[INTERVIEW] Ron Dennis on McLaren Automotive’s challenge lies in the result of growing pains

Written by Cheryl Tay on . Posted in Cheryl Tay Blog | Blog Post of Cheryl Tay

Ron Dennis is synonymous with the McLaren brand, primarily for his tenure as the team principal of the McLaren Formula 1 team from 1981 to 2009. At his hands, the team became a regular world championship contender, winning Constructors’ and Drivers’ titles with Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, the late Ayrton Senna, Mika Häkkinen and Lewis Hamilton.

senna-documentary-makes-ron-dennis-cry-33691_1Ron Dennis in an embrace with the late Ayrton Senna (Photo: Internet)

Finally in early 2009, Dennis handed over the reins of the McLaren F1 team to Martin Whitmarsh so he could move on to his next focus, which is to build McLaren Automotive. Starting with its first production car the MP4-12C, this is entirely designed and built by McLaren since the McLaren F1.


On the Friday of last year’s Singapore Grand Prix, the launch of McLaren Automotive Asia Pte Ltd (Singapore-based regional headquarters for McLaren) was held. Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim is part of the board of directors, having committed a significant investment.


Photo: McLaren

Wearnes Automotive, local authorised distributor for McLaren, revealed the MP4-12C in Singapore last June, before officially opening the showroom in March this year. Capitalising on its close association to F1, McLaren unveiled the first MP4-12C Singapore Edition on the Friday of this year’s Singapore Grand Prix at Conran Centennial Singapore. This is an exclusive collaboration between McLaren Singapore and McLaren Special Operations to create only three highly-customised units of the 12C.

58695_346141832141701_1687872733_nDesigned according to the customer’s desires and preferences, the first one is inspired by World Champion Mika Hakkinen’s colours during his McLaren racing days, with Rocket Red lines and a Carbon Black and Silver base. Its front and rear bumpers are derived from the HS Edition and the GT3 race car, along with the “SINGAPORE EDITION” branding with the head of a lion on the sides of the door sills.


Getting the chance to speak with Dennis himself, he spoke of the brand, the challenges he faces, his thoughts on ‘green’ cars, the future and more.


Photo: McLaren


Q: McLaren has been in Singapore for about one year. How has it been so far and what hopes do you have?

A: The markets in this sector throughout the world are changing. America has been extremely buoyant for us and we’ve exceeded our expectations. Europe is being much quieter because of the pressures in Europe. But Asia for us is still a growing market. We hope to open dealerships within the next few months in China (which is progressing well) as we will in Malaysia and Taiwan. But our hub for Asia is Singapore and so we are not just focused on providing with our partners at Wearnes really good customer experience but also developing the rest of the markets through Singapore. We are growing and it’s always going be a challenge to grow when you are small, but we are worthy of the challenge.


Q: The McLaren P1, successor to the McLaren F1, recently had its concept revealed. Tell us more about it.

A: It is really form following function. This is a car designed using our own expertise and aerodynamic development that we use in Formula 1. Over the years speed has always been considered necessary to generate downforce. Of course, Grand Prix cars generate quite a speed level so if perfected, we hope or try to seek perfection in the aerodynamics of the P1. It looks as it looks (very different from the 12C) because that’s given as the most efficient aerodynamic performance.


Q: Tell us about McLaren F1 and McLaren Automotive.

A: They have different shareholder groups but they have one common objective – to be the best in the world. In Formula 1, that is determined by winning Grand Prix races and championships. In the sports car world, it’s a little more subjective because the customer base is more discerning. A Formula 1 driver just wants to win, whereas customers of our sports cars expect a whole range of qualities coming out of our brand therefore we have to try and meet their expectations. A simple sentence to cover both – they just want to succeed in their chosen objectives and of course to be world class.


Q: Is having a motorsports heritage an advantage for sports car production?

A: If we are winning Grand Prix races, people must appreciate that we have the technologies to win. Therefore if we are demonstrating that we are incorporating the technology and the culture of our winning cars into our production cars, then they will see an authentic benefit as opposed to perhaps some of the other brands which have very old histories who don’t really participate in motorsports.


Some of our competitors do compete in Formula 1 and anyone that is competitive in Formula 1 producing a sports car has a competitive advantage with regard to the perception of the consumer over people who are not competing in Formula 1 or are competing in Formula 1 but aren’t competitive. We live in a competitive world and people want to align with success.


Q: What are some of the challenges you face?

A: Most of the challenges I face are the result of growing pains. When you bring something new into the world and you try to set your own standards and you create your own expectations. If you don’t experience growing pains, then you haven’t set your sights high enough. You need to challenge everybody in the organisation and inevitably that is going to generate some pain as you make the mistakes that come as a result of being different. But it’s nothing that we didn’t expect and nothing that we can’t accommodate as we grow the brand.


We will be attending our first motor show in Paris where we will have three products – the 12C Coupe and Spider, and the P1. To me it’s the next step in the history of the company. We don’t have one product, now we have two. In the future we will have more and different derivatives.


Today we have the ability to achieve high level of customisation which customers look for. We give the customers what they want. For example, this particular customer of the first 12C Singapore Edition wanted to reflect his passion for the brand, his passion for the performance of Mika when he drove these cars successfully and therefore we have given him his own link to the history of McLaren. We will always try hard to meet the expectations of the customer.


