Farewell to a man whose passion for competition shaped McLaren and F1

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On Sunday in Baku, Formula 1 honoured two late personalities with a minute’s silence: former FIA president Max Mosley, and Mansour Ojjeh. The former was well-known beyond the sport; the latter’s name was familiar only to hardcore F1 fans. Yet the Parisian-born billionaire hugely influenced the sport from the sidelines without ever seeking the personal glory he so undisputedly deserved.

Ojjeh, who died on Sunday morning at the age of 68, came into Formula 1 via Frank Williams and his eponymous team in 1978. Ojjeh’s Syrian-born father Akram operated his conglomerate out of Paris and Luxembourg, trading in commodities as diverse as aviation, arms and real estate under the TAG banner, and enjoyed close relations with the House of Saud. Hence Mansour’s birthplace, although he later moved to Geneva.

When the royal house agreed to sponsor then-struggling Williams via Saudia Airlines they co-opted parties with whom they shared commercial links. One such company was Techniques d’Avant Garde – as TAG was formally known – and Mansour became the family’s contact with Williams. The team’s first title followed in 1980, and there are no doubts Ojjeh enjoyed F1’s hustle and bustle, although he stayed out of the limelight.

In 1983 Ojjeh took a call from McLaren’s Ron Dennis, then seeking a backer for a V6 turbo engine to be built by Porsche to specifications laid down by technical director John Barnard. Despite being a Williams sponsor, Ojjeh agreed to bankroll the project provided the TAG Turbo logo appeared on the engine covers. A year later the engine won the first of three consecutive drivers titles with Niki Lauda followed by Alain Prost in the next two years.

Ojjeh’s TAG motors took Lauda to his third and final F1 title
Never one to rest on his laurels, in 1985 Ojjeh acquired the iconic Heuer watch brand, renaming it TAG Heuer. It was later made famous by a succession of Ayrton Senna commercials using the strapline ‘Don’t crack under pressure’.

Shortly thereafter Barnard departed McLaren and Ojjeh bought into the team, via nominee companies, increasing his holdings to 50%, joint equal with Dennis. Ojjeh drove a succession of ‘hot’ customised cars, including a Porsche 911 powered by a road-going version of the TAG Turbo, and once suggested that Williams build a road-going sports car, which Frank declined.

Ojjeh set his sights on a McLaren supercar and outlined his plan to Dennis and new technical director Gordon Murray while the trio was stranded in Milan’s Linate Airport after the 1988 Italian Grand Prix. The limited edition McLaren F1 road car, a modern icon, was the result. Success has many fathers and there are no doubts Murray’s design genius and Dennis’ dogged determination ‘made’ the car, but Ojjeh’s dream and funding made possible what many still believe to be the world’s best supercar.

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McLaren crew sported armbands in memory of Ojjeh at Baku
The race team rewrote history – winning 15 of 16 grands prix in 1988 (now powered by Honda) and taking serial titles with Senna and Prost – before hitting a fallow period. Ojjeh’s funding and belief smoothed over the inevitable financial troughs suffered by all race teams as results waxed and waned. McLaren’s survival as F1’s second-oldest team is largely down to his support. Never one to flaunt his wealth, estimates placed his fortune at £3bn.

However, Ojjeh’s biggest professional challenge lay ahead: Spygate, which saw McLaren fined $100m after being found guilty of sporting breaches by the FIA, presided over by Mosley. By then Ojjeh and Dennis had sold a total of 60% of McLaren Group to Mercedes and Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund – Ojjeh was friendly with the desert island’s royal family – but it was he who steered the ship diplomatically.

Around this that relations between Dennis and Ojjeh chilled, then froze over – they never recovered, suggesting a deeply personal fall-out – but he kept faith in McLaren. In 2013 he underwent a double lung transplant – according to sources the first attempt was unsuccessful, and the operation was repeated – but a year later he re-appeared in the paddock, still as courteous, polite and understated as ever.

Ojjeh in 2018
Little did he know then that McLaren was heading for a disastrous period under Dennis – who had returned to the helm of the team after a spell running the resurrected Automotive division – and cars powered by Honda’s unsuccessful early hybrids. Dennis was ousted; Ojjeh and the Bahrainis restructured the company, primarily by bankrolling a switch to Renault power units, then recently Mercedes.

