Thursday, April 16, 2015

Frank Williams: Racer

"I never look back to the old days when we were struggling and marvel at where we are now," says Frank Williams, "nor do I gloat over any current success. The reason for this is that I am very aware of the vulnerability of it all. And I have great sympathy for smaller teams that are trying to make their way and also for the top teams that find themselves faltering occasionally."

It's hard to believe that the team that is now a charter member of the F1 establishment was once so bad that it was treated as a joke. It helps that Frank Williams has a good sense of humour. He also has great determination, perseverance and resilience, qualities that have helped him survive some terrible setbacks. During his labourious climb to the heights of success at the pinnacle of motorsport he often fell back into deep valleys of failure and despair. Each time he dusted himself and tried again, motivated by his great strength of will and the one fundemental characteristic that defines the man. Above all else, Frank Williams is a racer at heart.

With a racing mentality he is always looking ahead to the next corner, the next challenge, and prefers not to waste time looking in the rear view mirror of time. "I don't like to look back. Life is about the present and the future, and that is what we should concentrate as a team. But there is no question that an understanding of where you come from helps get you where you are going."

Though he was never a great racing driver Williams did plenty of it in the 1960's. He was always short of money and while he was racing saloon cars in club events in England he slept in the back of a van parked in the street of the town of Harrow outside London. Failing to make his mark in saloons he ventured into F3 racing, trailing his car to events around Europe and sleeping in the back of his tow car. He prepared his own machinery, though his mechanical expertise was rudimentary, and his lack of success on the track meant he seldom won any prize money and was only able to scratch out a living from the appearance money paid by the race organizers. To supplement his income he began selling used racing cars and proved himself adept at the wheeling and dealing involved in this enterprise.

"I called myself Frank Williams Racing Cars Limited," he says, "which was just me groping around in the dark, being fairly unsuccessful."

Yet Williams began to make some money when his company branched out into fielding and preparing cars for private owners. Williams also gained experience as a team entrant and manager, roles in which he thrived. In 1968 he linked up with Piers Courage, the wealthy heir of the British brewing company, and their blue liveried Brabham was noted as one of the most immaculate and best-prepared cars in the European F2 series. Always fiercely ambitious, Williams lept at the chance to move to F1 with Courage and in 1969 their Brabham was second in two Grand Prix races. But the next season was one of the worst in Frank Williams' racing life when Courage was killed in the 1970 Dutch GP.

Courage had been driving a De Tomaso F1 car, built by the Italian constructor at great expense. Besides losing one of his best friends Williams now found himself facing a huge debt which would take several years to pay off. Yet he persevered and stayed in F1, at first with paying drivers using customer versions of March cars, and then in 1972 with what was the first Williams-built F1 car. It was called a 'Politoys', in deference to the Italian model car maker which provided some sponsorship. But the money didn't go far enough and in the following seasons the Williams debt mounted progressively with a succession of uncompetitive cars driven by untalented rent-a-drivers. Frank Williams Racing Cars Limited was ridiculed in the paddock (there were rumours that the team only had one engine for two chassis) and the owner was branded a loser.

By 1976 Frank Williams Racing Cars Limited was so desperately short of funds that it became Walter Wolf Racing, when Williams sold out to Walter Wolf, a wealthy Austro-Canadian. Though very much a team player Frank Williams resented being ordered around by his new boss. On one occasion he was forced to miss a Grand Prix while he collected a new Mercedes Benz for Wolf at the factory in Germany. At the end of the season Williams left Walter Wolf Racing and started all over again.

"In 1977 I formed Williams Grand Prix Engineering Limited, with Patrick Head as the chief designer. He had been assistant to Harvey Postlethwaite at Wolf Racing and once Patrick's value to our company became known he became a shareholder and we've been together ever since. From 1978 or '79 we have been a strong frontrunning team, with one or two difficult years, and for the most part we have been fortunate."

Among the misfortunes was the death of Ayrton Senna in a Williams in 1994, "a tragedy which left us all in the depths of despair." An earlier setback was the road accident in 1986 which left Frank Williams partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. It is a tribute to his organizational capabilities that his team never faltered during the year it took him to recover sufficiently to get back to presiding over the company.

When Frank Williams - the racer - offers an explanation of how such adversities are overcome it is apparent that he is speaking for himself, as well as his team. And throughout his company the Williams personnel find inspiration from their leader.

"When we have gone through bad patches we always bounced back. It's quite straightforward why we can do this. Without exception, everyone who works here loves Formula 1 racing, to a varying degree. Most of them are nuts about it - they really adore what they do. They are highly paid, compared to the normal industry equivalents, but the primary motivation is to win. And once you've got that under your belt - once it is burning away in your stomach so to speak - the rest follows. You just push yourself and you arrive at your destination. It sounds like an exaggeration but it isn't. People here are extremely motivated."

Such high motivation has certainly paid off in the record books. Since 1979, when Clay Regazzoni won the British GP in a Williams FW07 (FW is for Frank Williams)and up to the end of 2014, his cars have won 114 F1 races.(Only Ferrari and McLaren have won more). Beginning with the 1980 World Championhip, won by Alan Jones in an FW08, Williams drivers have won the World Championship seven times. Even more important to Frank Williams is the fact that his team has been the best in the world nine times, a Constructors' Championship record second only to Ferrari, which has a 27-year head start on Williams. What, then, is the real secret of his success?