Q: Has everything at McLaren been going according to the plan so far?

A: Absolutely not. You’re not going to have a company with these difficult targets without the challenges. Europe especially, is a challenging market but we are growing and we will achieve.


Q: What do you foresee are some of the challenges in the next three to five years?

A: My perception is that we still have to work hard at creating greater awareness of the brand and emotionalising it. Trying to emotionalise our brand is challenging because we are a technology, we are the future and not everybody embraces that. One can look at our motor racing results and say we do great jobs on the circuit so we make great cars, but I think the challenge is somewhat greater.


We have to talk to our consumers. We are a contemporary brand and I would imagine that most people who buy our cars live in contemporary homes with contemporary art and of course there are always people who sit either side of that sector. I feel generally we have to be of the now, whilst being very proud of our past and achievements.


We should be equally proud of the fact that we have demonstrated ability to master new technologies and introduce them into our cars. Emotionalising that and building our brand is challenging but at the same time we have to deliver good product. So, our products, styling and our overall ability to meet customer expectations is the prerequisite, while having the bigger issues such as brand building in mind.


Q: There is a misconception that high performance cars are more likely to result in accidents.

A: We are about efficiency and people always like performance cars. Inherently, when people have accidents in high performance cars, or efficient cars, they attract more interest than when they have accidents in normal cars. People think normal is different. End of the day, most accidents, whether it’s some degree of injury, fall into a category of 30 to 100 miles an hour. There is virtually no car you can get in today that doesn’t do 100 miles an hour.


Accidents are driven not by the car but by the driver. He can have an accident in a range of middle well-known brands and it attracts no publicity other than the guy had an accident and it was this brand. But if it’s a performance brand, it attracts a lot of publicity. Actually it’s not the car that is the culprit, it’s the driver. One must be mindful of that.


When you talk about our cars, a lot of the people that buy our cars are very sensible. When they want to drive fast they go for a track experience, which is part of the car’s functionality and ability to drive in that environment. Going back to our ambition, it is to have the ability to consistently build and develop across the product range, producing 4,000 cars a year which we have the capability to do.


Q: The industry is moving towards green cars, is that a direction that McLaren will ever take?

A: The only thing about green, if you try to translate green, it’s a colour. So what you are talking is efficient cars and absolutely our cars will be efficient and embrace all the technologies. We are very committed to technology.


Look at an electric vehicle in a city like Los Angeles (LA) for example. It makes eminent sense because LA is in a bowl and therefore pollution sits over LA. The climate is such that it doesn’t blow away, so an electric vehicle in LA makes sense. The fact is, you generate electricity somewhere and the percentage of electricity generated either through solar cells or wind farms or hydroelectricity is quite a relative small part. Most electricity is generated using hydrocarbons and therefore there is a degree of pollution that comes away. You do move, you move the carbon footprint.


When you actually look at commissioning and decommissioning electrical cars, there is still some to be understood. We have the mathematics and projections of decommissioning electrical cars and the reality of the situation is, the ability of electric cars can only be achieved through government subsidy.


If you look at the (Nissan) Leaf for example, you look at the price and then you ask the question of how much will it cost when I change my battery. I think you will get a variety of answers but I don’t think the answer is not 70% of the value of the car. That is a huge cost which is masked in the initial purchase price. What happens when all of these cars need new batteries? It’s going to be challenging experience for the consumer.


Q: So, no electric 12C?

A: I think there is a role to play. You talk about green, it’s not the panacea. We need everything we can get. Unfortunately mankind is burning energy faster than it can discover or make, so we might have a view that wind farms might not contaminate the atmosphere. However, it’s not particularly good to look at and no one really started to incur the cost of decommissioning. I don’t think the solution is there yet; the ultimate solution has not been discovered.


In the meantime we have to make everything we have got efficient and that’s where McLaren is really focused. There are people who drive our cars, especially in America, who cannot believe the fuel consumption.


Q: McLaren will always be about sports cars?

A: It will always be about efficiency. We produce sports cars as it is driven by our economic model. If you breed race horses, you don’t sell race dogs. The reality is to do something synergistic with your core. If Boeing suddenly said they were going to make a car, most people would scratch their heads. So the fact is we have to make products that are synergistic with our brand. Our brand is about efficiency – If I said Formula 1 is about efficiency most people would not understand that but it is. It is about massive efficiency; you have to be super efficient in order to be competitive.


Photo: McLaren

Cheryl Tay

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Singapore’s only female full-time motoring and motorsports photojournalist. Independent automotive consultant and prominent local motorsports personality Cheryl Tay is uniquely passionate about all things cars and motorsports. She also has a strong passion to share her interest and knowledge, hence having a dream to become the ‘Oprah Winfrey of cars and motorsports’ and create a multimedia platform for her sharing. - A female in a male-dominated world, Cheryl Tay is Singapore’s only female full-time motoring journalist and motorsports blogger and she regularly writes for prominent titles in Singapore, Asia and internationally. (See full list of titles that Cheryl Tay writes for here.)

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