The De-Ronification Process: What does the future hold for McLaren?
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet..."
Any mention of that line takes me back to my GCSE English class when we were first taught about the work of William Shakespeare and, by extension, Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film. It wasn’t until much later on I really came to appreciate the brilliance of his take on Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare’s rose line has been quoted time and time again, but not often in reference to Formula 1. But when McLaren announced last week that it would be ditching its traditional MP4 naming pattern in favour of a new name, MCL32, for 2017, I could not help but think back to the quote.
The news caused quite a stir in F1 circles, for it was something of a surprise. The only reason we care is because it’s not the name we expected, right?
Wrong. The name matters a lot more. It points to the much wider ‘de-Ronification’ of McLaren that is now in full swing at Woking.
Ron Dennis' departure from McLaren was confirmed back in November, but there were still questions lingering about just how the team would change following his exit. He may have been ousted overnight after a boardroom struggle, but to undo all of that work – 35 years’ worth of it - would be a much longer, drawn-out process (hence my coining of the term ‘de-Ronification’).
It is a nice coincidence that Dennis’ departure has come at the same time as F1’s change in ownership. In both cases - McLaren and F1 - we have historic, prestigious, premium brands that exude class, but are perceived to perhaps be a touch behind the times and are not performing at the peak of their potential.
Liberty Media’s plans for F1 remain a talking point, and will likely do so until we see some real proof of what they want to do with the sport. For McLaren though, the goals are far more straightforward: win races, win championships and return to the top of the F1 mountain after far too long away.
The winds of change at Woking have been rustling the trees for a while. Eric Boullier’s arrival ahead of the 2014 season was important, with the Frenchman opening up about the need to change direction during a chat we had about a year ago during testing.
“We had to go through a restructuring and, if I may say this, bringing back to McLaren a racing culture, to shift the focus from the track back to the factory,” he said. “So everywhere in the company, I asked everybody to reconsider what they’re doing and to be more efficient. The exact words I was using was ‘simpler, faster, better’. And everywhere in the company, from the shop floor to the design office, everybody plays the game and everybody reconsiders how we can better what we’re doing before.”
Boullier’s arrival was part of a multi-layered management structure that McLaren ran with, but Dennis remained top dog - at least until the other shareholders decided otherwise and that it was time for him to leave.
In Dennis’ place came Zak Brown, an American businessman who has long been linked with a top role in F1. Brown has struck commercial deals for pretty much every team in the paddock, leading to suggestions that he could even replace Bernie Ecclestone. Instead, he was announced as McLaren’s new executive director not long after Dennis’ exit, with his official start date coming at the beginning of December.
Brown is a breath of fresh air that, for an organisation as stuck in the 'Dennisian' way of doing things as McLaren, is crucial. He brings along a different dimension.
The early signs of this have come in the decision to ditch the ‘MP4’ moniker from the 2017 car name and the planned overhaul of the livery for the new campaign. MP4 was, after all, intrinsically associated with Dennis. MP4 stood for ‘Marlboro Project 4’ after Dennis took over McLaren with Philip Morris money in 1981, having previously run Project Four Racing in Formula 2 and Formula 3. The first car, the MP4, debuted at the 1981 Argentine Grand Prix.
Therefore, it made sense to break with the past if 2017 truly does mark the start of a new era without Dennis. The last McLaren produced was the M30, making the logical suggestion for a throwback car name to be the M31, picking up where the team left off when it introduced MP4. However, given the 2016 car was called the MP4-31, it would have only bred confusion - so MCL32 it is then…
Curiously, the decision to ditch MP4 came at quite a late stage. Brown told me at Autosport International last month that he expected McLaren to keep using MP4, with other sources confirming that it was indeed the intention to do so at the time. Clearly, there hasn’t been an immediate upheaval and desire to remove all traces of Ron from the team; ditching MP4 wasn’t a top priority for the new regime at all.
Much as the efforts of Bernie Ecclestone must be recognised and truly appreciated by all in F1 following his exit, those at McLaren need to do the same even with Dennis now out of the picture. His attention to detail may have bordered on insanity at times, yet such high standards helped to lift McLaren to the lofty heights it once reached. Also remember that Brown’s arrival was partly down to Dennis. We’re not witnessing a post-revolution sea-change here.
Yet it is crucial that McLaren moves with the times. It was really one of the few remaining teams in F1 that was pulled along by the vision of an individual. The majority of operations used to be - think Enzo Ferrari, think Ken Tyrell, Eddie Jordan, Frank Williams, Tom Walkinshaw, Flavio Briatore; the list goes on - but most outfits have now become more corporate in their ways. Of the teams on the 2017 grid, you could only really say that Williams, Force India and, oddly enough, Haas do that courtesy of owners Frank Williams, Vijay Mallya and Gene Haas respectively.
With Dennis now gone, McLaren will be led jointly by Brown and Jonathan Neale. Below them we have Boullier, who remains racing director. It’s quite a potent triumvirate, all with varying strengths. Jost Capito’s departure after just five months as McLaren Racing CEO came as little surprise, given his hiring was at Dennis’ behest.
The biggest change that we already appear to be seeing at McLaren is acceptance. Dennis had long insisted that his way of doing things was the right way - admirable yet perhaps occasionally misguided confidence - while Brown is freely recognising that there are different ways to go about things in the future.
Case in point: the need for a title sponsor. Dennis refused to budge on a premium asking price for a top sponsor following Vodafone’s exit at the end of 2013, and even said that “title sponsorship doesn't exist anymore as a concept”. Brown, meanwhile, has made it one of his top priorities to find a title sponsor for the team since joining. His goal is to have one in place for 2018, saying it could be a “game changer” for McLaren to get a big-name brand on board.
MP4 may only be a name, yet its loss from the McLaren identity is evidence of the wider changes currently unfolding at Woking. Who knows? Maybe Ron will be proved right all along. Maybe his way was the only way to do things. Maybe we’ll truly appreciate his efforts much further down the line, just as I did with Baz Luhrmann’s version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.
But the more likely scenario? McLaren will now find itself moving with the times once again. After all, it’s healthier to focus on future glories than to cling on to past ones…