Ron Dennis’s three decades as McLaren team principal, 1980-2009


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Ron Dennis shakes hands with Martin Whitmarsh at the 2009 McLaren launch

Ron Dennis arrived at McLaren in September 1980. The team that scored 11 points that year won a race within 12 months of Dennis taking control.

Since then they’ve added seven constructors’ titles and ten drivers’ championships with a roster of F1’s greats like Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

Now Dennis has announced he is stepping down as team principal and handing over to Martin Whitmarsh. Here’s how Dennis transformed the team Bruce McLaren founded in 1966 into one of the most successful F1 outfits of all time.

Dominating with TAG

Niki Lauda won McLaren’s first championship of the Ron Dennis era

When Ron Dennis arrived as team principal in 1980 the team, which had last won the championship four years earlier, was in a state. The cars were off the pace and unreliable. Main sponsor Marlboro had grown impatient with Teddy Mayer’s management of the squad, and pressed Dennis into the role to sort things out.

He worked quickly – though not quickly enough to keep hot-shot rising talent Alain Prost from walking out at the end of 1980 after one suspension failure too many. No matter. He would be back.

John Barnard was the first of a series of ace designers to work at McLaren, and Dennis’s deal with Hercules made Barnard’s vision of the first carbon fibre monocoque a reality. It revolutionised race car technology, bringing new levels of lightness, stiffness and strength. Andrea de Cesaris infamously tested the cars to destruction in 1981, while John Watson gave Dennis-era McLaren its first victory, appropriately on home ground at Silverstone.

Dennis kept the big deals coming. The Marlboro coffers were raided for a multi-million dollar deal to bring Niki Lauda back from retirement in 1982. With teams converting en masse to turbo power, he persuaded TAG to bankroll Porsche’s development of a 1.5-litre engine which first appeared in the car in 1983.

And in 1984 (pictured top) TAG-Porsche powered McLarens stormed to both championship, with Lauda famously pipping McLaren returnee Prost by half a point. Another pair of titles followed in 1985, with Prost taking the drivers’ title this time. Against fearsome opposition from the Williamses of Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, Prost did it again in 1986.

Personality clashes

Just as Dennis has been renowned for his vision, so his people management skills have often come under fire. Even some of his longest serving employees have confessed to finding him unfathomable: Jo Ramirez wrote in his autobiography:

During all the time that I worked for Ron, he’d always been very supportive, very complimentary about my work. He’d often valued my opinion and, if I made a decision, he usually backed me up. Whenever I was wrong, he showed me a better way. Luckily I never had any major personal or health problems, but if I had, I’m sure he’d have helped me out, as he has countless McLaren employees who’ve had misfortunes. In 2001 [when Ramirez retired], he convinced me to stay as long as possible. […]

Ron Dennis is one of the greatest creators in the sport. As a leader, he inimitable. He has the strongest vision for the future that I’ve ever seen in anyone, and one is constantly learning from him. As a friend you couldn’t have a better one; as an employer, the McLaren record of staff retention speaks for itself. Is it the job that turned him into someone he’d probably rather not be?
“Jo Ramirez: Memoirs of a Racing Man”

Lauda’s retirement in 1985 was one of those infamous occasions where Dennis’s attitude astounded onlookers, as he failed even to mentioned Lauda at a press conference held to announce the Austrian’s retirement.

Prost vs Senna

Ayrton Senna won his second world championship for McLaren in 1990

Keke Rosberg and Stefan Johansson proved only short-term replacements for Lauda. In 1988 Dennis finally got Ayrton Senna behind the wheel of a McLaren, having first tried to sign him five years earlier.

The ferocity of the battle that ensued between Senna and Prost over two seasons at McLaren has become part of F1 folklore. Dennis has always insisted that accusations of favouritism on either side was no more than simple rivalry, and repeated that position as recently as last week.

With Alain he was always very concerned that Ayrton would be favoured by Honda as regards to the engine. So the race engines would be lined up, engine numbers would be written on pieces of paper, put in a hat and they would draw for their engine choice. It was simplistic but the easiest way to ensure that there was no bias on engines.

Prost stormed out after 1989, taking the drivers’ title with him, but that left Senna clear to claim the next two titles. By the end of 1991, McLaren had won four consecutive constructors’ and drivers’ championships. But in later years accusations that Dennis’s policy of driver equality was not all he claimed would return.

