Presiding over a successful F1 team was never quite enough for Ron Dennis. In fact, he’s wanted to start a car company for as long as he can remember, he tells Steve Cropley.
Ron Dennis has wanted to be the boss of a car company fir so long that he’s forgotten exactly when the idea first took shape in his mind. Certainly it was during his earliest motor racing days, when he was still a race mechanic for drivers that included Jochen Rindt and Jack Brabham, and well before he began the meteoric rise through racing’s hierarchy that has established him as Britain’s foremost motorsport team-builder.
“if I were writing my own epitaph,” he says, “I’d like to be remembered as a successful entrepreneur across a variety of disciplines, not just a racing man. Winning grands prix is extremely hard, but understanding the basic concept isn’t so difficult. But creating a successful, well rounded automotive group has many more challenges, and that’s what attracts me now.”
Dennis and McLaren have had two previous brushes with car manufacturing, both combining success and failure. The 1993 McLaren F1 (which we declared “the finest driving machine yet built for the public road”) remains an automotive icon but achieved only a third of the planned 300 units, and only reached financial success when adapted for racing and winning Le Mans in 1995.
The 2003 Mercedes-McLaren SLR(or Mercedes-Benz SLRMcLaren, to give the official title) was made by McLaren in Woking, launched at just under £300,000 and produced until 2009. Around 1200 were built, but even this fell below the 500 a year Mercedes wanted, and the car became a symbol of the differences between two proud partners. A mid-engined, Merc-powered proposal called P8 was briefly contemplated, but it was overtaken by the P11 concept, which has turned into the MP4-12C, powered by McLaren’s own components and the first product of the newly independent McLaren Automotive company.
Dennis, used to keeping secrets all his life, lets little slip about the scale and future products of the car business. What has emerged so far, through casual conversations and cracks in the walls, is that “up to four” models are planned, all mid-engined, all two-seaters, all using the ‘Monocell’ carbonfibre central tub (of which Dennis is inordinately proud) and including at least one open-top model. Loose-lipped suppliers have been led to believe first-year 12C sales should be about 1000 cars, but you won’t hear Dennis saying very much of this, although he does allow that McLaren Automotive sees the 12C as “the core segment” in the models it intends to offer.
“Two-plus-twos and four-doors are certainly not in our plan,” he says, “but we’d be stupid to have a mindset that says we’re not going to do them for all time. Porsche’s move into SUVs has been very, very successful. You’ve got to admire them for it. But we’re an embryonic company. The worst thing we could do is to stray off piste. Our task now is to get the quality right, and mature as a company.
“What I can reveal is that our new McLaren Production Centre,” he gestures at a vast but orderly building site almost out a sight across the lake from the McLaren Technology Centre,” is configured for three shifts at an annual rate of 2000 cars a shift. However, we don’t ever expect to go over two shifts – which means our maximum capacity will be 4000 cars a year.”
The interviewer falls immediately on these numbers; surely they mean McLaren will always be more exclusive than Ferrari and much, much more exclusive than Porsche? This may be true, but Dennis fails to claim such a cheap advantage. The game, he knows, is bigger than this.
“It’s not a question of being exclusive,” he says. “That’s simply the number that fits our business plan. And we’d be foolish to say nothing in that plan would change up or down. For now, our major preoccupation has to be with quality.”
Intriguingly, Dennis says he doesn’t view Ferrari as a key competitor, despite the fact that his car is close in many of its dimensions to the new 458 Italia, and managing director Antony Sheriff will readily admit that much of the car’s benchmarking has been against it. “We have a very healthy respect for Ferrari,” says Dennis, “but I don’t see them as our prime competitor. People will compare the performance, styling and driving capabilities, but I can tell you that our prime targets are owners of other brands. How many will come to us from Ferrari? I’d say it will be a low percentage. I’m more sure that many of our owners will have both.”
It will strike you, if you’ve interviewed car industry bosses before, that Dennis – known as w racing man – sounds remarkably like someone steeped in car industry experience. Has he spent time in other people’s factories, boning up for the new tasks? “Of course I have,” he says, “but you’ve got to remember we have some experience gathered during the F1 and SLRphases. And through racing I’ve had contact with Honda, Porsche, Ford, Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz. If your ambition is to have a car company, you don’t walk around these places with blinkers on.”
Even so, building the 12C without the muscle and scale of an automotive giant has involved a steep learning curve, Dennis admits. “One of my biggest ambitions is to build a perfect supplier network,” he says. “Suppliers absolutely control your destiny. If they do sub-standard work, and you don’t catch it, you’re in for a never-ending headache. Building the network we need, with the required level of commitment, trust and quality, has been very, very challenging.”
Given his passion for detail, Dennis has surely spent many miles chasing details from the driving seats of prototypes – hasn’t he?
“My answer to that,” he says, “is two words: Vince Higgins. Vince was a race mechanic way back in the ‘60s. He worked for McLaren when I was at Brabham.
“We were at Watkins Glen, and in those days it was normal for mechanics to drive cars from the tech centre to the grid, quite a long way. Vince was driving a McLaren when someone stepped in front of him. He swerved and took the back wheel off on a post. From that day I decided there was no case for anyone to drive race cars other than the professionals, and that’s how we work here.
“We have professional engineers whose job is to get the MP4-12C absolutely right, and they need the freedom to do their jobs as well as they can. I did drive some prototypes in Spainwith the other shareholders a year ago, and I’ll make sure I’m up to speed before the car goes on sale. But if I kept jumping in and out it would be too unscientific, too distracting. I’ll do it when the time is right.”
Article published in Autocar special edition dedicated to the MP4-12C