Ron Dennis on why McLaren is eying NASCAR
Q: What do you think about NASCAR's move toward fuel injection and what challenges do you foresee?
Dennis: "I applaud because effectively every form of motorsport requires you to have a much stronger commitment to social responsibility than we've ever had before. If you want to drop your CO2, you have to embrace some of the technologies that allow you to do that. Certainly fuel injection provides you with that technology. So we can bring to bear some very useful technologies. We've really done our homework. The systems we're offering the teams and NASCAR are systems that for us are a core business. Producing high-performance, very resilient electronic control systems. We're proud of the statistics. We've supplied every Formula One team for three years, and not one team has had an electrical fault in practice or racing in three years. We've done the same in the IRL. Not one team has suffered electrical problems in a practice or race. We are a very cost-effective technology because of pudding-proof reliability. For NASCAR one of the things we can absolutely guarantee is tamper-proof systems and the ability to carefully monitor anything that looks like it's been remotely interfered with. I wouldn't accuse any competitor of any form of motor sport of deliberately setting about trying to circumvent a control system. But motor racing is full of suspicion. If the teams absolutely categorically believe it can't be done, then they relax and trust in the supplier. My objective is to give any team owner, crew chief, or technical director in NASCAR an understanding of just how we ensure that's the case with our systems."
"Contact any Formula One team or IRL team and ask if there is any reason to believe that any of the systems we deployed have been tampered with. Not only is it tamperproof, but it leaves fingerprints if you go near it and try to tamper it. Your fingerprints are all over it. So be warned, you won't just go in and fail; you'll leave fingerprints. "
Q: How will fuel injection have an impact on NASCAR?
Dennis: "I can absolutely assure the fan base there'll be no perceivable difference from the car running on fuel injection and a carburetor. The same way they can categorically know they're producing no CO2. It's a given because an engine is given exactly what it wants from a fuel injection system and acceleration, therefore there is no fuel wasted just because the engine is turning over."
"There's probably close to 100% of the fan base that has completely bought into mobile phones, iPhones and iPads. There's no manufacturer in the world that can be compliant to government's CO2 requirements using carburetors. There comes a time that everyone has to embrace technology, but also the fan base will quickly realize this is something they should support. I doubt there's anybody out there in the fan base advocating not moving forward and producing a lower carbon footprint."
Q: Why is McLaren Electronics bidding on fuel injection?
Dennis: "The strategic nature of the wish to embrace NASCAR is linked to the fact that McLaren is a brand. It's important to demonstrate at every opportunity to the American market that we're a brand to be relied upon. Our production cars will come to America at the beginning of next year. One of our first preproduction cars will be announced in Pebble Beach next week. In that area, we're coming. It's a program hugely important to develop the McLaren brand. "
Q: What do you make of former McLaren driver Juan Pablo Montoya's progress in NASCAR?
Dennis: "I consider Juan a friend. I have nothing but positive thoughts — maybe the odd negative though — but most are positive. Some things work, some things don't work. I feel to this day that Juan should have stayed in Formula One because I think the best was in him. But he was very keen to come to America and adopt the American way of going motor racing. I think he found it tougher than anticipated, but he seems to be getting the job done. I don't know if he made this supreme effort (of winning the pole) just to impress me. I somewhat doubt it."
Q: Who's the best driver you worked with in Formula One?
Dennis: "I think the formula for success changes on a constant basis. I was privileged to spend time with (Juan Manuel) Fangio. He could have gotten into a car now and been competitive. Maybe he didn't have the expertise to delve into the technology required now by Grand Prix drivers, but all the tools were at his disposal to make the car go faster. To sort of compare (Ayrton) Senna with Lewis Hamilton or Alain Prost or Niki Lauda…I feel privileged to have so many world champions driving for McLaren. Many of them became multiple world champions. I have fond memories of all of them."
"Unfortunately, the negative parts tend to stick a little firmer in your mind that things didn't work out. In the end, I hope all the drivers who have driven for McLaren feel they were treated fairly and given the opportunity to compete. You might not get a perfect score if you ask every driver who has driven for us, but the vast majority will say I have absolutely equal treatment and was given every opportunity to compete with my teammates. That's always my objective."
"I think it's very, very important how you win. I don't think you should in motor sports have the win-at-all-costs approach. I have very different values in that respect. I don't win at all costs. I think how you win is absolutely important. There's never been a moment in my own career where I've looked in the mirror and felt anything other than 100% committed to running my companies and racing team to the highest level of ethics."
Q: What surprises you about NASCAR?
Dennis: "I think my judgment is somewhat clouded by the fact that it's incredibly hot at the moment. I can't get my mind around these guys going three plus hours in this temperature. I'll take everything I've seen and think about it. I'm not a knee-jerk guy. But there is an overwhelming sense of professionalism. I haven't had much opportunity to talk to the drivers, but I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Jeff Gordon last night. He massively impressed me. If the other drivers have his approach, then you have an amazing group of drivers. It's exactly why he's good at what he does. We inevitably start making comparisons about other drivers. And he did say to me for example, 'What is the biggest quality of Lewis Hamilton?' I said, 'His biggest quality is he's prepared to make sacrifices.' And Jeff completely got it. That's the starting point of being a great driver because you have to sacrifice so much to find in yourself a level of dedication to be successful. You can't just manufacture a racing driver. They are very often individuals who have a hunger and desire to succeed but lack guidance and someone comes along who can be a father. Sometimes even another competitor. Sometimes a manager. In the end, they can be guided to a certain point. But unless they're prepared to really sacrifice things — which normally means to the detriment of relationships, their education and all sorts of things — then they're never going to get there. You can imagine climbing Everest. You're not going to get there in jogging shorts and shoes. There's a lot of pain and challenge there. That's one of the things that Jeff completely got. And as we went more into the psyche of the whole motor racing performance requirement, he had obviously worked out many things that just impressed me. I didn't expect someone to be so rounded and so knowledgeable about what it takes to be successful. He clearly has some ambition to, ultimately when he stops driving, run a team. I think he'd do as good a job running a team as he would driving a car."
