CAR interviews McLaren Automotive boss Ron Dennis (2009)

Published: 18 May 2009

It’s been an interesting start to the year for Ron Dennis. In the past five months he’s pulled out of F1, his race team has been hauled up in front of the FIA like a naughty schoolboy for telling porkies, on-track performance from the 2009 McLaren car has been abysmal at best and now he’s about to launch a range of McLaren supercars in the pitch black depths of the worst recession in living memory. So when he clears his throat and starts talking, CAR listens…

Ron Dennis on his departure from F1

This year, for the first time in almost 40 years Dennis watched a grand prix from his sofa rather than the pit wall. Although he attended the Australian Grand Prix at the start of the season, his decision to hand over controls of the group’s motorsport activities to Martin Whitmarsh saw him sit out the next race. Unthinkable for Dennis?

‘Not really,’ he says. ‘I watched the Malaysian grand prix on the TV and I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I was expecting to feel more emotional about it, to have withdrawal symptoms but I felt nothing. That’s when I realised it was time for a change. I don’t feel the same way about F1 any more.’

Dennis says he agonised over his decision to step aside but it was his decision alone. ‘It was 100% my decision. No one asked me to make it. I don’t have any qualms about my decision.’

Cynics might argue that his decision to pull out of the motorsport side of McLaren’s activities and relinquish control to Martin Whitmarsh may have been a placatory move to help smoothe the FIA’s feathers that Dennis seems to ruffle so often and so quickly. ‘Well, I’m sure Max and Bernie will not be displeased by my decision to leave Formula One...’

Ron Dennis on Lewis Hamilton

What of his relationship with Lewis Hamilton? ‘My relationship with Lewis has not deteriorated. I have no problem with Lewis and Anthony (but) I am distraught over the lack of performance of our cars. We will catch up later in the year.’

But that is Whitmarsh’s lookout. Dennis wants to shift his attention to growing the McLaren Group’s interests outside of F1. ‘This change reflects my need to see this group grow. We have to grow beyond F1 and I want to double the value of McLaren within the next three to five years.’ Dennis believes the route to that expansion is through McLaren Automotive.

Ron Dennis on the future of McLaren road cars

‘I believe road cars are the future of the McLaren Group and I truly believe our timing is right. We are fiercely ambitious and I will power this into reality,’ says Dennis. Pursuing what he calls a ‘debt aversion strategy’ Dennis is selling off 48% of the McLaren Automotive group to raise the £250m he estimates he will need to turn Woking into England’s Maranello. ‘And we’ve already secured a significant percentage of that sum.’

‘We plan to achieve sales volumes of 1000 in 2011, rising to 4000 across the range. It will be three to four years before we have a full line-up.’ And the cars will be built in the UK, with an announcement of the plant’s location expected before the end of the month. ‘McLaren will be fundamentally different in its approach to its cars – efficiency is the key to getting the most out of their components and our cars will set new standards for environmentalism.’

We'll finally see the new McLaren P11 road car this summer. Stay tuned to CAR for the full story. The current stormy economic climate may cast a shadow over its launch, but it’s easy to believe Dennis as he rolls out his plan to take on – and beat –  Ferrari and Lamborghini. This is a man who has chalked up 20 F1 world championships and the McLaren F1 supercar. If he can't do it, no one else can.

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By Ben Whitworth

Contributing editor, sartorial over-achiever, HANS device shirt collars