The key word for McLaren is ‘focus’
The stories F1’s bigwigs would rather you didn’t know…
TAG Heuer might only have been a watch sponsor for McLaren, but the recent loss of this longstanding and prestigious partner hit McLaren where it hurts most: in the ego. The pain of that blow was compounded by simultaneous news that the brand was headed for, in the words of their CEO, the “young, dynamic and go-getter team” that is Red Bull.
Like Boss, lost last year, TAG Heuer had seemed an integral part of McLaren: always there, somewhere, on cars, drivers and backdrops. Both brands partnered this proudest of teams for three decades. They were synonymous with the likes of Ayrton Senna and Lewis Hamilton; with race wins and championships; with style, precision and quality. Now they are gone, joining upstart grid rivals with barely a backwards glance.
Forget lost revenue, for that can be recovered eventually: luxury partners provide prestige, not prot. The pain lies in the abrupt rejection by longstanding friends, and forces introspection as to which brands will follow them out of the door. When, or where, will it all end? And how?
Falls from grace can be rapid: within a decade of winning titles Brabham were gone; ditto, to all intents and purposes, Lotus. Renault were champions in 2005-06, but a shamed shadow of their former selves by 2009. Cooper survived their titles by less than a decade. By such measures McLaren have done well, last winning the drivers’ championship in 2008 – albeit in the last corner of the last lap of the last grand prix. They also survived the traumas of 2007’s ‘Spygate’ scandal and its associated $100m ne.
Two years ago, after then-McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh was replaced by the returning Ron Dennis, the team were promised a title sponsor within “the next few events”. Yet today both drivers sport more tattoos than their cars or overalls bear stickers.
Put aside, for a moment, 2015’s Honda travails: 2014 was also fraught, as the team achieved only P5 in the constructors’ chase. Some blamed non-works Mercedes engines – down on power compared to their ‘works’ counterparts. But Williams (P3) trounced McLaren, while Force India (P6) ran them close using identical power units – both on half McLaren’s budget and without having a world champion in their cockpits. Now, it seems, Vijay Mallya’s colourful team is on track to snare Johnnie Walker. So how and where did it all go so wrong?
Consider that McLaren last won a constructors’ title in 1998, when operating from a hotch-potch of factory units spread A returning Ron Dennis promised a title sponsor within “the next few events”. It’s yet to happen across Woking’s industrial estate, not the space-age McLaren Technology Centre. A sobering thought: this massive site, once Europe’s biggest privately funded building project, has so far failed to deliver a single constructors’ title.
Therein lies a coincidence – or maybe not. A year after that 1998 championship, as McLaren lost the 1999 constructors’ ght to Ferrari, the first sods were turned on the brownfield sites that today house the MTC, plus the equally futuristic structures that are McLaren Automotive’s Production Centre, the McLaren-GSK Centre for Applied Performance, and McLaren Applied Technologies. Saliently, none of these operations existed back in 1998. Once before McLaren had endured a winless patch: 1994-96, when they were deserted by a long-standing sponsor, Marlboro, who had partnered the team for almost 30 years, yet transferred their dollars to Maranello. The switch set in motion Ferrari’s hegemony, which culminated in six straight constructors’ titles during a period that coincided precisely with MTC construction operations.
Back, though, to the 1990s. Is it coincidence that during that winless three-year period McLaren launched their sublime F1 road car, with production commencing in late 1993, and then won Le Mans in 1995? And then as road-car production wound down, so McLaren returned to winning.
Williams last won titles before opening their Advanced Engineering business, and the ill-fated technology centre in Qatar and slumped to ninth in the order. WAE downsized, Qatar closed, and – voila! – up to third. Ferrari could up road car production from 5,000 units to 7,000 annually, or win F1 championships – but not both. The message is obvious: McLaren – and they’re certainly not alone in this – for all their many talents, are unable to multitask. Build title-winning Formula 1 cars, Le Mans winners even? A given. Construct the stand-out automotive factory? No problem. Best road car ever? Sure. A veritable competitor for Ferrari and Porsche supercars? Of course. Do all of this simultaneously? Clearly not. But, then again, who could?
“The message is obvious: McLaren, for all their many talents, are unable to multitask”