In 1966, Bruce McLaren decided to expand his already-successful racing team and enter Formula One. He brought together a band of like-minded enthusiasts including manager Teddy Meyer.
By Graham Duxbury
Bruce made the team’s GP debut at the 1966 Monaco GP and took the team’s first win at the 1968 Belgian GP. Teammate Denny Hulme won the 1968 Italian and Canadian Grands Prix.
Tragically, Bruce was killed in 1970 in a testing accident. But, thanks to the steadying hand of Meyer, the team survived, going on to win world championships with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1974 and James Hunt in 1976.
Unfortunately, the team then failed to capitalise on new, emerging “ground-effect” aerodynamic technology and Gordon Coppuck’s design team missed a golden opportunity. The McLaren cars of the late 1970s were described by Mayer as “quite diabolical”.
A new direction, from new leadership was urgently needed and it came in the form of Ron Dennis who merged his own Project Four team (competing in Formula Two) with McLaren and took over the management reigns in a deal massaged by sponsor, Marlboro cigarettes.
Under Dennis (and new designer John Barnard), the facelifted McLaren team flourished, winning world championships for Niki Lauda (1984), Alain Prost (1985, 1986 and 1989), Ayrton Senna (1988, 1990 and 1991), Mika Hakkinen (1998 and 1999) and Lewis Hamilton in 2008.
Around this time, Dennis was made an offer by Daimler Benz whose Mercedes-Benz engines powered his cars, to purchase a greater share of the team (it already was a significant investor). Ron rejected the overture, setting up the move by Mercedes to purchase Brawn GP and so gain outright ownership of a Mercedes-powered “Silver Arrows” team.
To make matters worse, Ron also lost a sizable amount of sponsorship when cellular network giant Vodaphone departed. Owners of the Johnnie Walker whisky brand, an associate sponsor of the team since 2005, offered to take over as title sponsor at the end of 2013, but Ron turned down its offer for being “too small”.
This was a seminal moment and the beginning of the fall of the great McLaren team which had won an unprecedented eight World Constructors’ championships and 12 Drivers’ titles. It is still the second most successful team in F1 with 182 victories (to Ferrari’s 235), The last win, however, was Jenson Buttons’ at the 2012 Brazilian GP.
Is Bruce McLaren’s legacy in jeopardy? Has Ron’s long list of indiscretions – which range from the $100-million fine the team received for obtaining stolen Ferrari engineering blueprints, to his appointing and then firing the competent CEO Martin Whitmarsh in 2013 for a “lack of success” – placed the future of the McLaren F1 team at risk?
Ron is described by respected journalist and author Nigel Roebuck as “one of the strangest people I have ever known – complex, obsessive, socially gauche”.
It came as no surprise when, in 2017, the McLaren board of directors, after many provocations, finally asked Ron to depart (and accept an offer of a few hundred million pounds for his shares). He refused to go quietly and sued the team. He lost.
If management problems weren’t enough, desperate design issues have since surfaced. McLaren had decided to opt for Honda engines to replace the Mercedes power units. But the Japanese engines were unreliable and overwhelming cracks in the McLaren-Honda relationship soon developed.
McLaren is now led by the team’s executive director Zak Brown – an American sports marketer and team owner – who chose to publicly berate the Japanese manufacturer. There was “loss of face” all round and Honda will now partner Red Bull in 2019.
In the meantime, McLaren’s chassis, now Renault powered, was exposed as well below par and far from a match for the 2018 Renault-powered Red Bull chassis, as Brown had boasted it would be.
To make matters worse, Brown seems to be spreading the McLaren motorsport effort more thinly, planning an entry in the 2019 Indy500 and other ventures, which will surely detract from the urgent need to rebuild and refocus the F1 team.
An insightful view of the current McLaren problem comes from its former and now long-retired designer, John Barnard. Speaking to the media he reportedly said: “I think it’s a fundamental problem of technical leadership, because I don’t think there is any there.”