F1 Spotlight - Ron Dennis

This week we take a look back at another fierce titan of the sport.

1w ago

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Dennis was born on the 1st June 1947 and was raised in Woking and studied motor vehicle engineering at Guildford Technical College. He left school at the age of sixteen and began working in a garage near to the old Brooklands race circuit. Ron had just started his engineering apprenticeship when he joined the Cooper Formula One team in 1966, working as mechanic for their lead driver Jochen Rindt. It was here that he first met Rindt’s friend – Bernie Ecclestone.

Two years later, Rindt moved to Brabham and took Dennis with him. By 1968 Ron had become chief mechanic to Jack Brabham and when, in 1969 Rindt moved on to Team Lotus, Dennis decided to stay on, continuing to work for Sir Jack Brabham.

He worked hard and later recalled that home was somewhere he rarely went, though he did earn well, by the age of twenty “I had an E-type Jaguar. It was unheard of for a twenty-year-old, so I used to get stopped all the time.”

When Sir Jack retired in 1971, Dennis, along with his colleague Neil Trundle, decided to set up a team of their own and established Rondel Racing in Woking. As a new business money was tight and Ron began to look for sponsorship. Through a connection of Ron's then girlfriend, an introduction was made to Tony Vlassopulos, a barrister and son of a Greek ship owner, who was asked to sponsor Rondel. Vlassopulos asked his friend Ken Grob if he was interested too and Grob agreed on the proviso that his son, Ian, could be part of the team. With that agreed, Vlassopulos became the team’s first sponsor.

By the mid-1970s the team was enjoying considerable Formula Two success, having acquired two Brabham BT38s chassis from Ron Tauranac. The team made its debut at Mallory Park in March with drivers Carlos Reutemann and Bob Wollek, though when a serious road accident forced Dennis into a managerial role, he was soon planning to create his own cars.

Ray Jessop was commissioned to design a F2 car for the 1973 season. It was called a “Motul” after the team's principal sponsor and Rondel managed to fund a planned F1 car for 1974. But when the energy crisis affected Motul's backing Vlassopulos and Grob took over the ownership, the car was rebranded as the ‘Token.’

Dennis, now without Trundle, formed a Marlboro-backed F2 team. Then, in 1975, he founded the Project Three team and his cars became race winners. Towards the end of the decade, Ron established the Project Four Racing team, which went on to have great success in Formula 2 and Formula 3, winning championships in 1979 and 1980 again with Marlboro backing.

As his business interests became increasingly successful and increasingly lucrative, Dennis looked again at his aspirations to move up to Formula One; he hired the talented designer John Barnard to head up the innovative design and development of a new F1 car.

Dennis's timing was opportunistic, the previously world championship-winning McLaren team had been plagued by recent poor performance - they had last won a Grand Prix with then defending World Champion James Hunt in 1977 - which had prompted the Philip Morris (owners of the Marlboro brand) executive John Hogan to initiate a takeover of the outfit by Dennis's Project Four operation. This move put the then thirty-four-year-old Dennis in full control of the then rebranded McLaren International operation. A sweet gig if you can get it.

Ron transferred Barnard to the new operation to start work on their new carbon fibre composite chassis, the MP4/1. Dennis also successfully recruited the Porsche automobile firm to build the cars' engines from 1984-87.

The 'MP4' designation originally stood for Marlboro Project Four. After the change of title sponsor in 1997, the same abbreviation was retained, with the 'M' now standing for McLaren. The numbering system was retained until 2017 when it was replaced with 'MCL' following Dennis' departure.

In 1981 Dennis and his business partners bought out the other McLaren shareholders, Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander during a season that also saw McLaren winning races again.

Dennis persuaded Niki Lauda to return to Formula One for the 1982 season and at the season opening South African Grand Prix, the double World Champion lined up alongside Watson at the start. By the end of the year both drivers had secured two victories.

In 1983 Dennis approached the then-Williams backer Mansour Ojjeh and persuaded him to become a partner in McLaren International. Ojjeh invested $5 Million in the Porsche-built turbocharged engines which carried the name of his company, Techniques d'Avant Garde (TAG). Ojjeh and Dennis established TAG Turbo Engines and in September 1983 announced the new engine.

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1983 began with Watson's win in Long Beach and though that was their last win of the year, Lauda did debut the Porsche-powered MP4-1E interim chassis at that season's Dutch Grand Prix. By the next race, the Italian Grand Prix, both cars were powered by turbocharged engines, what had been McLaren-Ford had become McLaren-TAG. Ojjeh, having seen the potential from his initial investment, became the major investor in McLaren, taking 60 per cent of the shares. By the end of the year, Alain Prost had been signed to replace Watson. Pairing him with Niki Lauda meant that everything was set for a title challenge in 1984.

"Anything as fast as the McLarens fell apart, anything as reliable finished later."