"The secret of my success is the people around me. That's what it takes to develop a strong Formula 1 team. It's all about people. We've grown and evolved over the years, always accumulating high quality people, particularly on the technical side, from whichever discipline we're recruiting from. Of the people who work here about 80% are technical and the rest are split between administration and marketing. 

"As a company, though I am not an engineer, we are engineering-led, with a slight dash of marketing to make sure the money comes in. Marketing is very important these days. It's old-fashioned thinking to say marketing and money have taken the sport downhill. It's the same with any sport. Formula 1 has become commercialized. But because of that very many more people follow it and that is attractive to the sponsors.

"I know from personal experience, some of it quite painful, that Formula 1 has always been a mixture of business and sport. As a businessman my viewpoint is that we must make money in order to re-invest - to stay in business. But of course we're mainly here for the racing. We love Sunday afternoons, and the practice and the qualifying and being close to Grand Prix racing cars. That's what it's all about."

"I certainly never studied management techniques. In fact, I learned on the job, as did many of those in the company. We have as small a vertical a structure as possible so as to have extremely good communication between management and personnel.

"In this business you've got to be flexible and be able to adapt to changing circumstances. The job is never finished and there is lots left to do. Right now, we have much to do to get back on top. I never think of stopping. For one thing, there so many people are employed here that it's not something we could close tomorrow. Besides I might get bored. Not that there's much chance of getting bored. If we get blown away we will just have to fight back, as we have always done. That will surely take us into the next two or three decades!"

His daughter Claire Williams is now deputy team principle, and Patrick Head is less hands on than in the past, but the heart and soul of the team is still Frank Williams. 



Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Enzo Ferrari

Enzo Ferrari loved the way Gilles Villeneuve thrashed his cars (IPA Photo)


”I like to think Ferrari can build drivers as well as cars. Some
people called Villeneuve crazy. I said, 'Let's try him.'" - Enzo Ferrari

Gilles Villeneuve was the 71st driver to be hired by Enzo Ferrari and probably the least experienced of any of them. It seemed a strange decision at the time but it was completely in character for the living legend who created the most illustrious of all racing teams. Gilles once said that "Ferrari is devoted to racing cars like no man who ever lived." They were kindred spirits.

Enzo Ferrari was born on February 18, 1898, just after the
history of motor sport began. No other individual contributed more to that history.

Even the word Ferrari, symbolic of fast red racing cars driven by
brave men, is particularly apt. The family name Ferrari comes from the Italian word for iron: ‘ferro’, as does the word ‘ferrare’, which means to shoe a horse. Enzo Ferrari's father was the proprietor of a small iron working shop in Modena. When Enzo's life became devoted to harnessing mechanical horsepower crafted in metal ("I build engines and put wheels on them."), he chose as his personal emblem a prancing horse.

At first, the young Ferrari wanted to be an opera singer, a
tenor, or a sports journalist. Though he couldn't carry a tune (unlike another Modenese, Pavarotti), he did have a way with words and for a while reported on football games for local newspapers. (Later he wrote eloquently in several books, notably 'My Terrible Joys', a volume of memoirs published in 1963.) But these youthful ambitions soon took a back seat to motor racing.
The grand passion of his life began one day in 1908 when his father brought him to see the great Felice Nazarro win in a Fiat at nearby Bologna. "That day I felt a profound emotion."

Like many of those who later drove his racing cars the road to success was paved with hardship and heartbreak for Ferrari. He had only seven years of formal schooling. During World War One his humble position in the Italian army was that of caretaker for a pack of mules in a transport section. He was devastated by the deaths of his older brother Alfredo and his father during the war years and was himself discharged in 1918 with a lung ailment. He
applied for a job with Fiat in Torino but was rejected because there were not enough jobs for all the returning war veterans. He went to a nearby park and sat on a bench where "I wept with loneliness and despair."

He eventually found work as a test driver with a small car manufacturing concern in Milano, CMN, and even did some racing for the company. In 1920 he saw a girl in the Torino rail station: "She was a fine looking girl, blonde, elegant, vivacious, minute." Her name was Laura and they were soon married. Ferrari then was hired by Alfa Romeo, for whom he acted as a car distributor, competition manager, and, as a weekend bonus, racing driver. In the latter pursuit he competed 47 times (from 1919 to 1931) and won 13 events. It was a quite respectable record but Ferrari felt his mechanical sympathy was a limitation. "I had one big fault. I drove always with consideration for the car, whereas to be successful, one must on occasion be prepared to ill-treat it."

Speaking of those many occasions when Gilles Villeneuve
mistreated his cars, Ferrari was philosophical, referring to his "destructive powers" as a factor in improving the Ferrari
product. "Villeneuve contributed a lot to us with his intense competitiveness and his talent for taking anything mechanical and utterly destroying it. He continually brought us face to face with our limitations, with the most extreme tests for our cars that our engineers had ever encountered and had to solve, and he indulged in some of the most hair-raising acrobatics I have ever seen in the process. Transmissions, gearboxes, driveshafts - all were subjected to the utmost punishment. He was a high priest of destruction but his way of driving showed us how much we had to improve those parts so they could stand the assaults of any driver."

