Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, July 14, 2000

Secret of McLaren's Success: Attention to Every Detail

Formula One

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Ron Dennis reached across the spotless table, picked up the interviewer's pen and turned the exposed tip away from the interviewer's Lacoste shirtsleeve.

Few habituŽs of the Formula One paddock would be surprised with this move by the owner and director of Formula One's most successful team. By caring for every detail of the team, car and working environment, Dennis has brought 16 world titles to McLaren since he joined in 1980.

Two weeks ago at the French Grand Prix he renewed the contract of his driver David Coulthard and confirmed that Mika Hakkinen, who won the last two drivers' titles with the team, would also keep his job. Almost every other team postpones such decisions until the autumn.

''We think one of the most constructive things we can do to make our task a little easier and to really get focused,'' Dennis said, ''is to make sure the drivers know where they stand for the balance not only of this year, but next year. I think it will extract that little bit more from both of them.''

Two days later Coulthard won the race and Hakkinen came in second. As a result, Coulthard comes to the Austrian Grand Prix near Zeltweg on Sunday only 12 points behind Michael Schumacher of Ferrari, who leads the drivers' series. McLaren is only six points behind Ferrari in the team standings.

By the colorful standards of many of the team's competitors, the silver-gray and black McLaren cars and motor homes are sober and cold looking. But by most accounts Dennis's infinite capacity for caring makes McLaren a warm place to work.

Gerhard Berger, who drove for McLaren from 1990 to 1992 alongside Ayrton Senna, said, ''It's not the impression one gets from the outside, but once you are one of his group, even if you have a bad day, he backs you up and he stays behind you, whether it's mechanics, drivers, or engineers.''

Dennis cares so much about bringing success to the team that he is said to suffer physical pain if it does not win.

Dennis noted that failure is seen by millions of television viewers. ''It's a very painful experience to go back to your hometown and have the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and the guy that cuts your hair, your wife, your kids, there's nowhere to hide.''

It was also in caring about the way he appeared to his family that drove him to a career in motor racing in the first place. He said two taunts deeply embarrassed him, the first when he was about 10.

''I was watching a male ballet dancer on television,'' he said, ''and I said, 'I believe that anyone that wants to be a ballet dancer can be, and it is only a question of having the desire.' To which there was a normal brotherly nasty remark made, and everybody in the whole house falling around laughing.''

The embarrassment was even worse when as a teenager he said he planned to go into car racing.

''Again it was lots of jibes and laughter, from my brother specifically,'' he said. ''And it lit in me a deep determination that has always filled me with a sort of, 'I'll show them,' attitude. And a commitment to do whatever was necessary to get into motor sport.''

He started as a teenager by serving coffee and cleaning up the garage at the Brabham team, working for free while living at home until he was 22. By then he was already a race veteran. His first race was when he was 18, and he went as a mechanic with the Cooper team to the Mexican Grand Prix in 1966.

''I was at least 10 years younger than anyone else in the pit lane and probably closer to 20,'' he said. ''And that was a big advantage when five, 10 years down the road I had all the experience that would normally be attributable to someone who was 40, 50 years old.''

He rose through the hierarchy to become chief mechanic, the equivalent of a team manager today. A turning point came when his then team owner, Jack Brabham, gave him complete responsibility for his Formula Two team.

''Because we had Formula One competence that we applied to a lower category, the team was very successful and it pretty much re-wrote the way that you went motor racing,'' he said. ''We put total emphasis on preparation. We had the most immaculate racing cars and transporters and workshops. Dirt was something that we just fought against. And it put us in a different league.''

It was the beginning of the Dennis reputation for cleanliness in a sport that is fundamentally about grease. His 350-person race team is issued McLaren clothes it must wear even back at the spotless factory.

The professionalism not only appeals to Dennis's personal manias, but impresses sponsors. In the late 1970s the Philip Morris Co., the main sponsor of the ailing McLaren team, took notice of his skill and approach and invited Dennis to join them. He merged his team of the time, called Project Four, with McLaren to form McLaren International.

With an engineer named John Barnard, he created a car made of carbon composites, which eventually won both the drivers' and constructors' titles in 1984 with Niki Lauda at the wheel. Now every Formula One car has a carbon chassis.

Through the second half of the 1980s the team dominated the sport with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, who together won 15 of the 16 races in 1988. Prost left in 1990, and Senna left after the 1993 season, at the start of the most difficult period for the team.

''We essentially went into self-destruction mode,'' Dennis said. ''We had become so used to winning that it seemed there was nothing we could do to not win. And we lost sense of things.''

He hired Hakkinen in 1993 and Coulthard in 1996. But the pivotal moment was when he took on Mercedes as an engine supplier in 1995. After a couple of bad years with Sauber, the German car manufacturer was hungry for victory, and McLaren's longest winless streak ended in 1997 at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix by Coulthard. It won both the constructors and the drivers' championships in 1998 and the drivers' championship in 1999.

Dennis said the team's goal is to win every race. But he said the International Automobile Federation, the sport's governing body, would never allow it. Last year at the Malaysian Grand Prix McLaren had won the constructors' world championship until an appeal court overturned a steward's decision that the Ferrari cars were illegal.

''In my more paranoid moments I think they're out to get us,'' he said. ''But all that means is that when we win, we really have to win by all that much more.''

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