After three decades of directing one of the winningest Formula One teams of all time, Ron Dennis has decided to start selling road cars. A few years ago, the executive chairman of McLaren Group stepped back from motor sports to focus on taking the company’s legendary technology from the track to the streets in the form of a new road car, the MP4-12C. This six-figure Ferrari-fighter is only the beginning for the company’s new subsidiary, McLaren Automotive. Other cars are coming, much to the concern of Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche. Complex caught up with Dennis at McLaren’s futuristic headquarters in Woking, United Kingdom.
What have you been working on lately?
Ron Dennis: I love building things, so I’ve been conceptualizing and creating the new production facility for the automotive group. On a more immediate basis, I inevitably have a point of view on things that are happening in our Grand Prix team and try to positively influence the challenges that our team faces.
Being the only shareholder who actively runs the company, that puts me in a slightly different mindset. I have to look after shareholder interests. And right now, the investment of myself and my shareholders in the automotive group is very large. We’ve been spending on this program now for five years and very intensely in the last two or three years.
When will that spending start to pay off?
Ron Dennis: We’re well on target to ramp up production [of the MP4-12C]. And we should be at a production rate of something in the excess of 2,000 cars per year by June of next year. And then we will ramp up over the following two years to 4,000 cars. But the 4,000 cars will be three models, and of those three models, two of them will have derivatives, different versions. So it’s a pretty intense program.
McLaren is kind of like the Apple of the automotive world: Its products are so innovative that they’re disruptive. How does a company do that?
Ron Dennis: We’ve always done things differently. [The physician and author] Edward De Bono had an incredible influence on me when I was younger, being able to practically demonstrate that there were different ways to think—his idea of lateral thinking. Thought is a very underestimated process and I don’t think many people think as much as they should.
The soft option is to follow a pattern or a trend, and the difficult option is to break out of those patterns and trends and take an alternative approach. Thinking isn’t about being reactive to what’s going on around you. Thinking is about actually sitting down, identifying the problem, breaking the problem down, rolling it in your mind, and trying to understand what is the best solution. In the end, creativity and a desire to do things differently and better all starts with a disciplined approach to how you think and what you think other people are thinking.
How does that apply to the new MP4-12C?
Ron Dennis: What does the market want? What is the price sector? How do we do more for less, or a lot more for the same? This is an “and” car: It has great road holding and it’s comfortable. Normally those two things don’t go together. It’s incredibly strong, but it’s very light. It’s very aerodynamic, but it looks good. Normally it’s only one, so we tried to make it so that you have both. It’s 600 horsepower, but it’s the lowest CO2 per horsepower of any engine in the world. It uses revolutionary materials, but it’s affordable. It’s very spacious inside, but it’s the smallest sports car in its class on the outside. And it goes on and on and on.
How much does the car match your vision from the outset?
Ron Dennis: My contribution to the styling is that it should not be too edgy, and we needed to have a timeless design. One of the most iconic pieces of engineering excellence for me is the Lockheed SR-71 [high-altitude reconnaissance jet]—the Blackbird. To me, I always look at it as being the most beautiful thing you could look at. It was never designed to do anything other than take photographs at high altitude and not be shot down. But to do what it did required phenomenal innovation and great lateral thinking of the design staff for what they gave birth to, which is pure function. It was function over design. No one styled it—it was just a beautiful object. And that was very much what I said to our stylists. I said, “Look, we don’t need bits sticking out and protruding. Form has to follow function.” So when you look at it, it has to be functionally driven, not aesthetically driven. People say, “Oh, it looks a bit like this or a bit like that. There’s a bit of Ferrari here.” In the end, the real elegance of this car is its technical achievement.
How does the company reflect your personality?
Ron Dennis: I think everybody in this company has a common passion to succeed, to do the best, to be world-class. I think the enthusiasm and passion I have for the McLaren brand is shared by the entire workforce, maybe not equally, but still everybody in the organization understands what we’re about, that good is not good enough. We want to be the best.
I’ll be honest, I have a phenomenal fear of failure. I don’t know that it is a strength. It’s a weakness. So to avoid failure, I’m obsessively focused on the details and try to convey to everybody in the company that everybody has a role to play in the outcome of any objective that we set for ourselves.
What has been your biggest fear of failure lately?
Ron Dennis: The production car was certainly the biggest commercial risk that the group has ever taken, and that certainly has preoccupied my mind on several occasions in the last two or three years, as we raised the financing to be able to bring the car to market, build a new factory, etc. But the response has been phenomenal.
That’s probably one of the biggest surprises, was that we felt that we’d have to be proactive in America to rekindle the enthusiasm for the brand when we were competing in the Can-Am championship or IndyCar in North America. But the response has been phenomenal and 42 percent of our production will go to America. That’s pretty exciting. But we have to create a sustained desire for the brand.
That’s where the other models and derivatives you mentioned come in?
Ron Dennis: What will help is that each of these cars is very different—different performance parameters, different customer target, different look. And so clearly we hope we’ve done our homework and when we bring different products to the market, they are received as well as the first. Time will tell.