ligier.
But Dennis would change the tempo, albeit with his own particular - and sometimes jarring - melody.
Under this proud, prickly, meticulous and downright strange leader, McLaren changed the game. But just like his arch-rival Frank Williams, Dennis had the armoury to build his empire only because of the tough lessons learned through a near-decade of toil. He'd more than paid his dues.
From the Ron we'd come to know, Rondel Racing was a cringe-inducing moniker for his first attempt at world domination. An ungainly mash-up of his first name and co-founder Neil Trundle's surname, Rondel were a far more sophisticated setup than they sounded.
Within little more than a year, the team were running as many as six cars in Formula 2, for an illustrious roll-call of talent, including Graham Hill, Tim Schenken, Bob Wollek, Carlos Reutemann and Jody Scheckter. But it wasn't to last.
Rondel lost their footing on the giant slick created by the 1973 global oil crisis when their main backer, Motul, made for the exit. Dennis was absolutely devastated.
How he built a new team, first under the more clinical banner of Project 3, and then, finally, Project 4, only proved his ambition - to anyone who cared to pay attention.
John Hogan at Marlboro certainly did. They had become friends through Schenken, and the Australian-born money man had brokered the Motul deal before he joined tobacco giant Philip Morris. A few years down the line, Hogan had watched nervously as McLaren began to crumble under Mayer.
Project 4 had raised their own game by building the cars for BMW's M1 Procar grand prix support series, in which F1 aces were drafted in for lucrative one-make fun. It was Procar that convinced Dennis his company was ready for Formula 1 - but how?
At first, Dennis had hoped to convince Marlboro to quit McLaren for Project 4, but the tobacco giant had invested too much for too long to consider that.
Instead, with Hogan backing Ron's cause, a merger was brokered in 1980. Mayer had little choice but to accept it, but within two years he'd resigned his shares to start afresh in Indycars. Dennis, with help from Marlboro, bought him out to take sole control of McLaren.
No one had done more than Mayer to keep Bruce's dream alive during the '70s - but the American was now out of step. In contrast, Dennis was syncopated in perfect harmony with a branch of motor racing on the cusp of a technical and commercial explosion.
His first astute move, and one of monumental importance to F1's evolution, was to recruit a firebrand designer whose stunning Chaparral 2K ground-effect creation had just won the Indy 500.
John Barnard was himself a former McLaren man, having worked under Gordon Coppuck on the fantastically successful M23. Now he was back, but this time it was different. This time he was a partner. Apprenticeship well and truly served, Barnard joined forces with Dennis to lead McLaren into uncharted territory. What a combination: combustible, certainly, but also potent with promise.
From the start, the new McLaren International - now based in premises in Ron's home town of Woking - were bold.
Carbon fibre was already being used in racing car design, not least on the Procar BMW M1 rear wing. But to build a whole chassis out of the material wasn't feasible. Or was it?
After a vain search for a company that had the capability and vision, Barnard followed up on a nod from promising American engineer Steve Nichols, who had served his apprenticeship at the Hercules aerospace company in the States. It was a suitably Herculean challenge.
The 1981 MP4 - or Marlboro (not McLaren) Project 4 in long-hand - was the groundbreaking result. "It had better win," was the reaction from Hogan, understandably nervous at the risk. He'd stuck his neck out for Dennis - but the payback would come.
Not immediately though. Barnard's brand of precision engineering and total control over his design was new to F1, but by mid-season the promise was starting to be realised.
John Watson, the Northern Irishman who'd joined McLaren in '79, finished third in Spain, second in France - and first at Silverstone, after an attrition-blighted British Grand Prix. Whatever the circumstances, this was vindication: McLaren's first win for more than three and a half years (below). For 'Wattie' it ended a five-year drought.
The merits of Barnard's MP4 series would soon become obvious, while fears that tubs would shatter to pieces in crashes quickly receded.
In terms of driver line-ups, Dennis and Barnard always resented Marlboro's insistence on hiring Andrea de Cesaris - or 'de Crasheris' as he was cruelly nicknamed - for '81, but in Watson they had a man they could trust. He would win on three more occasions for McLaren over the following two seasons, earning a reputation as a pass master - coming from 17th on the grid to win on the streets of Detroit in '82, and from 22nd at Long Beach the following season.
He was a contender, too, for the wide-open '82 world title, but still wasn't considered the top-line, game-changing talent that Dennis and Barnard felt they deserved.
Project 4 had run Niki Lauda in Procar. Now Ron hatched a plan to convince the great champion to make an F1 comeback, following his abrupt retirement mid-season while driving for Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham in '79.