Q: Why hasn't F1 been successful in the U.S.?
Dennis: "NASCAR has exactly the same problem as Formula One has in America. You've got two ranges of sporting events. All the college sports, with a massive following. And the professional sports — basketball, hockey, American football, baseball. You go into our country, you've got soccer, a small group that watches cricket and motor sport. You go to China, what's the most watched sport? Badminton. So at the end of the day, the American consumer has so much choice. That's the first challenge."
"We've been beaten up year after year that we went and formed events (in the U.S.): Phoenix, Long Beach, Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas. We formed the racing program and had a three-year contract. At the end of the contract, we'd established the fan base, and CART would come in at half the cost. After a while you say, 'Hold on, we did fantastic deals with these cities to race there, we raced on lower margins than anywhere else in the world to show that Formula One works, and they take CART at end of the contract.' After a while you can only be smacked on the head with a baseball bat so long before it starts to hurt. We were priced out of the market."
Q: What do you make about skepticism in a proposed F1 race in Austin, Texas, for 2012?
Dennis: "The race in Austin is challenging in the time scale, but I think it'll probably happen. But we will be in America. We always get to America somehow."
"What I do know is there are three very, very serious separate projects in parallel in respect to an American race. My contribution to the process is minimal. If I'm asked to help, I help. It's really a question of what (F1 chief) Bernie (Ecclestone's) approach is to this because he's the economic force in regards to starting new races. But all of Formula One tries to give every opportunity for anyone brave enough to put together a project for it to come to reality. Even if they're one year late, it won't stop the project from happening. The teams won't say, 'Oh, you've failed. You're not ready in 2011.' It'll be given every opportunity to succeed. Exactly the same attitude that was given to the American Formula One team. It was given opportunity after opportunity to succeed. But no one in Formula One stuck their foot out or did anything to try to make that team unsuccessful. Everybody made every effort."
Q: Where are the other two projects?
Dennis: "That's not for me to say."
Q: How much was the failure of the American-based USF1 team damaging to the sport here?
Dennis: "Let me put it the other way around. If you were a European team trying to get into Formula One, one strike and you'd be out. (USF1) had 10 goes at it. They were given opportunity after opportunity to survive. The thing is they didn't tell the truth. They never had the depth. They never had the understanding. They never had the resources. The proposition of building cars and racing them from America from a logistical standpoint was pure lunacy. They did more damage to Formula One within America by creating false expectations. That was what was bad about that whole thing. It was never going to happen, and they were given every opportunity. All they did was deceive a lot of people, and there were a few people who might have had a great time spending the money they spent if they spent it with another team in Formula One that was serious. They may have become a strong supporter of Formula One instead of feeling the pain of having toileted a load of money."
Q: How would you assess the progress of McLaren this season?
Dennis: "There are two or three wonderful one-liners in motor sport. I love the one that says when the flag drops, the (baloney) stops. I quite like that one. I also like the one that to finish first, you first must finish. For some of our competitors, having the edge in qualifying is to the detriment of their reliability. Also, they don't have great team strategy. There are two ways to develop a car under current regulations. We knew it had to have 200 odd-kilos of fuel to go through the race. We felt we put great emphasis on the ability of the car to be gentle on the tires. And for the tires to be in really good shape throughout the race. If you do that, it's to the detriment of being able to get the best out of the tire in qualifying."
"No question, we don't have an optimized car for qualifying. But we do have a very good race car. We're leading both world championships, our drivers are first and second, we've won races. I find it slightly infuriating, and I've voiced my opinion, when my guys get out of the cars and say, 'I wish I was on the front row.' And (they) build in the media the perception that we're giving them cars that are less capable of winning races, I do point out to them that, 'I still think you won four races between the two of you. Aren't you leading the world championships?' It's the nature of drivers. We aren't the fastest car in qualifying, but our development of our racing cars is relentless. We never give up. How often in Formula One do teams run out of steam and say, 'We're going to put all our effort into next year's car.' The moment you hear that, it's, 'Go right ahead!' If our team had not won any race but won the last race, that'd be absolute justification for all the money we spent trying to win the last race."
"We had a car that was less than competitive at the beginning of last season. Two seconds off the pace. And we had the most competitive car at the end of the season. If we start the season competitively, we're very hard to beat. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves like Silverstone, but that's the price you pay for rapid development. Anyone betting against us, it's a hard bet. But there's a long way to go yet. I'd rather have the points buffer we've got than not have it. No question, our car is particularly good in certain types of circuits. In Canada, we were dominant. I didn't hear people saying then we were unhappy with our cars. Our cars are more competitive than they look in qualifying."
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