The Image of McLaren
Ron Dennis has admitted that McLaren has a rather “cold, not particularly user-friendly and slightly aloof” image in the eyes of some F1 fans and is determined to do something about it. I have heard that assessment from many people but my own feeling is that they are efficient and concentrated, rather than unfriendly.
So what is the problem? Ron Dennis himself seems very approachable and good humored, although he is far more businesslike than his predecessor, the cuddly Teddy Mayer. The Germanic ruthlessness of Mercedes might be rubbing off on the team but I doubt it; Norbert Haug is the jovial face of Mercedes in F1 and hardly fits with any perception of the company as an austere and humorless juggernaut.
I think the answer lies in McLaren’s success. From the moment Ron took over from Teddy, the team assumed a new aura of machinelike efficiency and it was not long before they were dominating the sport. There have been ups and downs in terms of winning races but the company’s success has been evident in their glittering facilities, the expansion into road cars and the huge resources poured into the team. This financial strength and the share deals that so often grab the headlines give the impression of an increasingly vast organization, a faceless corporation that wins through cold efficiency.
It may be very unfair but it is the perception of many F1 fans. And they have a point. Whilst F1 racing remains the main focus of the company, it is quite clear that Ron also enjoys the corporate deals that have made McLaren such a force to be reckoned with. And we should be in awe of his ability to shift so easily from hard-headed business manager to F1 team boss to driver’s confidant and advisor. To have achieved what he has and yet still remain approachable is no mean feat.
But the downside is that his success in building a corporation affects the way people see the team. Renault are an example of how to avoid such an impression; although we know that the car manufacturer is huge, the team looks very independent and separate, mainly because the company picked as flamboyant a manager as Flavio Briatore and allowed him to get on with it. We can still see the Renault team as a small group of passionate and dedicated enthusiasts – the bean counters are hidden.
Ron Dennis is McLaren, however, and so everything that the company is rubs off on the team. It’s back to front in terms of development but we see McLaren as the boardroom gone racing. And no matter how friendly Ron is in interviews, that will not go away.
Consider the contrast with Williams. Frank is a miserable blighter and does not mince his words, Patrick Head is pretty straightforward too, yet we still see the team as a small, independent group of F1 fanatics. There is no massive corporation looming behind them and so Williams preserves that air of the little guy, the David battling the Goliaths. If you want to be popular with the fans, that’s the image to go for; we all love an underdog.
Personally, I think Ron should take no notice and continue as he has always done. When you’re winning, it really doesn’t matter how people perceive you. And it’s far too late to change things now.
Besides, the McLaren launch of their new car was hardly the way to pretend to a new, cuddly image. If you can afford to take over Valencia to demonstrate your car, we’re going to be hard to convince that you’re really a little team of racing enthusiasts.
Incidentally, almost unnoticed, the BMW Sauber team have launched their new car too. As usual, it’s the prettiest of the bunch (in spite of the interesting cooling towers sprouting from the top of the sidepods) and you can watch a video of the presentation by going to the website. In fact, McLaren could learn a thing or two from BMW Sauber’s web design – it’s easily the best out there and doesn’t demand payment before you get access to the real goodies. If Ron wants to be seen as more friendly, he could start by offering for free what is really just advertising for his team. And forget all this “accredited press” nonsense – all they ever do is regurgitate press releases whereas some of us actually put some work and creativity into what we do.