Enzo and Gilles were kindred spirits (Photo Olimpia Imola)

At one of Enzo Ferrari's race wins as a driver, near Ravenna in 1923, he was introduced to the parents of Italy's leading fighter pilot in the
war, Francesco Baracca. His plane had been decorated with a special insignia, ‘Il Cavallino Rampante’, The Prancing Horse, on a shield and Baracca's daring exploits in the air had made it a
symbol of courage and audacity. It turned out that the late Alfredo Ferrari had served on the ground crew of the same wartime squadron and after the Ravennna race the Baraccas befriended Alfredo's younger brother. They presented Enzo with their son's insignia for his personal use. When he established his own racing team in 1930, the Scuderia Ferrari, Enzo added a yellow background (the official colour of Modena) to the black horse on the shield and his cars have carried it ever since.

Following the birth of his son Dino in 1932 Enzo stepped out of
the driver's seat to mastermind his team, and the Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeos became the powerhouse of racing in Europe in the early thirties. Financed by wealthy partners, Ferrari was
able to engage the services of brilliant designers and remarkable drivers like Tazio Nuvolari. In 1935 the tiny, fiery Nuvolari drove Ferrari's Alfa P3 to an amazing victory over the nine cars entered by the mighty Auto Union and Mercedes Benz teams. This
effort, around the 177 dangerous curves per lap of the daunting 14.17-mile Nurburgring course in Germany, remains one of the most extraordinary drives of all time.

For Ferrari, Nuvolari's performance in that event epitomized all
that a racing driver should be. "He was a driver who, in any type of car, in any circumstance and on any track, always gave
everything and ended up being, on the whole, the best. Nuvolari, in contrast with many drivers of yesterday and today, never started out beaten because he had an inferior car." 

When Ferrari hired Gilles Villeneuve he noted a physical similarity to
Nuvolari (both were small men) and it helped influence his decision to hire him. "When they presented me with this 'piccolo
Canadese,' this minuscule bundle of nerves, I immediately recognized in him the physique of Nuvolari and said to myself, let's give him a try."

Ferrari's arrangement with Alfa Romeo ended in 1938 and during
the ensuing war years he built machinery to make ball bearings. His workshop in Modena survived two bombings and in 1946 he moved his premises down the road to Maranello to take up racing on his own. That it soon became a thriving enterprise was only a secondary benefit for Ferrari, who said: "I race because I am an
enthusiast. Others do it as a business."

The first all-Ferrari car, the 125 V12, became successful in the hands of drivers like Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi in the late 1940s.

Ferrari sports cars first won the epic Mille Miglia and Targa Florio long distance races held on public roads in Italy in 1948 and the historic Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in France the next year.
Ferrari began producing road cars based on his racing machines and they soon became the most desirable vehicles for wealthy automotive enthusiasts and exotic status symbols for the rich and famous, or for those who wished to create that impression.

For Enzo Ferrari his "civilian" cars were simply a by-product of
his competition department and racing, especially single-seater cars, remained his first love. When the Formula 1 world championship was formally organized in 1950 it became his main
interest. Although Ferraris have won races in nearly every category of road racing around the world, it was putting his cars to the Grand Prix test that mattered most to the founder of the
team.  Here too, Ferrari is the most successful F1 constructor (221 wins versus 182 for McLaren and 114 for Williams – as of 2014) but in later years the man behind the name hardly ever saw them race in person. He restricted himself to watching the events on television because, he wrote, "It offends me to see the machines I have created being driven to death."

However, many people thought his absence from the circuits was
prompted by Ferrari's profound sorrow over the cruel death of his son Dino from muscular dystrophy in 1956. The grieving father even contemplated suicide: "Work was my only salvation, the anchor I had to grasp in order not to find myself adrift." Ferrari once told a friend that "Every morning I wake up with Death in my pocket." Following Dino's funeral Ferrari began every day with a visit alone to his grave, then said prayers for him in a chapel dedicated to his son's memory. When his wife Laura died Ferrari became closer to his illegitimate son, Piero Lardi Ferrari, who is now head of the company.

A complicated man of apparently conflicting emotions, Ferrari was
to say of Gilles Villeneuve, "I loved him like a son." But he was also accused of being a hard man who cared more for his cars than his drivers. There had been a great public outcry when the Marquis Alphonso de Portago's Ferrari went off the road in the 1957 Mille Miglia, killing himself, his co-driver and many spectators. Ferrari was charged with using unsuitable tires, then exonerated. But all too often, it seemed, race drivers were killed in Ferraris, and after Luigi Musso died in the wreckage of his Ferrari in 1958, no native Italian appeared in his famous red racing cars for many years. "The reason why I don't have any Italian drivers in my team," said Ferrari, "goes back to 1958 when the Italian newspapers said I was the devil eating my own sons."

In 1963 Ford tried to buy Ferrari, but he refused to sell to the
Americans. Then, in 1969, Fiat, the Italian state-owned conglomerate, bought a controlling interest in Ferrari, leaving Enzo in charge of motor racing and he was able to devote himself exclusively to the Scuderia. He was in his office each morning by 7:30 and (even at the age of 90) knew each of his employees in the racing division (200 of them before his death) by name. A
win in an F1 race was "like a blood transfusion" for Enzo Ferrari, said one of his drivers, Michele Alboreto (who had the number 27 made famous by Gilles Villeneuve), and his passion for the sport undoubtedly prolonged his life. He died on 14 August, 1988.

