Before I got involved in Formula 1 and joined McLaren, I knew very little about Mr Ron Dennis.
I knew he was very wealthy, I knew he was very important in the sport and I knew he had very little hair. I imagined he must have a huge, futuristic office and sit in an enormous black leather chair stroking a white cat upon his dark-suited knee.
Having worked for the man for almost a decade, of course I now know very differently…there’s no way he’d have a white cat, it would have to be black or grey and there’s absolutely no way he’d have it on his knee, or indeed even stroke it without a glove on.
Joking aside, it’s often difficult to envisage the perception of others towards people you know or work with. Ron’s character is something the media often have a field day with, mocking and caricaturing the more obscure elements and making him out to a bit of a nutter at times. He’s definitely someone with a certain mystery about his real self and of course, as with most sections of the media, it doesn’t take much to be missing from the full picture for the creative side of the press to fill in any gaps with an inventive solution.
With Ron’s public persona however, I’ve no real doubt that to some extent he’s deliberately shaped the way he’s been received over the years, just as he’s been in control of almost everything else in his professional career. I can only read and listen to people talk about his early days in the sport, but it’s clear he’s been a fighter and taken total charge of his own destiny.
In all my years at McLaren I could probably count on one hand the amount of times I actually spoke to Ron one to one. Most at the team would say that’s possibly a good thing, as more regular contact would probably have meant either being in trouble or having more opportunity to get myself in trouble. Amazingly, I never made it into his office, so didn’t get to satisfy my curiosity of the ‘evil villain’ type fantasy I’d held for so many years.
That distance between the figurehead of the company and the guys and girls of the factory floor only served to increase the mystery surrounding our leader. He was almost mythical in that very few people actually knew him. Those of us on the race team at least knew he really existed as he’d walk by us, through the garage, to take his seat on the pitwall during sessions. For the hundreds of folk based back in Woking however, some could be forgiven for questioning his very existence at times. Likened perhaps to a deity, they were told to believe in his ways, follow his orders and always felt his presence, but rarely had any proof of his actual being.
His ways, of course, are what have built the McLaren Group of companies into the impressive and successful portfolio they are today. They’re also what made him a complete pain in the arse to work for.
I’ve seen people come and go at McLaren, some good people, but who simply couldn’t work under the conditions and expectations Ron enforces. I don’t mean it to sound like a far-eastern sweatshop, because it’s obviously far from that, but Ron strives for perfection in every area of his life and demands the same from every single one of his employees. You may think that’s how things should be at a Formula 1 team, but I’m talking perfection on a molecular scale. Perfection on a scale where, at times, you could spend more time cleaning away and straightening items on your desk, or wiping down the work benches, than actually working on anything productive like designing or building Formula 1 cars.
For instance, a few seasons ago the team suffered ‘heat-soak’ issues with the bodywork burning around the exhausts each time the car stopped in the pitlane. An old rag, soaked in a bucket of cold water was laid onto the sidepod each time it returned from a run and was reversed into the garage, to alleviate the problem. When Ron next attended a race and saw this going on he hit the roof. Next race they had nicely tailored and shaped black towels, each beautifully embroidered with the drivers initials, and the bucket was kept well out of sight.
Ron openly admits he can be difficult to live with and has a certain level of OCD, but it’s not always easy for people without the condition to understand and work within the same boundaries. At McLaren everything has to be done a certain way, Ron’s way, and I can assure you it’s enough to drive you to despair on a regular basis. Over time, the ones who do stick it out, grow accustomed to the idiosyncrasies and probably inherit a small part of Ron’s personality in the process. I’ve often thought to myself he probably takes enormous satisfaction from the notion he was striving to create his own small population of perfect corporate clones.
It’s fair to say I probably couldn’t be described as a ‘perfect corporate clone’ and, on more than one occasion, managed to incur the wrath of the boss for enjoying myself a little too much or going slightly over the top with a prank or two.
At the Australian GP of 2004 I arrived for the first race of the season with almost shoulder-length hair, something which in itself raised Ron’s blood pressure considerably as it didn’t fit the team’s ‘image’. After the race, with a day off before flying on to Malaysia for a week’s holiday preceding round two, most people spent a day at the beach, on a boat, or sightseeing. On a fairly spur of the moment decision, I walked into a Melbourne hair salon and spent six hours having my lengthy mane transformed into some seriously funky dreadlocks. I then spent a week chilling by the pool and enjoying the Kuala Lumpur nightlife before reporting for duty in the days before the next race.
