There was little doubt about the biggest draw on the second day of the Autosport International Show, as the crowds gathered around the central stage to hear the views of McLaren boss Ron Dennis.
Looking fresh and relaxed after a holiday, Dennis left the audience captivated as he talked about the progress of his team, a new spirit of cooperation between the outfits on the grid and where he sees F1 heading over the next few years.
He also offered some interesting insights into his personal integrity as he took questions from a number of fans keen to find out more about the man who helped guide Lewis Hamilton to his maiden world championship.
Autosport.com was there to hear what Dennis had to say.
Q. There were incredible scenes at the end of 2008 in Brazil. In all your years of Formula One, and running McLaren, have you ever seen anything quite like that?
Ron Dennis: You are talking about the last lap? Of course it was all in control! Hopefully the last lap was as exciting for you as it was for me.
You can see how in control I was. If you were watching on television it was an interesting last one and a half minutes, but it was far more in control than people thought. We thought we had covered every eventuality, but we hadn't really thought of someone staying on dry tyres when they should have been on wet tyres. At the end of the day it worked out. And we had an English world champion - which is particularly pleasing for McLaren, which is ultimately an English team.
Q. Preparations for 2009 are well underway, of course, as they were before the end of 2008. How are they going for the successful title defence you are aiming for?
RD: We are well ahead of our programmes. The first car will be shown to the media (next Friday) and the public within a few hours (of that) with the technology as we have it with the internet. We are then immediately going to go testing, and we are currently building our third car so we are well ahead of our programme.
There are a lot of new challenges to this year - new aerodynamic regulations, slick tyres - both of which offer their own unique challenges. Then obviously the other ingredient is KERS, which is technically very challenging. Between those three, and all the other complexities that sit between integrating those three primary parts of the car's performance, it is a very challenging season. So we aim to put as much work in before the first grand prix as possible.
Q. Some of your competitors have said they have got a handle on KERS, and other have said they haven't. Where do McLaren stand on this technology? Have you got to grips with it?
RD: We think we are very strong. We spent a lot of time analysing which particular technology we would follow. In the end, we decided to follow an electro-mechanical system.
So far, the work that has been done by Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines and ourselves has gone very well. We have had very few real difficult parts of the programme. It is all extremely challenging, and it is cutting edge technology. There is nowhere you can buy this technology. You have to invent, develop, design and prove out everything, because whilst the principles of energy recovery are well known to everybody, actually the execution of it in high performance vehicles is virtually unknown.
We think we are in a strong position but only time will tell. Certainly the first grand prix will give an indication, but as always in grand prix racing it will be two or three races before a pattern starts to emerge.
Q. It is impossible to overemphasise the extraordinary number of dedicated and highly skilled people at McLaren who work tirelessly. There are literally hundreds of them working to an agenda aren't there?
RD: A grand prix team is very much the tip of an iceberg. The way that we operate our organisation now with a whole range of scientific disciplines, they are beyond aerospace now. We have elements of the organisation that are broken into research groups, and we have scientists. I would never belittle a PhD, but we have lots of PhDs in our organisation, and lots of very clever people.
(So) it is harnessing the sum of those experts, which is the challenge. Therefore in a modern GP team now, it is really a thing of the past to have a technical guru; you have to have a lot more expertise. And the management process plays a far greater role in the outcome of a grand prix than it has done in previous years.
This is still very much a human sport. This is still a sport that requires high levels of dedication, motivation and ultimately sacrifice. That is a key ingredient of any human. It isn't great to be married to someone who has been involved in motor sport that is passionate and dedicated to it, or vice versa - be they male or female.
The reality is, and we have some wonderful female engineers in our organisation, if you are committed you become mentally obsessed with it and sometimes physically obsessed with it. At the end of the day it is a very powerful organisation with highly motivated people, but at the same time we are mindful of the impact it has on families and the necessity to take everything into account when you are looking at the continuous improvement we are striving for at McLaren.
Q. You mentioned a moment ago the change in regulations. F1 is changing very dramatically in the next few years: is the sport doing enough to maintain its competitive edge and to bring back the fans - and ultimately make it cheaper to compete?
RD: Well, it is hard to do the question justice in a few sentences. The teams are run by some very competent businessmen. Some people in F1 are very flamboyant and very outgoing and appear to be a long way from who you would expect to be running a large commercial organisation, but behind the facade of the individuals or very often physically behind the individuals that represent the teams, there are some extremely competent people in both the technical and non-technical sense.