"I have known men who have undoubtedly loved cars as much as I
have," Ferrari wrote. "But I don't think I've known any who have been as obstinate as I have, motivated by the same wholehearted passion that has left me without either the time or the
inclination to do anything else. I have no other interests apart from racing cars. Whoever follows in my footsteps inherits a very simple doctrine: to keep alive the desire for progress which was
pursued in the past, pursued at the expense of noble human lives."

In his later years Ferrari spent much of his time in a converted
farmhouse located within the Fiorano test circuit, where he surrounded himself with racing memorabilia. It is a veritable Ferrari museum crammed with photographs and trophies, even a life-size bronze sculpture of a prancing horse. Pride of place in one corner is given to a wall hanging created by Georgette Villeneuve to commemorate her son's first win in a Ferrari, the
1978 Grand Prix of Canada. And outside the entrance to Fiorano, on the corner of the Via Gilles Villeneuve, is a bronze bust of the French Canadian driver from Berthierville, Quebec.

According to Ferrari, his hiring of Gilles was based on a hunch,
a gamble that he would develop into a winner. "I admired Villeneuve," he said. "He's the product of a bet I made with myself. When I engaged him I thought no one would ever have put
any money on him. It is a well known fact that many times in life one acts under emotional impulses rather than cold reason. There was a chorus of criticism when I engaged him because he was an
unknown entity. Taking into account that I had taken Lauda on as a virtual unknown, well, if Lauda was out there then must be others out there, too, others who can climb to the top. I like to think that Ferrari can build drivers as well as cars. Some people called Villeneuve crazy. I said, 'Let's try him.'"

- excerpt from Gilles Villeneuve, The Life Of The Legendary Racing Driver. Here's more information about the acclaimed biography...

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Winning Ways Of Ron Dennis

(While writing TEAMWORK, The Biography Of The McLaren F1 Team, I was given unprecedented access to its inner workings. Some senior personnel worried that the tome might serve as a handbook to help rival teams become winners. But none of them had McLaren's main ingredient for success: the most successful team boss in F1 history, Ron Dennis.)

In 1966, the year Bruce McLaren first entered a car bearing his name in F1 racing, Ron Dennis was beginning his career in motorsport. Two years later, when Bruce won McLaren's first Grand Prix, Ron was a mechanic on an opposing team. In 1970, the year Bruce was killed, Ron took the decision that would eventually merge his own destiny with that of McLaren. Born in Woking in 1947 Ron left school after taking his O-levels and in 1965 began an apprenticeship with an automotive engineering company based at the old Brooklands race circuit in nearby Byfleet. Following a take-over the premises became the headquarters for the Cooper Car Company and Ron began working for the race car manufacturer. After a period on the production line building cars for F2 and F3 racing, Ron was transferred to the Cooper F1 team, where, in 1966 and still in his teens he went to his first race as a mechanic on the Cooper driven by the Austrian Jochen Rindt in the Mexican Grand Prix. When Rindt moved to Brabham for the 1968 season Ron went with him as his personal mechanic. In 1969 Rindt left Brabham for Lotus (and was killed at the 1970 Italian Grand Prix), but Ron stayed at Brabham, where he became Chief Mechanic and where the flash of inspiration occurred that set him on course for the position he holds today.

While the Brabham cars were being shipped from the US Grand Prix to the last race of the 1970 season, in Mexico, Ron had a rare few days holiday in Acapulco. There, lying beside a pool in the Mexican sun, he contemplated his future. Though just 23 years old, he was in charge of preparing the Brabham cars, looking after much of the team's business affairs, even handling the prize money. Despite feeling somewhat over-awed by the responsibility Ron suddenly realised he was doing everything necessary to run a team. And so, he thought, why not run my own team?

Once his mind was made up the several characteristics that became his trademark were applied to forming his team. Among them was an obsession with cleanliness. As a mechanic, Ron hated getting his clothes soiled and his hands dirty and within half an hour of going home at night he had scrubbed himself spotlessly clean. He treated racing cars similarly. With his conviction that just because something was mechanical, it didn't have to be dirty, after each race Ron had what he called a 'Dirty Day,' when he would spend hours taking a car apart, meticulously cleaning every single component, then re-assembling them. The cleaning up process he disliked, but systematically putting the car back together again gave him great satisfaction, as did the pleasure of admiring the gleaming finished product. Top quality presentation became a cornerstone of his team-building philosophy, as did the pursuit of excellence, which he approached with the same zeal lavished on his racing cars. Brought into play was a passion for precision and an almost fanatical attention to detail. There were also intense powers of concentration, an unwavering determination to succeed and a relentless ambition to push that success beyond established frontiers. Any high profile authority figure possessed with such a combination of potentially aggressive personality traits risks being labelled something rather less than lovelable. His steely resolve can be intimidating and outsiders having occasional contact with his self-admitted often stern presence have called him cold, abrasive, egotistical, aloof, arrogant - characteristics that have also been attributed to his team.

