Chairman and CEO of the McLaren Group, Ron Dennis, announced this week at the MP4-24 launch that he will be stepping aside from his current role within the organisation. Ron said “It is time, and I have to say it is absolutely 100 percent my decision. It is what I want to do, but I do intend to work much harder. Don’t see it in any shape or form as some sort of retirement. It is very much the opposite. I want to work harder in other areas and having to plan those tasks around the Grand Prix calendar is sometimes disruptive to the process.”
Ron also noted “I will still go to races … because I am passionate” which is not surprising given how much he loves Formula One. Everything that Ron has accomplished in motorsport, and everything that he has built, is a testament to his passion for racing.
The billion dollar empire that McLaren has now become started almost forty years ago as Rondel racing, a small Formula Two outfit that Ron Dennis created and managed for three years. It was Ron’s first foray into motorsport management, although it certainly wasn’t the first time that he had been involved in the sport. In fact, by the time he started Rondel racing in 1971, Ron Dennis was already a highly respected member of the F1 paddock.
Ron Dennis went to a technical college as a teenager and used that to springboard into a role within the Chipstead group, a corporation that owned several motoring trade companies. One of those businesses was the Cooper Car Company and Ron soon moved there working on their Formula Two and Formula Three machines. His work ethic was noted and he rose through the ranks becoming a Formula One mechanic in 1966. In that capacity he worked closely with Jochen Rindt, and when the popular Austrian driver moved to Brabham in 1969, he took Dennis with him.
Rindt only stayed with Brabham for one year before accepting a Lotus contract, but Ron stayed with the team and was given the lucrative role of Chief Mechanic to Sir Jack Brabham. Ron Dennis was only 21 years old at the time which highlights what an incredible achievement that was. Working with the triple world champion was a huge responsibility, especially considering Brabham’s strong engineering background.
Ron had wider ambitions though, and when Sir Jack Brabham retired he decided to start his own team with his deputy mechanic Neil Trundle.
Rondel Racing was born.
Given the close ties that Ron and Neil had with Brabham, they used the team’s customer chassis to compete in the 1971 European Formula Two Championship. They didn’t have any initial capital to start with so negotiated a deal to race the cars on credit, something no other Brabham client was ever allowed to arrange.
Rondel landed a major coup signing Graham Hill to drive in their debut year, and the British superstar scored a heat win in their very first round. He went one better and claimed outright victory in their second event just a week later. Hill could have been series champion if not for the fact that he was ineligible to score points as a current Formula One driver.
Neil and Ron prepared one of the Rondel cars each. Dennis worked with Hill whilst Trundle worked with their other driver, Tim Schenken, who took a trio of second places. Schenken finished the championship in fourth position which was an impressive result for the team’s first year.
It was enough to attract sponsorship from oil company Motul for the following season. The extra cash allowed them to run up to four cars at some events and Rondel had nine drivers compete for them throughout 1972. They scored a few more wins and another fourth place in the championship.
Interestingly, Motul also sponsored Frank Williams’ Formula One Team at the time and it resulted in the two outfits sharing a driver. It was an unusual alliance considering the future rivalry both men had waiting for them in Formula One.
In 1973 the team took another step forward and instead of buying cars from Brabham (or hiring them to be specific) Dennis appointed a designer and Rondel became a full constructor. The cars were called ‘Motuls’ in deference to their sponsor and the chassis scored four podiums and a win in its first five rounds.
The team didn’t do so well in the championship overall, but scored a full trifecta lockout of the podium at the German round.
Things were looking up. Rondel moved into a new factory and Ron Dennis commissioned a Formula One design.
It is worth noting that at this stage Ron Dennis was as old as Lewis Hamilton is now. The similarities in their early success could very well be part of the reason the two share such a close bond today.
Rondel Racing was on the way to bigger and better things.
Sadly, their sponsor was not. Motul lost a lot of revenue as a result of the 1970’s energy crisis and had to withdraw their support from the team. The Grand Prix project was abandoned and the F1 blueprints were sold to a pair of British entrepreneurs who used them to start the ill fated Token F1 Team.
It must have been a bitter blow for Ron Dennis, especially since Motul returned to motor racing sponsorship in 1974 with the BRM F1 team.
Neil Trundle moved on with the cars to Token, but soon teamed up with Dennis again and still works at McLaren today.
Ron started Project Three, a Formula Three team that never really got off the ground. When it was shut down within twelve months he tried again and created Project Four. This effort was far more successful, even if the name was not so inventive.
Project Four competed in Formula Two, Formula Three, and the BMW Procar series claiming numerous championships along the way. They were most successful in British Formula Three where they claimed the title in 1979 and 1980.
It is quite amusing now to consider that Ron Dennis bought the chassis for many of the Project Four cars off Max Mosley who was part of the management at March Engineering. The two certainly aren’t great friends today, so it’s funny to think that Ron used to be one of Max’s best customers.
Perhaps the best thing that Project Four had going for them was their sponsorship deal with Marlboro. When the cigarette company learnt that Ron Dennis had ambitions to take the team into Formula One they came up with a better idea.
The Marlboro sponsored McLaren F1 team was in the doldrums, so a deal was arranged where Project Four would merge with the flailing Grand Prix outfit. McLaren International was the result and Ron Dennis was given the reigns.
The MP4-24 that was launched this week still makes reference to that takeover, as the first three digits stand for Marlboro Project Four (although some say the M now stands for McLaren). That ‘Marlboro’ designation on the car caused initial uproar when the takeover was completed because many felt it was disrespectful to call the cars Marlboros instead of McLarens. One of the motoring magazines suggested that Bruce McLaren would turn in his grave.
There was no need to worry though, because there cannot have been a better custodian of the McLaren brand than Ron Dennis.
The rest, they say, is history.