wasn’t the first team owner to care about how his rac­ing cars and team trans­porter were pre­sented. But back in 1971, when he was tak­ing the first steps to­wards con­trol­ling his own des­tiny, his fledg­ling team im­me­di­ately stood out from a mot­ley crowd that tended to­wards earthy di­shevel­ment.

Pro­fes­sional sheen was rarely a pri­or­ity in For­mula 2, but it mat­tered to this oddly pedan­tic 23-year old. Hav­ing served an ap­pren­tice­ship as an F1 me­chanic for Cooper and Brab­ham, Den­nis was in­grained in the grime of mo­tor­sport, yet his sin­gle-minded am­bi­tion drove him to­wards cleaner air – not to men­tion cleaner hands. It was all too easy to scoff at ‘Team Brief­case’, but we know who would ul­ti­mately have the last sneer.

Ron’s first eight years at Mclaren’s tiller es­tab­lished clean air be­tween what had come be­fore, from Bruce the cre­ator’s grit-un­der-the-fin­ger­nails foun­da­tions to Teddy Mayer’s tra­di­tional, suc­cess­ful but ul­ti­mately lim­ited setup of the 1970s. From be­ing world cham­pion tech­ni­cal pioneers, Mclaren had slipped down the ranks into the mid­field (and of­ten worse) by the turn of the new decade. Now they fol­lowed where once they led, seem­ingly in­ca­pable of har­ness­ing the mon­u­men­tal forces of ground-ef­fect aerodynamics in the man­ner of Lo­tus, Wil­liams and Ligier.

But Den­nis would change the tempo, al­beit with his own par­tic­u­lar – and some­times jar­ring – melody. Un­der this proud, prickly, metic­u­lous and down­right strange leader, Mclaren changed the game. But just like his arch-ri­val Frank Wil­liams, Den­nis had the ar­moury to build his em­pire only be­cause of the tough lessons learned through a near-decade of toil. He’d more than paid his dues.

From the Ron we’d come to know, Ron­del Rac­ing was a cringe-in­duc­ing moniker for his first at­tempt at world dom­i­na­tion. An un­gainly mash-up of his first name and co-founder Neil Trun­dle’s sur­name, Ron­del were a far more so­phis­ti­cated setup than they sounded. Within lit­tle more than a year, the team were run­ning as many as six cars in For­mula 2, for an il­lus­tri­ous roll­call of tal­ent, in­clud­ing Gra­ham Hill, Tim Schenken, Bob Wollek, Car­los Reute­mann and Jody Scheck­ter. But it wasn’t to last. Ron­del lost their foot­ing on the giant slick cre­ated by the 1973 global oil cri­sis when their main backer, Mo­tul, made for the exit. Den­nis was ab­so­lutely dev­as­tated.

How he built a new team, first un­der the more clin­i­cal ban­ner of Project 3, and then, fi­nally, Project 4, only proved his am­bi­tion – to any­one who cared to pay at­ten­tion. John Ho­gan at Marl­boro cer­tainly did. They had be­come friends through Schenken, and the Aus­tralian-born money man had bro­kered the Mo­tul deal be­fore he joined tobacco giant Philip Mor­ris. A few years down the line, Ho­gan had watched ner­vously as Mclaren be­gan to crum­ble un­der Mayer.

Project 4 had raised their own game by build­ing the cars for BMW’S M1 Pro­car grand prix sup­port se­ries, in which F1 aces were drafted in for lu­cra­tive one-make fun. It was Pro­car that con­vinced Den­nis his com­pany was ready for For­mula 1 – but how?

At first, Den­nis had hoped to con­vince Marl­boro to quit Mclaren for Project 4, but the tobacco giant had in­vested too much for too long to con­sider that. In­stead, with Ho­gan back­ing Ron’s cause, a merger was bro­kered in 1980. Mayer had lit­tle choice but to ac­cept it, but within two years he’d re­signed his shares to start afresh in Indy­cars. Den­nis, with help from Marl­boro, bought him out to take sole con­trol of Mclaren.

No one had done more than Mayer to keep Bruce’s dream alive dur­ing the ’70s – but the Amer­i­can was now out of step. In con­trast, Den­nis was syn­co­pated in

per­fect har­mony with a branch of mo­tor rac­ing on the cusp of a tech­ni­cal and com­mer­cial ex­plo­sion.

His first as­tute move, and one of mon­u­men­tal im­por­tance to F1’s evo­lu­tion, was to re­cruit a fire­brand de­signer whose stun­ning Cha­parral 2K ground-ef­fect cre­ation had just won the Indy 500. John Barnard was him­self a for­mer Mclaren man, hav­ing worked un­der Gor­don Cop­puck on the fan­tas­ti­cally suc­cess­ful M23. Now he was back, but this time it was dif­fer­ent. This time he was a part­ner. Ap­pren­tice­ship well and truly served, Barnard joined forces with Den­nis to lead Mclaren into un­charted ter­ri­tory. What a com­bi­na­tion: com­bustible, cer­tainly, but also po­tent with prom­ise.