Clive James

In only four years Dennis had turned McLaren from an also-ran team into a front-runner, in 1984, with Barnard's revolutionary MP4/2 car, he was rewarded with 12 wins from 16 races and both drivers' and constructors' titles. Lauda took the drivers' crown by a half point from Prost. The McLaren-TAG's reliability was unmatched.

The situation was reversed in 1985 with Prost winning his first World Championship while Lauda only won one race. At his home race in Austria Lauda announced his permanent retirement from Formula One at the end of the season. McLaren finished the season in first, eight points ahead of Ferrari in second.

In 1986, Lauda was replaced by the 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg, who also retired from Formula One at the end of the 1986 season. Dennis signed Stefan Johansson from Ferrari for the 1987 season to join Prost, but the TAG engine was no longer competitive and Dennis approached Honda, who were at the time supplying rivals Williams and Lotus. Williams' unwillingness to accept a Japanese driver (Satoru Nakajima) led Honda to transfer their engine supply to the McLaren team. Midway through the year it was announced that Ayrton Senna would be joining the team, along with Honda, for three years from 1988.

The 1988 McLaren was supremely dominant, taking fifteen of the sixteen races along with fifteen of the sixteen pole positions, and both the drivers' and constructors titles. The team won the Constructors Championship with 199 points, 134 in front of second placed Ferrari while Senna won his first World Championship by three points from Prost. Off track relations between his two drivers were “interesting” and Ron needed all his political skills to maintain the peace.

By the middle of 1989, it was becoming almost impossible to calm his two drivers and, after another fall out over a broken promise between them at the San Marino Grand Prix, the two drivers barely spoke for the rest of the season.

Prost annoyed Dennis by announcing that he would be joining Ferrari for 1990, made comments publicly about both the team and Honda allegedly favouring Senna at Monza. Dennis made a rare public show of his anger when Prost, who won the race, dropped his winners’ trophy to the Tifosi below – Ron threw the Constructors winners’ trophy at Prost's feet and walked off the podium. Later Prost was made to make a public apology over his comments about his treatment under the threat of being sacked before the season ended. They left each other on very happy terms as you can tell.

It is thanks to Prost's 1989 actions with his trophy in Italy that prompted Dennis to rule from that point on McLaren had ownership of all trophies won by the team and its drivers - the drivers are free to have replicas made of their race winning trophies for their own collections if they wish.

Ayrton Senna took back-to-back titles with McLaren in 1990 and 1991 and Ron then signed Mika Häkkinen as a test driver at the end of 1992, but McLaren were not to win another title for another seven years.

Honda left in 1993 and the team endured a tough 1994 period with Peugeot before in October, Ron agreed terms with Mercedes-Benz to supply engines from 1995 onwards. The association with Mercedes would continue until 2014 and is set to enter a new chapter with a revised deal set to start in 2021.

The first couple of seasons of the McLaren-Mercedes relationship were difficult, with a number of teething troubles with both engine and chassis. The 1995 driver, Nigel Mansell, did not even fit into the original car and when a revised chassis was produced Mansell's performances were not as had been hoped and Mika Häkkinen slowly established himself as the team leader. When Mika was hospitalised after a severe crash at Australian Grand Prix, both Ron and his wife stayed sat at Häkkinen’s bedside for several days, only returning to England when they were satisfied that he was out of danger.

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In 1996 Ron brought Williams' designer Adrian Newey to Woking to become the technical director of McLaren and in 1998, Mika took the drivers' title and McLaren took the constructors'. Häkkinen secured a second drivers' title in 1999.

In 2005, Dennis led the team to produce their strongest performance for several years, winning more races than any of their rivals, though they missed out on both championships to the Renault F1 team. It was also announced that Adrian Newey was to join Red Bull Racing from the start of 2006.

In December 2005, McLaren announced both a new title sponsorship deal with Vodafone and the signing of World Champion Fernando Alonso, beginning in 2007. McLaren had a difficult 2006 season and failed to win a race for the first time since the 1996 season. McLaren decided mid-season to end any further development of their 2006 car and instead focus all their efforts on the 2007 car – the MP4-22.

From the start of the 2007 season the McLarens were the cars to beat, with both drivers, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, in the race for the drivers' championship. Ron had decided to hire Alonso as he was known to be able to develop a car and also to challenge and encourage new teammate Hamilton.

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"We weren't racing Kimi, we were basically racing Fernando."

Ron Dennis

How well Ron’s plan worked is a matter for some debate as, throughout the 2007 season, the team suffered from the in-fighting between Alonso and Hamilton. Dennis was always a believer in treating his two drivers equally, though after the 2007 Chinese Grand Prix, this was brought into question. The team's insistence on treating both drivers equally until the final race in Brazil underlined Dennis's core philosophy, even if it did ultimately lose the team the world championship. Alonso left at the end of the year, re-joining Renault.

2007 was also the year of the Formula One espionage controversy, where McLaren was judged to have been complicit in the theft and use of Ferrari intellectual property. The team was fined a record $100 million by the FIA and stripped of all constructor championship points for the season.