Yet throughout McLaren scarcely a disparaging word can be heard about Ron Dennis. Instead, there is universal admiration and respect. Within the team he is regarded, at worst, as a benevolent dictator and, by those who know him best, as a caring and sensitive man. Rather than abusing his position of power he has taken advantage of it on numerous occasions to help employees, friends, even F1 rivals, sort out personal difficulties. Most of all, the McLaren people say, he is an inspirational leader and a motivator of the highest order. Just where all of this comes from, the man himself is not sure.

"You see, I have always believed that if you really want to do something, you can do it. It's like climbing a mountain of ambition. If things out of your control have an influence on the path you take, you can fall off. Some people get catapulted up the mountain by an amazing stroke of good fortune. But by and large, if you've climbed up the mountain in a sure-footed way and reached the summit, the path you have taken brings into your character one essential ingredient which allows you to stay on top: which is a wealth of experience. With that experience you can build on your successes and go beyond previous limits. I just don't think you have a limit. The possibilities are limitless."

His hard climb to the top was not without its pitfalls. In 1972, while operating Rondel Racing with his partner Neil Trundle, Ron worked himself into a state of exhaustion preparing the cars for a F2 race and fell asleep at the wheel while driving his E-type Jaguar. In the crash he received severe facial lacerations (repaired by plastic surgery) and a serious eye injury that put him out of commission for two months. Typically, he turned this negative into a positive. "In fact, it was probably the most positive thing that ever happened to me because it pulled me into management. We employed another mechanic to do my job and I ran the team. That was the big starting point." For Ron, there is no finishing point because, as he is fond of saying, "To stand still in motor racing is to go backwards."

To make rapid progress - from Rondel through his Project Two, Three and Four teams - he concentrated on developing comprehensive professionalism, highlighted by immaculate preparation and presentation. The factory floors were painted frequently, the teams brought a signwriter to the circuits to touch up the paintwork on the complex colour schemes of the cars and the truck driver was instructed to park in the paddock so that the names on the tyres were all pointing precisely in the same direction. At that time, when the commercial potential of motor racing was in its infancy, the Dennis-run teams were well ahead of the competition and Ron's reputation escalated accordingly. Among those impressed was McLaren's then main sponsor Philip Morris, which arranged a merger with Project Four as a cure for the doldrums in which Marlboro McLaren had floundered for several years. Thus, at the age of 34, Ron joined McLaren to start the 1981 season and the record of success that followed is a direct result of the goals he set.

McLaren's stated goal is to win every F1 race. It hasn't achieved that, but it has come closer than most. In terms of  Grand Prix victories only the team founded by Enzo Ferrari has more, albeit benefitting from having a 16-year head start on McLaren. To date the legendary Italian team has 221 Grand Prix wins versus 182 for McLaren (Williams ranks third with 114 wins). 158 of McLaren's wins - and 17 of the team's 20 Constructors' and Drivers' Championships - have come under the leadership of Ron Dennis. And while the team has occasionally faltered during his tenure it has seldom looked anything less than a potential winner. Even during the team's winless periods frontrunning rivals watched their mirrors expectantly for McLaren's inevitable return to the forefront.

According to Ron, a main reason why Mclaren is such a perennial powerhouse is: "Our attention to detail. Every single detail is important. You break down the whole Grand Prix scenario into the tiniest details. Individually, you might barely perceive them, hardly measure them. But you look at each of these facets and try to improve them. Those little improvements add up to considerable improvement. "You have to start with the really fundamental basics. When someone walks into a room I notice straightaway such details as fingernails, whether they are cleaned and manicured, how the person is dressed, whether they're scruffy or neat and tidy. If you don't have respect for your own body then I think you tend to lack personal discipline."

Ron's legendary personal discipline (which includes a steady regimen of 14-hour days in his office, interrupted by travels to the races, where he goes to "relax") is matched by a continual quest for self-improvement, especially for the acquisition of knowledge. While at school he was not a diligent student, though his subsequent development of his intellect and the eloquence with which he can express it - through 'Ronspeak,' which is sometimes ridiculed for its complexity, but seldom for the profundity of its content - would now easily enable him to stand tall in the halls of academe. Certainly, he could write the definitive textbook on how to create and run a successful F1 team. Listening to him talk is like being persuasively lectured on the art of winning.

"Built into my management approach is a commitment to many philosophies that I believe are important to maintaining and perpetuating a successful company. My knowledge comes from a commitment excellence, to learn and understand those elements which can contribute to the process of success. That can range from attending management and motivational seminars, reading management books and magazines (such as The Harvard Business Week and The Economist), wrestling with the concept of lateral thinking (influenced by the concept's inventor, Edward de Bono) and working hard to understand people. "I think the software of the company, its human resources, is absolutely vital to success. So we put a great emphasis on keeping our human resource quotient in its optimum frame of mind. We go into great detail to create the right working environment. This includes such things as carefully choosing the colour scheme for our offices and factory, maintaining the correct temperature and humidity, cleanliness, lighting, even the smell - we have used fragrances in our working environment. If you go into a room smelling of dirty coffee cups, with dirty windows and wilting flowers your mindset is completely different from going into a clean, well-lit and pleasant-smelling room."

