For more than 40 years, Ron Dennis has been driven by a charismatic combination of unstoppable self-belief, unbridled optimism and unflappable focus.
More than 100 grand prix teams have waxed and waned since McLaren first entered the sport back in May 1966. That statistic is one that Ron is quick to recount – not out of dismissiveness for the failed fortunes of the many, but out of a pride for the sheer tenacity and doggedness that have driven McLaren forwards for more than 50 years.
But Ron isn’t merely a Formula 1 survivor. He’s a fighter. And, of course, he’s a winner. In fact, he’s the most successful team principal in the history of the sport, having overseen 17 of McLaren’s 20 world titles, and 138 of its 182 grand prix victories.
Not that it’s always been plain sailing: any team with a half-century’s worth of history will face the occasional period of hardship, and McLaren is no exception. But the boys from Woking all still remain passionate and super-defensive when it comes to fending off barbs from other teams.
Much like the team’s originators – the indefatigable, bright-eyed leader Bruce McLaren, and his no-nonsense, gruff and gritty lieutenant Denny Hulme – the McLaren boys are a bold and hardy group of individuals. And I’m told that almost all of them looked delighted when they heard that ‘RD’ – as he’s affectionately monickered within the glass and steel façade of MTC – had picked up the company’s reins at the beginning of the year.
His candour in front of the UK media last week set my mind racing back to 1994. Ron was running the somewhat boat-like MP4-9, and was feeling rather frazzled by the gutlessness of its Peugeot engine. They were contracted to use the French V10 until the deal expired – which, thankfully, it did at the end of the year.
But back in his hotel in the centre of Budapest, going into the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, and with a rather measly 14 points on the constructors’ championship scoreboard, he described his personal dilemma – about a company that had become almost too unwieldy to manage easily. Or, at least, comfortably.
For Ron, the most obvious and difficult challenge was, he judged, distributing his time for the most beneficial effect.
“The reality is that there are only a given number of hours in the day,” he said, almost apologetically. “But my job is to ensure that our cars go faster at the next race on the calendar. I don’t think that I’m doing that each and every day.
“I ask myself: ‘Have I contributed?’. I can find myself going through long periods when I don’t feel as though I’ve done enough – simply because of the sheer avalanche of administrative work that never seems to cease.
“Have I moved on and moved forward? Or have I just moved a pile of paperwork from the back of my desk to the front? Some people can be extremely ruthless when it comes to handling these situations. Others may be able live with making flawed decisions, whereas I want to have made a major effort to take the best possible decision, and execute it without compromise.
“That’s always a frustration, because the challenge is always subtly and constantly changing. What you really need is the ability to second-guess how things will unfold, and how things will happen. But that’s often nearly impossible.”
Yet over the past four decades, Ron has always been at the shoulder of his equally committed colleagues, offering them enthusiasm, support and motivation where necessary. But, in many ways, it’s his honesty that makes him so unique, and so disarming.
It’s rare in Formula 1 for someone of such seniority to be so truthful about himself. But such a quality brings to mind another moment – almost 10 years ago to the day – when Ron took the time to talk to the media, and, by the end of the session, I was left reflecting that his openness had felt quite touching.
It was at the 2004 Bahrain Grand Prix – and Ron had been reluctant to accede to requests to sit down and discuss his time with Ayrton Senna on the 10th anniversary of the great Brazilian’s death.
2014 Australian Grand Prix – Free Practice Report
For much of the weekend, Ron had remained implacable: if you recall, McLaren’s 2004 challenger, MP4-19, was not one of Woking’s finest, and Ron not only felt beleaguered by the enormity of the task of making it good (which he duly did, taking the MP4-19B to a spectacular but sole win at Spa in the autumn, courtesy of a very fine drive by Kimi Raikkonen), but equally unwilling to press pause on his grand prix team’s activities in order to discuss the heart-wrenching sadness of losing Ayrton. And to do it during a race weekend, too.
Nonetheless, Ron finally saw that it was his moral duty to sit down with the media, which he duly did on the morning of the race, and he held the audience spellbound as he rolled out tale after incredible tale with all the skill, detail and wit of a master storyteller.
The transcript of that hour-long session is one of those gifts a journalist sometimes gets given – a screed of words that remains invaluable and useful. It’s a piece I often return to – particularly as the memories were recalled with such richness and clear recall.
However, it was Ron’s closing remarks that touched me the most. As the assembled journalists were starting to wind up and return to the media centre, and just as Ron’s mind must surely have started to wander back over to the garage, and the task facing his team on that Sunday afternoon (both McLarens would retire from the race after an uncompetitive showing), he betrayed a beautiful moment of candour that I’ll always remember.
"I don’t mind admitting that we haven’t done a particularly good job this year," he said, as if readying the pistol for the shot to be fired. "And it isn’t only me – it’s everybody in this team. If we were all really happy with what we were doing, I’d understand you [the media] not giving us a break.
"But we came away from the last race of the previous season only narrowly losing the world championship, and we are three races in to 2004, and suddenly everyone says we’re an absolute waste of time. The perception is that we’ve lost the plot as a team.
"That’s very difficult to take – no matter how strong you are. I’m a strong person, but it’s difficult to come to terms with that assertion. And that was also Ayrton’s Achilles’ heel: he couldn’t come to terms with the unfairness that exists in grand prix racing, irrespective of anyone’s previous achievements.
"This sport doesn’t take prisoners and it isn’t easy if you’re on the receiving end. It was extremely difficult for Ayrton, but I’d like to feel that I helped him a great deal.
"He could certainly help me if he were around now…"
Last week, I was once again reminded of Ron’s sincerity: “I may be hard on my people,” he mused, almost as if he were offering up the words for scrutiny. “But I’m much, much, much harder on myself.”
Those, my old friend, are the words of a winner.