Lauda had his eponymous airline to run, but deep down realised F1 was still unfinished business and accepted Dennis's offer to test an MP4 in secret at Donington Park. To Ron's surprise, Niki had said yes to a return by the end of the day - and at the third race of '82, at Long Beach, he won. Lauda would stay at McLaren for four years, winning his third world title in '84, McLaren International's first. James Hunt's '76 crown for the 'old' McLaren seemed an age ago.
Dennis has since praised the Austrian for the lengths he would go to in his preparation, both physically and mentally. In his near-three years away, F1 had moved on, as it always does, and Lauda was characteristically honest enough to recognise it.
So he adapted. First time around, specifically during his Ferrari days, Lauda was the benchmark (nine pole positions in '75). Not this time (zero in '84). But he was still fast enough to put that razor-sharp racing brain to the best possible use. Beating new team-mate Alain Prost to the '84 title, by just half a point, arguably made his third title his greatest, given just how good Prost would prove to be.
The Frenchman had driven for McLaren under Mayer in '79, having won his seat with a stunning test performance while still racing in Formula 3.
But he quit the team in disgust in 1980, telling Wattie he'd never return after Mayer blamed him for a frightening shunt in the brittle M30 at Watkins Glen when the suspension broke. Renault, with their powerful turbo engine, were calling - so Marlboro let Prost go, although they maintained personal support with an eye on the future.
Prost should have notched up at least one world title at Renault, but chronic engine unreliability and disharmony in the ranks eventually made life unbearable. Dennis was angered by Mayer's failure to keep Prost in '80 and, much as he had with Lauda, made it his mission to re-sign Alain.
When the split with Renault came, it was acrimonious and the manufacturer ended up paying Prost's salary for his first season at McLaren in '84. Dennis enjoyed that.
Lauda wasn't too happy when Alain signed up - a move that ended Watson's five-year stint at the team. Niki knew the little bloke with the crooked nose and mop of curly hair was too fast for him - but it says much for both that they became friends during that remarkable season. This is when Barnard's revolution truly kicked in, thanks largely to adding the final jigsaw piece.
Barnard and Dennis had known from the start that a turbo engine was essential. For a controlling perfectionist like Barnard, off-the-peg was never going to be enough. He wanted a bespoke design, made within his own strict parameters.
That brief led Dennis to Porsche, who were embarking on their super-successful 956 sportscar campaign. The Stuttgart giants had no interest in paying for an expensive F1 programme, but they were happy to supply McLaren with a customer V6. So who would pay? The badging deal with Techniques d'Avant Garde, the umbrella for a group of companies with a wide range of specialities, would be one of the most important of Dennis's life.
After a rocky start mid-83, Prost, Lauda, the MP4/2 and its TAG turbo were ready to fly for '84. Between them, they won 12 of the season's 16 races - Prost seven, Lauda five.
But despite Prost's edge on pace, Lauda's sheer bloody-mindedness made the difference. Just. That half-point, born from rain stopping play early in Monaco (a race Prost won), would make it the closest title battle ever.
But come '85, there would be no stopping the man who had come to be known as The Professor, such was his methodical approach to winning races. Just like Juan Manuel Fangio and Jackie Stewart before him, Prost instinctively understood what it took to win grands prix at the slowest possible speed, taking as little out of his machinery as possible. His detractors have used it against him, but what they tend to forget is that he was also blindingly fast.
Prost was the complete package in the mid-80s, and in '85 he finally claimed the world championship his talent deserved. Grand prix racing had been born in France, yet incredibly Alain Prost was the first - and still the only - Frenchman to win the Formula 1 driver's title.
Prost sealed his '85 title with two races to spare, such was his relentlessness. Five victories didn't scream 'dominance', but he'd learnt from his experience with Lauda and drove for the title.
He did much the same to win a consecutive crown in '86, famously snatching it from under the noses of squabbling Williams drivers Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell in a dramatic climax at Adelaide. Those who said Prost and McLaren were undeserving of this one were not only missing the point - they were downright wrong.
But as Barnard took leave of McLaren to move to Ferrari - such were their characters, he and Dennis could never have sustained their partnership - a rising threat to Prost's supremacy was about to further unsettle McLaren's serenity.
During Prost's double title years, Ayrton Senna racked up an incredible 16 pole positions for Team Lotus. That only four victories were bagged says a great deal more about that team's shortcomings than Senna's own. He needed a move to make good on his monumental potential.
In '87 Williams dominated when turbo engine supplier Honda hit their stride. Dennis, as ever, was wise to the power shift. Who needed customer Porsches when he could have factory Honda V6s?
For the following season, the Japanese motor giant abandoned Williams in favour of McLaren, and with them followed the menacing force of nature in the yellow helmet.
Ayrton Senna was coming - and Prost's life would never be the same again.