From the start, the new Mclaren In­ter­na­tional

– now based in premises in Ron’s home town of Wok­ing – were bold. Car­bon fi­bre was al­ready be­ing used in rac­ing car de­sign, not least on the Pro­car BMW M1 rear wing. But to build a whole chas­sis out of the ma­te­rial wasn’t fea­si­ble. Or was it? Af­ter a vain search for a com­pany that had the ca­pa­bil­ity and vi­sion, Barnard fol­lowed up on a nod from promis­ing Amer­i­can en­gi­neer Steve Nichols, who had served his ap­pren­tice­ship at the Her­cules aero­space com­pany in the States. It was a suit­ably Her­culean chal­lenge. The 1981 MP4 – or Marl­boro (not Mclaren) Project

4 in long-hand – was the ground­break­ing re­sult.

“It had bet­ter win,” was the re­ac­tion from Ho­gan, un­der­stand­ably ner­vous at the risk. He’d stuck his neck out for Den­nis – but the pay­back would come.

Not im­me­di­ately though. Barnard’s brand of pre­ci­sion en­gi­neer­ing and to­tal con­trol over his de­sign was new to F1, but by mid-sea­son the prom­ise was start­ing to be re­alised. John Wat­son, the North­ern Ir­ish­man who’d joined Mclaren in ’79, fin­ished third in Spain, sec­ond in France – and first at Sil­ver­stone, af­ter an at­tri­tion-blighted Bri­tish Grand Prix. What­ever the cir­cum­stances, this was vin­di­ca­tion: Mclaren’s first win for more than three and a half years. For ‘Wat­tie’ it ended a five-year drought.

The mer­its of Barnard’s MP4 se­ries would soon be­come ob­vi­ous, while fears that tubs would shat­ter to pieces in crashes quickly re­ceded. In terms of driver line-ups, Den­nis and Barnard al­ways re­sented Marl­boro’s in­sis­tence on hir­ing An­drea de Ce­saris – or ‘de Crash­eris’ as he was cru­elly nick­named – for ’81, but in Wat­son they had a man they could trust. He would win on three more oc­ca­sions for Mclaren over the fol­low­ing two sea­sons, earn­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a pass mas­ter – com­ing from 17th on the grid to win on the streets of Detroit in ’82, and from 22nd at Long Beach the fol­low­ing sea­son. He was a con­tender, too, for the wide-open ’82 world ti­tle, but still wasn’t con­sid­ered the top-line, game-chang­ing tal­ent that Den­nis and Barnard felt they de­served.

Project 4 had run Niki Lauda in Pro­car. Now Ron hatched a plan to con­vince the great cham­pion to make an F1 come­back, fol­low­ing his abrupt re­tire­ment mid­sea­son while driv­ing for Bernie Ec­cle­stone’s Brab­ham in ’79. Lauda had his epony­mous air­line to run, but deep down re­alised F1 was still un­fin­ished busi­ness and ac­cepted Den­nis’s of­fer to test an MP4 in se­cret at Don­ing­ton Park. To Ron’s sur­prise, Niki had said yes to a re­turn by the end of the day – and at the third race of ’82, at Long Beach, he won. Lauda would stay at Mclaren for four years, win­ning his third world ti­tle in ’84, Mclaren In­ter­na­tional’s first. James Hunt’s ’76 crown for the ‘old’ Mclaren seemed an age ago.

Den­nis has since praised the Aus­trian for the lengths he would go to in his prepa­ra­tion, both phys­i­cally and men­tally. In his near-three years away, F1 had moved on, as it al­ways does, and Lauda was char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally hon­est enough to recog­nise it. So he adapted. First time around, specif­i­cally dur­ing his Fer­rari days, Lauda was the bench­mark (nine pole po­si­tions in ’75). Not this time (zero in ’84). But he was still fast enough to put that ra­zor-sharp rac­ing brain to the best pos­si­ble use. Beat­ing new team-mate Alain Prost to the ’84 ti­tle,


by just half a point, ar­guably made his third ti­tle his great­est, given just how good Prost would prove to be.

The French­man had driven for Mclaren un­der Mayer in ’79, hav­ing won his seat with a stun­ning test per­for­mance while still rac­ing in For­mula 3. But he quit the team in dis­gust in 1980, telling Wat­tie he’d never re­turn af­ter Mayer blamed him for a fright­en­ing shunt in the brit­tle M30 at Watkins Glen when the sus­pen­sion broke. Re­nault, with their pow­er­ful turbo en­gine, were call­ing – so Marl­boro let Prost go, al­though they main­tained per­sonal sup­port with an eye on the fu­ture.

Prost should have notched up at least one world ti­tle at Re­nault, but chronic en­gine un­re­li­a­bil­ity and dishar­mony in the ranks even­tu­ally made life un­bear­able. Den­nis was an­gered by Mayer’s fail­ure to keep Prost in ’80 and, much as he had with Lauda, made it his mis­sion to re-sign Alain. When the split with Re­nault came, it was ac­ri­mo­nious and the man­u­fac­turer ended up pay­ing Prost’s salary for his first sea­son at Mclaren in ’84. Den­nis en­joyed that.