Ron is a sore loser and has admitted feeling physical pain on the Monday morning after not winning a Grand Prix. Failure to succeed only inspires him to try harder and at the start of every day he hits the ground running. "There is a very brief period, that lasts from the moment I wake up to the moment my feet hit the floor at the side of the bed, that is just about the only amount of time I have where I could not be motivated. When things aren't working and you want them to work you either allow it to demotivate or motivate yourself. If I'm not motivated there is absolutely no possibility of motivating the rest of the people in the company.

"So, a fundamental requirement of being the head of the company is to be the prime motivating force. What you hope to do with all the people around you is develop a good positive attitude so that you're not alone in the process. And we've got people who have been with us for years and years who have a conviction that when things go wrong everything will eventually come right. We've had problems in the past and worked them out. Motivation is a strange but essential ingredient in the process of winning. You would think that it struggles in adversity, but it's the opposite. When you are winning everything, then motivation becomes a major issue. Whether you're winning or not winning, there is no solution other than hard work. Not just the physical, but also the thought processes."

Ron has developed his thinking powers to a very high degree and to illustrate the mindset necessary to think productively he draws an analogy to a sprinter preparing for a 100 meter race. "He has total concentration on what he is about to do. And just think of the kind of advantage you can have if you train yourself to apply that level of concentration on an hour-to-hour basis. Thinking is a very cheap commodity. The only thing it's costing you is time, but in the end well-considered creative thought processes will save you time. So, you train yourself to think in a disciplined way, playing a kind of mental three-dimensional chess to make sure you've covered all the options to solve the many complex issues there are in this business. You really have to keep your mind focussed and watch that everything functions in an optimum way. It can be very wearing, very fatiguing, and take all emotion out of me."

In Ron's mind there is no room for negative thoughts, because they are non-productive and a waste of energy. He has become a master at positive thinking, and also at controlling his emotions, in the belief that the extremes at either end of the emotional scale are obstacles on the route to success. He has developed enough mental strength to if not eliminate any feeling of depression, at least keep it at bay, and he also thinks it necessary to keep a careful check on "non-productive and non-professional" displays of elation. "When you see a doctor delivering a baby you don't see him jumping up and down. He has a professional approach to something which is an emotional moment. That's the way we want to be. The moment you stop being professional is the moment you start the downward spiral to failure.

 "If people say we look sterile and unemotional from the outside, I do think there is a level of warmth and commitment to each other that you can only feel on the inside. We have a personality that I hope reflects honesty, integrity, focus. We are also seen as predatory, a word I quite like. We carefully stalk and systematically approach our prey - which is winning a race. That aggressive approach to our goal is tempered by values within the company where we are caring, supportive, loyal to our employees.

"I think the thing that makes McLaren successful is that it is a very successful team, and team is the key word. My role in that team is to put it together, making sure that all the political, promotional and organisational considerations marry. I have to package the elements and make it a team effort. It's a knitting together of egos, likes, dislikes, motivating forces, things that destabilise, things that harmonise. Having the ability to try and dissect all these things and then getting them to mesh together, I'd like to think that's what I'm reasonably competent at." 

In his career to date Ron Dennis has come a long way and brought a lot of people with him. He has become a very wealthy man and he shares the wealth - the McLaren employees are probably the best paid in the business. He is a racer and also a businessman and when discussing the relative satisfaction he gets from both pursuits there is no question where his heart lies...

"The driving force has got to be a desire to be the best, not just to make money.  I've often said I would prefer to be recognised as a successful businessman, before a successful motorsport director. But if it came to a choice, I would most certainly choose winning a Grand Prix over making a million dollars."

F1speedwriter with the top team leader, Ron Dennis 

Friday, January 09, 2015

F1's Place In An Uneasy World

(The 2001 Italian Grand Prix took place at Monza a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. This piece describes how F1 responded. Jarno Trulli crashed on the first lap of the race but was still the star of the show) 



Historically, many sports originated as alternatives to war. Enlightened societies sought to avoid conflict by organising games and competitions as relatively harmless outlets for potentially dangerous aggression.

And while sport has gone on to become a unifying force of international proportions - witness the Olympic Games and the World Cup of football - warlike tendencies are still an unfortunate aspect of humanity, as the terrorist attacks on the US have so sadly shown.

Those who play the F1 game are fond of saying their sport is like war, so it was interesting to observe the reaction of some of the featured players when faced with the reality of what happened in America.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks against New York and Washington several drivers felt the Italian Grand Prix should not have taken place. Michael Schumacher was particularly disturbed by the situation in the US, then by the life-threatening accident to former F1 driver Alex Zanardi in a CART race in Berlin (where he lost his legs) and by the fact that a track worker had died in a first-lap crash in the 2000 Italian Grand Prix.

"It is a very emotional time," Schumacher said, "with what happened in America and this weekend with one of our former drivers in hospital and with what happened here last year. We should question whether we should race and we tried to get an agreement to not overtake on the first lap. We all agreed except one."

The dissenting vote was cast by Jacques Villeneuve, who defended his position on the grounds that as professional racing drivers it was their duty to get on with the job.

'You cannot make all the money we do and tell the fans you are not willing to compete from the very start," Villeneuve said.

"If Michael felt that felt that strongly about it and really wanted to make a point, then he shouldn't have started at all.