The Hakkinen years

Kimi Raikkonen, Mika Hakkinen’s successor, was runner-up in 2003 and 2005

In the mid-’90s the team lapsed in form and endured three win-less seasons from 1994-6. Senna’s considerable retainer had sapped development costs, and the abrupt departure of Honda in 1992 left Dennis searching for a new engine supplier. Lamborghini and Puegeot were rejected before he settled on Mercedes, who remain with the team today.

It was also at this time, having followed a prolonged period of crushing dominance with three years in the wilderness, that Dennis signed a 13 year-old kart racer named Lewis Hamilton on a long-term contract.

The team resumed its dominant position in 1998. Dennis had once again brought together a near-ultimate line-up. The MP4-13 was designed by Adrian Newey, the design genius a clear successor to Barnard and Gordon Murray. The Mercedes engine was among the most powerful on the grid, Bridgestone mastered the new grooved tyres, and Mika Hakkinen was at the very least the next best thing to Michael Schumacher.

The fact that Schumacher never drove for McLaren is an indicator of how serious Dennis was about having the two best drivers available to him rather than just one. There’s no questioning the attractiveness of Schumacher to Mercedes – and from the video below it’s clear Dennis respected his talent too – but would Schumacher have accepted having Hakkinen in the other car?

Post-Hakkinen, the team struggled to find its way. Dennis’s efforts were occupied by building the new McLaren Technology Centre. Its original title ‘Paragon’ speaks volumes about how he views the team he made his own.

With Kimi Raikkonen Dennis failed to re-capture the magic there had been with Hakkinen – and Juan Pablo Montoya was a dubious choice for McLaren right from the off. The out-spoken Colombian won races for the team but the personality match seemed as poor as it had been when Nigel Mansell briefly drove for Dennis in 1995.

2007: Annus horribilis

Hamilton and Alonso’s rivalry was fierce in 2007, and cost the team

The 2007 season should have been McLaren’s triumphant return to form. Dennis had leapt at the opportunity to grab two-time world champion Fernando Alonso from Renault. Meanwhile the Hamilton plan had borne fruit, and the talent Dennis had spotted in 1998 had won the Formula Three Euroseries and GP2 championship in consecutive seasons. A race seat at McLaren for the new season was his reward.

McLaren went to Valencia for a lavish launch in Alonso’s home country. But he and Dennis failed to gel, and Alonso was talking to former team boss Flavio Briatore about a return to Renault as early as March.

The 2007 season could not have been worse for the team. The drivers fell out, Alonso seized every opportunity to lambast the team in the press, and the team was hauled before the FIA for allegedly using confidential information belonging to Ferrari. A controversial series of FIA enquiries saw McLaren thrown out of the constructors’ championship and fined $100m. Dennis’s annus horribilis was complete when he later revealed he had separated from his wife.

The right time to leave

Ron Dennis and the McLaren team celebrate Lewis Hamilton’s title win

Dennis had begun plans for his retirement several years earlier, preparing Martin Whitmarsh to take over at the head of the team.

But leaving at the end of 2007 would have been tantamount to defeat – an acceptance that the charges levelled at him by the FIA and Alonso in 2007 carried weight. Dennis wanted to leave on a high, and in 2008 his protege handed him the means to do just that. Hamilton captured the championship in an unprecedented end to the season, grabbing a vital extra point in the dying seconds of the race.

Perhaps when Hamilton crossed the line in fifth place that was when Dennis knew the time was right for him to step down from them helm.

McLaren will always be the team that Bruce McLaren created. And in almost three decades in control of it Dennis has preserved its original identity, even launching new cars in the outfits’ traditional bright orange from time to time. Dennis is McLaren through and through, and he insists he will remain highly active in the team’s wider business interests.

He is not universally liked, but who is that has achieved such enormous success?

McLaren hasn’t just built racing cars in Dennis’s time, it has created racing heroes. And that is why we are witnessing the end of an era.

Bruce McLaren in a McLaren at Watkins Glen in 1966

Images copyright: (1, 4, 5 & 6), Honda (2 & 3), Ford (7)

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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20 comments on “Ron Dennis’s three decades as McLaren team principal, 1980-2009”

  1. Nice article. I have a question about Senna in the #27 though. Wasn’t 27 historically a Ferarri number? What was it doing on a McLaren?

    (McLaren’s misspelled in the caption for that pic, btw)

    1. Senna had the #27 because Prost went to Ferrari in 1990 thus taking the #1 with him there. They swapped car numbers with mclaren.

  2. A sad, sad day. What a legacy to leave on F1 and the world, though.

    I truly hope that Ron finds the time for an autobiography.

