As Ron Dennis bows out of McLaren, Steve Cropley reflects on whether he can be considered a British Enzo Ferrari
If Ron Dennis had only been a more emollient character, he’d probably never have had to leave the unique £2bn racing and engineering empire he spent more than three decades building up.
Without the celebrated spikiness, the appetite for perversity and the desire to control every detail that are part of his nature, Dennis might now be moving into his senior years as a kind of British Enzo Ferrari, revered, honoured and viewed as an asset by younger, modre modern management that now operates the McLaren Group, and wise enough not to get in their way.
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It’s arguable that Dennis’s achievements, when summarised for history, will come to look every bit as great as Ferrari‘s – perhaps even greater. Like a Ferrari, he moved into the business of racing as rather an upstart, but built a famous and world-beating organisation on two things, determination and the ability to pull off bold financial deals. In his heyday he provided the cars and team than made many great racing drivers – Prost, Senna, Hakkinen and Hamilton come immediately to mind – bringing new levels of professionalism and polish to racing which others had to emulate to have any chance to beat him. Even the notorious Spygate scandal of the mid-2000s – which brought a cataclysmic points-loss and a £50 million fine couldn’t hold McLaren back. In bounced straight into the fairy-tale of Lewis Hamilton’s first championship.
Dennis’s achievements in building the McLaren Technical Centre, an extraordinarily beautiful and functional Norman Foster HQ on the outskirts of Woking, and his vision for the latest road car company McLaren Automotive – now impressively profitable in only its sixth year of life – eclipse even the achievements of Old Enzo, who started making road cars as a way of financing his racing, and built his finest (with key and lifelong help from the likes of Pininfarina and Scaglietti) in an era when you could simply build what was in your head, not what was dictated by a blizzard of conflicting global road car design rules.
Despite current events, Dennis will not slip into lonely oblivion. Behind the scenes he moves in a circle of wealthy friends, including some of racing’s other grandees wise enough not to be his business partners. It is possible to see him continuing to be active in the charitable sphere, where he has always been generous and modest. Whatever happens in future, Dennis will deserve to be honoured by his supreme achievements. But with a smoother departure from a McLaren – something about which I understand he was repeatedly advised – this might have been much more easily forthcoming.