"For me, it was a question of princples I've had since I was a boy dreaming of being a racing driver. I believe you have to go flat out from the start and give 100 percent to the chequered flag."

Arguments for and against these points of view raged on, as did the Italian Grand Prix, which fortunately finished without any serious incidents and was in fact quite an entertaining distraction from the unrest prevailing in the world at large.

But beyond that, the sport has a valuable contribution to make especially in times of international strife, as was most eloquently summed up by Jarno Trulli, who received a standing ovation in the Monza media centre for his heartfelt impomptu speech.

"It's not just a US tragedy," Jarno Trulli said, "it's a tragedy for the whole world. We have to show to everybody that we are together with the USA, that we are all together in the whole world. Formula 1 is a sport and all sport is also a way to show somehow that the whole world doesn't have to stop. We still have to carry on, we have to take care of what is happening but we can't stop, otherwise the people that attacked the USA will have won their battle and we cannot let this happen. We have to show that we are strong enough and we have to look forward."



Friday, October 24, 2014

Tyler Alexander

(This interview with one of the sport's great characters is from my 1990 book Grand Prix People. At the time Tyler was not a big fan of F1 journalists, though he has mellowed and recently authored two books about his eventful life.)

Tyler Alexander first became involved in McLaren when it began, having been one of the team's founding members. He must have some special insights into Formula 1 racing. What does he think about the pinnacle of motorsport and the people who shove tape recorders in his face when he's trying to work?
"I think this thing's like an overbred cocker spaniel, and most of it's created by the journalists, because it isn't anything any different than it's ever been.  You come here, you fuck around with a car, it's got four wheels and a motor in it, you start it up, and you're on. But the journalists pump it up into something else. I mean, there's all those people crowding around in the garages.  There must be fifty million pictures of Ayrton Senna, sitting in there picking his nose!"
Well then, what about all the prestige, glamour and mystique that you hear about in Formula 1?
"Bullshit! Racing is just a plain old bunch of very difficult, complicated hard work that's a pain in the ass. Sure, it's an exciting big deal thing.  And the drivers are very important. The good ones are very good and certainly deserve a lot credit. But to be successful you have to have a lot of good people. It takes a whole bunch of people.  It takes a design team, engineering team, the backup people at the factory, the driver, the race team itself."
After studying aircraft engineering in Boston, Alexander helped a friend prepare a Formula 3 car which they raced successfully. He became friends with Teddy Mayer and his brother Tim, Roger Penske and Jim Hall, all of whom went on to become deeply involved in racing, though Tim Mayer later suffered a fatal racing accident. In 1964 Alexander and Teddy Mayer came over to England and teamed up with Bruce McLaren's new organization. Now, in the hierarchy of McLaren International personnel Tyler Alexander is listed as Special Projects Manager, responsible for the management of all development programs.
Over the years Alexander has also spent some time in Indycar racing in his native America. Where then, would he prefer to be?
"In Mexico, Scuba diving."
According to Alexander, racing takes up too much time, too much of the time. He might also rather be sailing or even taking photos of Ayrton Senna picking his nose. In fact, Alexander is an accomplished photographer. Some of his work has been published in American magazines and there have been exhibitions of pictures he took during his early days in racing. His preferred subject matter is not cars, but people. His technique for getting candid shots is to "basically, hide in the crowd."
Speaking of people, how would he compare Formula 1 people with those in Indycar racing?
"They all put their pants on one leg at a time."
But aren't the CART people more relaxed and casual?  They actually talk to each other, while in Formula 1 there seems to be a lot of animosity...
"I guess if people have their head up their ass, they have their head up their ass, you know. I don't think there's anything here that breeds the animosity except the people themselves, and if they choose to be like that, well that's their own problem."
He must have noted big changes in the Grand Prix people over the years...
"Well if you look around, you'll find that a lot of the people here are exactly the same ones."
One of the big changes since the early days is the money, the sponsorship aspect of the sport. Some people, the purists, say that it was better in the old days.
   "      "Well I've never really been able to understand what a 'purist' is.  That sounds like a phoney load of bullshit for somebody to call something a sport when it's really a business. Once upon a time it was a sport, yes, but that was an awful long time ago. It was a business to us when we started. I mean that's what we were doing for a living. That's it, that's all we did."
Nowadays, when he walks down pit lane, is it possible to describe what goes on in his mind.
"Not that you'd want to hear, No!"

Friday, October 03, 2014

Suzuka Shambles


The early laps on the rain-sodden Suzuka circuit’s serpentine configuration were a shambles, with cars slithering off in all directions. In the worst of the many accidents in which nine cars crashed terminally a track marshal received a broken leg when hit by Martin Brundle's aquaplaning McLaren. Mercifully the 50-lap race was red-flagged after 13 chaotic laps to enable debris to be cleaned up and wits to be collected.
Some thought it madness to continue but following the restart an enthralling race ensued, featuring a spirited battle for third place between Jean Alesi’s flamboyantly-driven Ferrari and Nigel Mansell flogging his Williams hyper-aggressively, while the varying pit stops of the world championship protaganists Michael Schumacher (Bennetton) and Damon Hill (Williams) meant they took turns leading.

The final laps were breathtaking as Mansell relentlessly attacked Alesi (who hung on for third place) and Schumacher crept closer to Hill who slid around spectacularly but remained in front when it counted - at the chequered flag - and the stage was set for their title showdown next weekend in Adelaide.