Although unconfirmed, sources suggest that it was Ojjeh who engineered McLaren’s deal to reunite with Mercedes after being refused by executives at the latter team. Ojjeh knew Ola Källenius, chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz from the Swede’s tenure as Mercedes nominee director on the McLaren board, and appealed directly. Deal done, without which McLaren would still be with Renault.

As Ojjeh’s health declined so he played a less visible role in the company, yet his heart and mind were still fully in it and one can only imagine the pleasures he felt as McLaren’s fight back began. True, world titles remain some way off, but so they were when TAG first sponsored Williams back in 1978.

I cannot claim to having known Mansour personally, having shaken hands thrice and nodded reciprocated greetings across the McLaren hospitality a few times. But I recall a man whose courtesy and manners remind of days gone by, and above all, whose passion for F1 and McLaren remained undiminished regardless of what this most capricious of sports threw his way.

He was a true enthusiast to the end, without whom McLaren would likely have been consigned to history. Rest in peace Mansour – your legacy is secure.

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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18 comments on “Farewell to a man whose passion for competition shaped McLaren and F1”

  1. Lovely piece. But all these years Ron has been painted as the hero the champion that steered mclaren to greatness. Now with all due respect Manssour is the 1 that seems to have been the true mastermind and Ron the villain… Abit weird for me personally.

    1. Sam Donaldson (ABC News)
      11th June 2021, 12:42

      “….courtesy and manners remind of days gone by…”

      So true.

    2. In Brazil, Galvão Bueno, the main commentator of Globo TV, F1 broadcaster for almost forty years, until 2020, always mentioned Mansour Ojjeh as someone as important as Dennis for McLaren

      Reply moderated
  2. Wow, he was a true living legend… RIP

    Great article autobiography

  3. Thank you Dieter for this great article. He is a McLaren legend.

  4. Chris Horton
    11th June 2021, 9:20

    Lovely article. Rest in peace Mansour

    Reply moderated
  5. Very respectful, well written and informative Obituary. Thanks Dieter.

  6. I always wondered, how did it come about that TAG Heuer is sponsoring RBR?
    I thought this might have been in the wake of the fall-out with Dennis, but Mansour was still with McLaren to the end?

    1. I asked myself the same question….

  7. TAG sold control of TAG Heuer to LVMH in 1999, although close ties with McLaren remained until 2015. The new CEO decided he wanted a different direction.

    1. Thanks @dieterrencken for a very informative article. I’m going to tag @john-thereyougo as I’m guessing this is an answer to his question. But a very interesting and touching obituary. Thank you Mansour. Rest In Peace.

    2. Thank you Dieter (@dieterrencken) for this lovely obituary.

  8. Great article and a deserved obituary. Thanks, was a great read that gave me answers to many of the things i wondered about. What a legendary example of love for the sport and the team.

  9. Very nice article about an interesting man, although still unclear about the switch to Mercedes engine as I seem to remember mutterings from Wolff that they had been prepared to supply their former team no one had even asked them for it.

    Also quite curious what the fallout with Dennis was about.

    1. quite curious what the fallout with Dennis was about.

      About being Ron Dennis, ain’t that quite enough?

  10. Someone who had a deep personal fall-out with the loathsome Ron “we’re racing Alonso” Dennis cannot be all bad

  11. Thank you Dieter for that. R.I.P. Mansour.
    1980 WDC was AJ. Jonesy being our first since Jack B. Actually, if it had not been for the insane point scoring system [season divided into 2 halves, and I think, only the best 5 scores from each half counted] in 1979, AJ/Williams/Mansour would have won that too!
    Recall AJ mentioning Mansour’s name many times whilst at Williams & later doing TV commentary. Also said due to the Saudia Airlines sponsorship – NO alcohol on the podium for him/Carlos Reutemann.
    That Porsche 911 TAG Turbo would have been an awesome Q car. Wonder where it is now?
    Believe Mansour went with Dennis because Frank would not entertain Mansour’s vision of a super road car.

    Dieter – consider asking Frank/AJ for a comment?

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