  3. I don’t like him, but just because he didn’t know how to handle the Alonso-Hamilton affair…
    In the other hand, i think he’s preparing for to take Mosley’s position.

  4. I completely agree that it’s the end of an era! Love Ron or hate him he, is an F1 brick!!

    No one can fault his passion and love of racing. Very big shoes to fill for Whitmarsh, but is he another protégé?

    The new car looks great, and a cut above what we have seen so far from Toyota and Ferrari.

    I really can’t wait to see HK and LH blitz the opposition this year:)

  5. It is the end of an era, but also the beginning of a new future. You could say Dennis is handing over the reigns in good hands, and in good shape (unlike many handovers).

    Seeing as Hamilton was Dennis’s unfinished business, the clinching of the World Title (after 9 years since the last) means there’s little else Dennis really has to do, – and if he wants to concentrate hard elsewhere then good luck to him.

  6. It’s so sad to see him move on. He’s been at the head of McLaren since I started watching Formula One way back in the 80’s. Just won’t feel right without him at every race weekend.

    I wonder if there is more to this though? Could he be eyeing up Bernie’s job?

  7. Does anyone think that Ron leaving might pave the way for Alonso at McLaren Part II?

    I always thought it was Ron, rather than Lewis that Alonso had a problem with. And afterall, Prost came back….

    Or is that just wishful thinking?

  8. You know, Pink Peril, that is an interesting thought. I wonder also, now that you’ve mentioned it, if this could potentially lead to McLaren + Alonso/Hamilton part II. Oh how great that would be (They’d get both championships).

    I too, now, live in hope! :P

  9. So Ron is going to be spearheading McLaren’s new road car project. I can’t wait to see that… finally the McLaren F1 will have a sucessor.

    1. the new road car project is not aimed to produce such priceless cars as the mclaren F1. Mclaren is looking to reach wider markets and is currently working on the Mclaren P11 which will be a direct competitor to Ferraris 430

  10. schumi the greatest
    17th January 2009, 9:04

    i think it would be great to see hamilton vs alonso again, especially if mclaren had the best car on the grid, mclaren would claim both tittles no problem. The only reson they didnt in 07 was because it was so close between ferrari and mclaren that the driver equality affected both drivers’ chances of winning the tittle.

    it would be brilliant to see the best 2 drivers in the best car at the same time

  11. Di Montezemolo on Dennis:

    Despite all the polemics and the many clashes we had, Ron Dennis will always be a great person. He and his team have done some extraordinary work over the last decades. I don’t think that he’ll completely leave Formula 1. I appreciated the support he and all the others are giving to FOTA.

  12. its definitely sad. I personally have great respect for Ron and I have to say my favourite constructor still is Mclaren. But as a Kimi fan I would always be disappointed at what Mclaren delivered during those times…

  13. That video of Dennis with Schumacher was very revealing, Schumacher seemed to take offence to Dennis’ warning , which would be proved correct a year or so later at Silverstone. I think they would have had a difficult relationship, Dennis seemed to get on better with relaxed drivers such as Hakkinen and Hamilton, whereas more intense, in and out of the car, drivers like Prost, Senna and Alonso had difficult times with Dennis.

  14. Beautifully written ‘obit’ for Ron – great job Keith. I read somewhere else that one could imagine him taking on a role more similar to that of Luca Di Montezemolo at Ferrari, but suspect he will be a less dominant figurehead than that, giving Whitmarsh more rein.

    Totally agree with Manny that Ron’s paternal style of interaction with his drivers has created as many problems with some, as it has helped others.

    Regardless, there is no more professional operation in F1, and this can only be seen as a direct reflection of Ron’s own zealous obsession with perfection and dedication to McLaren. There can be no more fitting tribute to the man than both titles in 2009.

    1. Thanks Salty!

  15. Shame to see him move on but it’s good to see someone doing so at an appropriate time. I would have liked to see him outlast Max but things can’t be perfect.

    I see from previous comments that people are wondering if this means an Alonso/Hamilton re-pairing might be on the cards. My take on 2007 is that never again will Alonso accept such a competitive team mate. He’s going down the Schumacher path from now on; driver A and driver B. He got beat and it hurt.

  16. On Alonso potentially returning to McLaren, I’m not expecting hell to freeze over any time soon.

  17. Well farewell Big Ron. I am sure he will still be in control of McLaren Group though…..
    Surely this will be start of a campaign to oust Bernie and FOM and put the Constructors back in charge?

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