In Formula 1 right now, there are a couple of silver cars that are absolutely blitzing the opposition. Okay, if you’re a McLaren fan – and you may well be, given that you're currently reading a blog hosted on the team's official website – then you’re probably of the view that they’re the wrong silver cars out front. But, even so, you couldn’t, and shouldn’t, take anything away from the supreme achievement that’s required to cream the Formula 1 opposition. Red Bull has done it in recent years, Renault before that, Ferrari before that, McLaren before that, etc; Mercedes is doing it now, and congrats are due.
For the McLaren guys, however, the current Mercedes domination is merely a target – a reference point at which to aim as they begin their fightback to the front of the grand prix grid. Believe me, Ron Dennis isn’t simply looking at making up the numbers, or winning the odd grand prix here and there – he never has had that mindset and he never will have it. His mission statement is stark in its simplicity: McLaren will get back to the front, and McLaren will dominate Formula 1 once again. Indeed, in his post-Spanish Grand Prix address to the Woking faithful – i.e., the 600-odd employees of McLaren Racing – I'm told he stated, in uncharacteristically stentorian tones, "The destination is domination."
That's a lofty ambition, but remember that Ron has been where he is now before – more than once in fact – and, better than anyone else, he knows exactly what it takes to create and then steer championship-winning momentum.
Knowing how to win – and having a proven track record of managing periods of domination over a 30-year period – may not guarantee that victory is just around the next corner, but the inner confidence that it generates and inspires is an impressive calling card, by anybody’s standards.
Moreover, Ron knows that domination doesn’t simply come from the incremental, iterative steps that enable teams to chip a tenth or two from their lap-times every fortnight; that's important, of course it is, but, no, the really serious gains come from making big, decisive step-changes (“a quantum leap” is the official Ronspeak term, I believe) that delineate a winning team from its pursuers.
At the beginning of this millennium, domination by Ferrari was assured via game-changing reliability backed by serious pace; but the step-change was the reliability. Renault cannily made its chassis work as one with Michelin’s tyres, and added a so-called mass-damper to the mix. Brawn achieved a similar feat with its double-diffuser. Red Bull did it with its blown-floor. And Mercedes, as we’re now seeing with clockwork regularity, has achieved it by seamlessly mating its brilliant power-unit to its excellent chassis.
In times past, McLaren has been equally revolutionary – and equally successful – and will be again. The M23 took aero cues from Lotus’s ground-breaking 72, but added supreme driveability. The MP4/2 refined McLaren’s carbon-tub ethos, pairing it with a perfectly rounded Porsche/TAG engine package. The MP4/4 was, and to my mind still is, the tidiest Formula 1 package there’s ever been; the MP4-13 was a groovy grooved-tyre monster, and the MP4-23 saw Formula 1 aerodynamics refined to sci-fi-movie levels of stylish sophistication. Game-changers, all.
It’s no surprise that most of my quoted examples belong to the Ron Dennis era of McLaren. After all, more than 30 years ago now, he stamped his firm identity on the team, and its way of going racing. He then applied his philosophy to every aspect of the group’s racing and commercial life.
Somehow, when Ron articulated a viewpoint, it seemed very straightforward and logical, Ronspeak notwithstanding. His critics in the team would usually find their opposition melting like snow in the spring. The logic and focus that propelled Ron’s beloved McLarens to world championship glory were, in retrospect, merely the logical pay-back for the right route taken.
And if Ron were to be believed, it was also the payback for rigorous adherence to his own personal credo: "Why do a sloppy, half-hearted job,” he rhetorically asked, "when you can expend the same effort doing a first-rate one?"
It was a powerful motivational argument – and one that became ever more difficult to cavil with.
Granted, in the scramble to produce decisively competitive cars, compromises sometimes had to be made. But not often. In 1989, when engine supplier Honda inquired of Dennis whether the team would be prepared to accept a switch from belt-driven to gear-driven valve actuation for their forthcoming naturally aspirated V10, Ron and the McLaren engineers got the sniff of a performance increment.
After some measured consideration, they agreed to live with the minor weight penalty that such a switch would involve, but since the Honda V10 would carry them to their next two championship crowns it was a luxury they could willingly accept.
Making that gamble work is simply part of the racer’s mentality - and, lest we forget, Eric Boullier, hired by Ron to work at the racing coal-face, enacting his grand strategy, is a racer too. So make no mistake: 2014 is unlikely to be a vintage season, but there’s big-picture thinking going on down at Woking, and, as Ron so persuasively says, the destination is domination.
Maybe later rather than sooner, but, sure enough, he’ll get there.