2009 would see changes at McLaren. In January Ron announced that he would be stepping down as team principal from 1st March and would be replaced by Martin Whitmarsh. On 16th April 2009 it was reported that he had handed over complete control of the McLaren F1 team to Whitmarsh, as he wished to pursue new challenges and in particular, to focus on the McLaren road car.

In mid-November 2009 the McLaren/Mercedes partnership ended as Mercedes had the Brawn GP team, Mercedes did, however, continue to supply engines to McLaren until 2015, when McLaren would once again be powered by Honda. Dennis said one reason they had parted ways was because of McLaren's plan to become a car manufacturer. The company completed the buy-back of the 40 per cent Mercedes stake in 2011.

The company's first car since the 1990s, the McLaren MP4-12C, launched in 2011 and later the McLaren P1 was put into production in 2014.

On 16 January 2014 it was announced that Ron Dennis has returned to the role of Group CEO of McLaren, combining it with his role as Chairman of McLaren Group.

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In December 2014, he made an attempt to purchase 50% of McLaren Technology Company from Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Ojjeh, after relations with the shareholders had deteriorated, but the supporting investment deals Dennis had arranged failed to materialise and the shareholding structure remained unchanged. In October 2016, he made a second attempt to buy the company again, with an estimated bid of £1.7 billion pounds. However, Ojjeh and Mumtalakat refused his bid and following a two-year power struggle within the company, in November 2016 the majority shareholders of McLaren attempted to force Dennis into taking gardening leave until his contract was due to expire in January 2017.

After failing to receive a court injunction against this decision, Dennis announced on 15 November 2016 that he was stepping down as the boss of McLaren after 35 years, though as he still held a 25% stake in the McLaren Group, he would still be involved in the company.

However, at the end of June 2017, it was announced that he was ending his 37-year association with McLaren by selling his remaining shares to the two main shareholders - Mumtalakat, the Bahrain sovereign investment fund, and Mansour Ojjeh. He also resigned from his position on the board.

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Away from the McLaren Group, he is also one of a number of British business persons to have been an official British Business Ambassador for advanced engineering and manufacturing. With interests in foreign trade, Dennis also became Chairman of the British East Asian Council in 2014.

In 2007, Dennis founded a charity, Dreamchasing, which aims to "help young people achieve their aspirations and, through their successes, to become inspirational role models for others". His charity's first operation was a sponsorship programme for families in Ethiopia, where, supporting the Fida International charity has assisted over forty families out of poverty, additionally paying education costs to some.

Dennis is also a main trustee for Tommy's, a miscarriage help charity.

It was reported in March 2020 that Ron Dennis - is to launch an initiative to reduce the number of sports injuries suffered by young people, having invested a “substantial sum” from his personal fortune to set up a non-profit company dedicated to researching innovations for curbing the toll suffered by adolescents involved in contact sports, he said: “I have spent the past two years looking at how we might tackle preventable injuries that can curtail people’s ability to participate in sport. Each year, the UK sees 2.7 million visits to A&E as a result of young people being injured during sport and this needs addressing. I intend to bring my knowledge of revolutionising motor sport safety into mainstream sports.” Areas likely to be looked at are the long-term impact of contact in rugby and the potential damage to the developing brain caused by football heading.

On 13th April 2020, it was reported that Ron and his daughter, Dr Charlotte Hall have established a project to deliver meals to hard-pressed NHS staff in the UK, with the stated aim being to supply a million meals to doctors, nurses and other professionals through a new scheme, SalutetheNHS.org.

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The Dennis family foundation is donating £1 million in seed funding and £500,000 to match donations by others.

He was clearly an instrumental figure in both McLaren's history and Formula One's but what do you think of Ron Dennis? Let me know in the comments below.

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Comments (7)

  • Even though he went out when McLaren were at the bottom, he will always be a legend.

      9 days ago
    • I feel like he's not everyone's cup of tea but at the same time, there's no denying the positive impact he had on McLaren on the whole and I agree, Ron is a key figure in Formula 1.

        9 days ago
  • Having watched F1 for so long it still seems odd at times not seeing Ron in the paddock, I think the way he left could have been handled differently (better) but, hey, that's business. Another good feature piece on a pinnacle of Motor Sport Engineering, well done

      8 days ago
    • Agreed, Ron leaving could have definitely been handled better but F1 is a cruel sport at times so it isn't necessarily that surprising unfortunately.

        8 days ago
  • Mclaren needs to bring Ron Dennis back. McLaren isn’t mclaren with out him. IMO that was bad karma of shareholder to force out a man who made the mclaren. Mclaren will never win another championship with out Ron.

      9 days ago
    • I agree that they shouldn't have got rid of Ron entirely, he could easily be a valuable member of the team in some other capacity. Still think they're capable of winning a Championship withoht him though.

        9 days ago
    • Current executives at mclaren doesn’t seem like they are nearly organized. Ron always kept organized image where he decided to build the whole factory in white. I just don’t see current executives are living up to standard Ron set years...

      Read more
        8 days ago
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