* Senna Remembered - Ayrton Senna (killed earlier in 1994 at Imola) is revered to the point of sainthood in Japan and at Suzuka thousands of mourning Japanese fans wept inconsolably during the Senna Memorial Service before the race. A helicopter painted in his helmet colours descended through the mist and deposited Senna's sister Viviane on pole position on the grid where she gave a short, emotional speech: "Ayrton could not take with him from our world all his gold and silver trophies. But not even death could take from him the special trophy he received from the Japanese people: a trophy made of honour, admiration, respect and love." The fans made pilgrimages to the nearby Senna Memorial Gallery and the Senna Forever exhibit where the vivid reminders of their dead hero (photos, videos and voice recordings, his passport, birth certificate, helmet, driving suits, fireproof underwear, his 1991 McLaren, go-karts, model planes and boats, sunglasses, tennis racquet, etc) and background music of sad songs produced floods of tears. In the Gallery the welcoming message said:  'We will never forget your gentle and warm smile responding to cheering fans coming from all over Japan just to see you. Thank you Ayrton, you will live in our memory forever.’

* Mansell Manouevres – Mansell, having been hired by Williams for the final four races following his successful IndyCar sojourn, was in his usual charging mood here, but whether or not he can impress Williams enough to employ him for next season he can't lose financially: he gets $1.5 million per race now and will receive a reported $4 million if Williams decides not to take advantage of their option on his services for 1995. Yet at Suzuka Mansell showed a distinct lack of charity toward his main rival for the job: David Coulthard, who had replaced Senna for the previous eight races. On Friday Mansell decided Coulthard's presence would be too much of a distraction for his mechanics and had him banned from the Williams pit. Mansell was not amused (though the mechanics thought it hilarious) when Jochen Mass (the former driver now working for German TV) cut a Coulthard photo from a magazine, drew a red stroke through it and posted it at the Williams garage door. Coulthard, when not doing duty as a TV commentator, was forced to seek sanctuary in the pressroom.  

* Engine Machinations - Ron Dennis, smarting after his first losing season since he took over McLaren in 1981, thinks he can again create a powerhouse by switching engine partners. In fact, by replacing Peugeot motors with the Mercedes Benz variety (built by Ilmor Engineering and funded by the German automaker to the tune of $200 million over the next five years) Dennis says his goal is to win several races next year, and all 16 in 1996. Heading the queue to impede the progress of any such a potential Anglo-Teutonic steamroller will be next year's Jordan/Peugeot partnership, since the French automaker is not well pleased about being abandoned by McLaren after just one year of their three year contract. Ford, facing rejection from the top teams despite the fact that their (Cosworth-built) motor in the back of (Schumacher's) Benetton is the most successful powerplant of 1994, will also be keen to prove a point, especially to the forthcoming Benetton/Renault alliance. After Benetton bought Ligier to get the French team's supply of Renault motors for 1995 it was assumed Ford would next year transfer their impressive Zetec-R V8's (in 3 liter configuration to satisfy next season's displacement reduction of 500cc) to Jordan. Peugeot's surprise choice of Jordan as a replacement for McLaren means the factory Fords will probably appear in the back of next year's Sauber cars, that team being left powerless with the departure of Mercedes to McLaren.    

* Drivers' Travels - Karl Wendlinger, following a successful test session, thought he had completely recovered from the Monaco crash which left him in a coma for 19 days and made plans to resume his career in Japan and Australia, whereupon Sauber dismissed replacement driver Andrea de Cesaris. But in a subsequent test, just before leaving for Japan, Wendlinger experienced severe neck pains and was advised by doctors to postpone his comeback until next season. Sauber then began a frantic search for the veteran Italian, whose whereabouts could only be narrowed down to several thousand square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean where he was indulging in his great passion: windsurfing. To replace the missing De Cesaris (who was finally located, too late, in Hawaii) Sauber then turned to Wendlinger's team mate from last season: JJ Lehto, who was eventually also discovered at sea - on a boat sailing from Monaco to Finland - but he eagerly abandoned ship and flew to Japan where his Sauber failed him on the first lap.

* Odds and Ends - Though the McLaren F1 and Penske IndyCar teams will share engine maker Mercedes, fuel and lubricant supplier Mobil and sponsors Marlboro and Boss, Roger Penske says his only involvement with McLaren comes indirectly through his 25% ownership of Ilmor and Dennis says rumours of Penske buying a piece of McLaren were started by rival teams intent on "destabilizing McLaren."...The "mystery consortium" which last week bought debt-ridden Team Lotus is variously reported to consist of such personalities as Nigel Mansell, Bernie Ecclestone, Japanese driver Taki Inoue (who raced here in a Simtek) and Laurence Stroll, the Canadian owner of clothing maker and longtime Lotus sponsor Tommy Hilfiger...On Thursday Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger borrowed a several sizes too small policeman's uniform and cap and appeared in the Williams pit where he staged a mock arrest of Frank Williams. The Austrian prankster, who later used the uniform to mask his identity from aggressive fans, was asked to sample a new Japanese fast food product, which he pronounced awful, then was told it was named after him: 'The Gerhard Burger.'