Lauda wasn’t too happy when Alain signed up – a move that ended Wat­son’s five-year stint at the team. Niki knew the lit­tle bloke with the crooked nose and mop of curly hair was too fast for him – but it says much for both that they be­came friends dur­ing that re­mark­able sea­son. This is when Barnard’s revo­lu­tion truly kicked in, thanks largely to adding the fi­nal jig­saw piece.

Barnard and Den­nis had known from the start that a turbo en­gine was es­sen­tial. For a con­trol­ling per­fec­tion­ist like Barnard, off-the-peg was never go­ing to be enough. He wanted a be­spoke de­sign, made within his own strict pa­ram­e­ters. That brief led Den­nis to Porsche, who were em­bark­ing on their su­per-suc­cess­ful 956 sportscar cam­paign. The Stuttgart giants had no in­ter­est in pay­ing for an ex­pen­sive F1 pro­gramme, but they were happy to sup­ply Mclaren with a cus­tomer V6. So who would pay? The badg­ing deal with Tech­niques d’avant Garde, the um­brella for a group of com­pa­nies with a wide range of spe­cial­i­ties, would be one of the most im­por­tant of Den­nis’s life.

Af­ter a rocky start mid-83, Prost, Lauda, the MP4/2 and its TAG turbo were ready to fly for ’84. Be­tween them, they won 12 of the sea­son’s 16 races – Prost seven, Lauda five. But de­spite Prost’s edge on pace, Lauda’s sheer bloody-mind­ed­ness made the dif­fer­ence. Just. That half-point, born from rain stop­ping play early in Monaco (a race Prost won), would make it the clos­est ti­tle bat­tle ever.

But come ’85, there would be no stop­ping the man who had come to be known as The Professor, such was his me­thod­i­cal ap­proach to win­ning races. Just like Juan Manuel Fan­gio and Jackie Ste­wart be­fore him, Prost in­stinc­tively un­der­stood what it took to win grands prix at the slow­est pos­si­ble speed, tak­ing as lit­tle out of his ma­chin­ery as pos­si­ble. His de­trac­tors have used it against him, but what they tend to for­get is that he was also blind­ingly fast. Prost was the com­plete pack­age in the mid-80s, and in ’85 he fi­nally claimed the world cham­pi­onship his tal­ent de­served. Grand prix rac­ing had been born in France, yet in­cred­i­bly Alain Prost was the first – and still the only – French­man to win the For­mula 1 driver’s ti­tle.

Prost sealed his ’85 ti­tle with two races to spare, such was his re­lent­less­ness. Five vic­to­ries didn’t scream ‘dom­i­nance’, but he’d learnt from his ex­pe­ri­ence with Lauda and drove for the ti­tle. He did much the same to win a con­sec­u­tive crown in ’86, fa­mously snatch­ing it from un­der the noses of squab­bling Wil­liams driv­ers Nel­son Pi­quet and Nigel Mansell in a dra­matic cli­max at Ade­laide. Those who said Prost and Mclaren were un­de­serv­ing of this one were not only miss­ing the point – they were down­right wrong.

But as Barnard took leave of Mclaren to move to Fer­rari – such were their char­ac­ters, he and Den­nis could never have sus­tained their part­ner­ship – a ris­ing threat to Prost’s supremacy was about to fur­ther un­set­tle Mclaren’s seren­ity. Dur­ing Prost’s dou­ble ti­tle years, Ayr­ton Senna racked up an in­cred­i­ble 16 pole po­si­tions for Team Lo­tus. That only four vic­to­ries were bagged says a great deal more about that team’s short­com­ings than Senna’s own. He needed a move to make good on his mon­u­men­tal po­ten­tial.

In ’87 Wil­liams dom­i­nated when turbo en­gine sup­plier Honda hit their stride. Den­nis, as ever, was wise to the power shift. Who needed cus­tomer Porsches when he could have fac­tory Honda V6s? For the fol­low­ing sea­son, the Ja­panese mo­tor giant aban­doned Wil­liams in favour of Mclaren, and with them fol­lowed the men­ac­ing force of na­ture in the yel­low hel­met. Ayr­ton Senna was com­ing – and Prost’s life would never be the same again.


Ron Den­nis started out in For­mula 1 as a ju­nior me­chanic to Jochen Rindt at Cooper, be­fore fol­low­ing Rindt to Jack Brab­ham’s team in ‘68

With Wat­tie at the wheel, Barnard’s ground­break­ing car­bon-fi­bre MP4 started to de­liver on its prom­ise, win­ning the 1981 Bri­tish GP at Sil­ver­stone

(Left to right) Barnard, Lauda, Den­nis and Tyler Alexan­der, be­fore Lauda’s vic­tory, on his third out­ing with Mclaren, at Long Beach in ‘82

Prost joined Mclaren in 1984 and had the edge on Lauda in terms of speed. But in 1988, he would meet his neme­sis…

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