The Malaysia GP went without a hitch and the raging response I’d feared from Ron never came. Until, that is, I returned to the UK for another break between races. The phone call came and I was summoned to the factory where I was, in no uncertain terms, enlightened as to Mr Dennis’ feelings towards my new look. Let’s just say he can be a persuasive man and so a week later when I arrived for the Brazilian GP, the dreads had gone and I blended reluctantly back into the crowd.
Over my time there I popped up a few times on Ron’s radar, mostly I have to say for all the wrong reasons, but in 2008 at the inaugural Singapore GP, he came to my rescue in the most unlikely fashion.
That year he’d split from Lisa, his wife of 22 years, and it could be said, was letting his hair down, so to speak, in the aftermath. Ron began being seen at parties and, occasionally, kept the most un-Ron Dennis like of company. At a beach party I was at on the Saturday night before the race, he and his group arrived flanked by hangers-on and were ushered in as VIPs. I decided to steer well clear and hope not to be noticed.
It was obviously pretty rare that Ron and I would frequent the same nightspots and as the sun began to come up I pondered my escape, fearing the consequences of being discovered not tucked up in bed at this ridiculous hour.
To my horror, the queue for taxis stretched forever and, with the prospect of not actually being able to get back the considerable distance to my hotel becoming serious, Ron appeared over my shoulder.
Realising my dilemma and without apparent judgement, he made a quick call and moments later his chauffeur arrived in a blacked-out Mercedes. With a simple, “Send it back for me when you’re done”. I, along with my friends, were on our way home. It was never mentioned again.
When the team suffered soul destroying disappointments like Mika’s last-lap failure from the lead in Barcelona ’99, or Kimi’s at Nurburgring ’05, Ron would gather us together and deliver a speech worthy of world leaders, or as some cheekily suggested, Eric Cantona. He’d tell us that whenever he suffered such disappointments, or to put it into Ronspeak, ‘the non-fulfilment of his hopes and pre-selected targets’, that he’d allow himself the time it took between his feet leaving the bed in the morning and them touching the floor next to the bed, to dwell on the subject before seizing the next day and focusing on the next challenge. Of course we all sniggered behind his back at the time, but that’s genuinely how he lives his life and when you stop and think about it, he makes some sense.
It’s not really until I left McLaren in 2009, that despite earlier saying he was a pain in the arse to work for, I began to fully appreciate and develop the enormous respect I have for Ron Dennis today.
The incredible levels of professionalism and attention to detail he insists upon have created a well deserved reputation for the team. Aside from contributing to success on track, they’ve also played a huge part in attracting, not just sponsors, but the right sponsors, too. The other elements to the McLaren Group now benefit from being associated with the McLaren Racing brand and what that means to people, with the road car business being a prime example. Ron’s an astute businessman, but he’s an impressively forward-thinking one. In pushing the boundaries within McLaren over the years, he’s forced other teams to retaliate and therefore significantly raised the bar throughout Formula 1 in terms of the sport’s ‘show’, image and branding opportunities. He’s not just been a key figure in his own company, but in Formula 1 itself and rarely, in my opinion, is he credited enough for that.
At the end of the day, Ron Dennis, with all his quirks and imperfections, is a good man. He’s a generous man, I’ve heard remarkable tales of charitable giving without allowing any public credit or recognition for his offerings. He’s also a man who respects and looks after those he considers deserve it, with the many folk still at McLaren today, who worked with him right back in the early days of his McLaren takeover, being genuine testament to that.
A tiny bit of Ron’s definitely rubbed off on me, as I’m sure it does with everyone who spends – or spent – significant time under his guidance and I’m actually really pleased about that. I like to think I’m a better person for my experiences, even if Mrs Priestley may get a little frustrated at my annoyance if even the tiniest piece of bin liner’s exposed over the top of the kitchen waste bin or the dishwasher’s not loaded in the absolute, most efficient way possible.
This piece first appeared on Marc’s official website, www.f1elvis.com