Those people who are minded and who are tasked with the commercial future of grand prix racing are very, very focused on the world as it exists today. We are in a sort of global economic meltdown and that means grand prix racing has to react. Over the last three months there has been some really excellent work done by specific groups, focused on each aspect of the commercial aspects of grand prix racing. Ninety percent of the effort has gone into the cost issue, we haven't really addressed the income issue, but we have addressed the cost issue.
The work done by the teams has really been excellent: it has been well considered and it has been meticulously planned. Our objective is to take cost out of grand prix racing without impacting on the fundamental DNA of it, which is the magic ingredient.
We are now turning, as we discussed in the last meeting which took place yesterday, you saw us agree a number of cost controls and cost savings which have to be very measured to ensure that they affect all of the teams in the same way - so you are not influencing the competitive mix.
Now that has taken place, within a few days, we will get the results of a global market research into the perception of F1 by the public, by the audience. We will look at that very carefully and we have every intention of trying to increase its popularity. It might mean by varying the qualifying format, it might be varying the race format, or it might be by changing the accessibility of F1. But whatever it is, we will do it in a considered and measured way and make sure that the outcome is positive for F1.
Not only F1, but the whole world, does tend to work in a bit of a knee-jerk environment and F1 has had far too much instantaneous reaction to the issues it has faced. My strong contribution to the processes we have been going through is for them to be more considered, more scientifically driven and more using the benefit of research. It means you tend to be less ostrich-like and more outward looking. Along with all the other team principals, and executives who are involved in this process, we really do believe we are going to make a difference - certainly on costs and we hope on the spectacle of F1.
Q. You have referred indirectly to the Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA). There seems to be a very refreshing change among the team bosses to sit down and thrash this out - getting away from the perception that collectively the team bosses have not been able to agree on much for a number of years.
RD: I think we are human, as is obvious. But when you look at conflicts and problems in the war, it tends to bring people together. We are fiercely competitive but we have, probably for the first time in the history of F1, tended to put aside that very competitive approach we have had and really focus on the interests of motorsport and the interests of F1.
For our businesses, because we want to survive and because we want to make F1 stronger, I think it has been a wonderful catalyst. There is an understandable perception as people try to portray the efforts of the teams as being implemented as a result of pressures from the various authorities and elements that do have a role in F1, but that is really not the case.
The whole incentive is to take control of our companies' destinies and to look at genuine cost reduction that is not to the detriment of any specific team. Cost reduction that is across the board is what our objective has been - and I think it is what we have achieved. That same collective approach will be brought to bear on how we make the sport better.
Q. From a personal point of view we have read a number of things regarding your personal position within the McLaren Group. Are you likely any time soon to let go of the reins of McLaren racing and let Martin Whitmarsh run that show?
RD: First of all, most people go for the short sound bite - and 'retirement' is probably the word that would most cross peoples' lips when they talk about it. For me, the concept of not being involved in McLaren is impossible. It is part of my life.
Obviously I am an equity participant in McLaren and there are lots of things that I still want to achieve with McLaren. Our production car company, which is very challenging in this environment, is very important to me and very important to the other shareholders - that is taking a good percentage of my time at the moment.
But F1 is the core business of McLaren and it is the thing that has given me most of the material things in my life. So it is inconceivable for me to be involved.
But on the other hand, surprisingly enough at my age, I still have a tremendous amount of ambition. There are things that I want to do that I could not do in the past because I was not financially capable of doing them - things that are important to me.
So there is no question over the next months/years, that my involvement in McLaren will reduce. But it is not to put me on a beach, it is to give me the opportunity to do some of the other things I want to do in my life and perhaps give back a little bit to young people rather than just to McLaren or F1 or motorsport as a whole. The experience that I had with contributing to Lewis' career was extremely fulfilling, and very satisfying, and I have duplicated that emotion with some other young people that I have helped.
I am always a little bit fearful when I say that because I am inundated by letters when I say it. I am very much a person who likes to try and facilitate people who, given the chance, will make something out of their life. So... my future is going to go down that path in all walks of life.
Q. Let's have a word about your drivers. With Lewis Hamilton it is a wonderful story, the youngest world champion, and something that ranks very highly on your CV?
RD: I think the results speak for themselves. He is a very balanced feet-on-the-ground guy. He has a phenomenal family, he has had tremendous support and continues to receive tremendous support from his father. Obviously also from a lot of people at McLaren who believe in him and believe in Heikki (Kovalainen).
That is very much the nature of our organisation. We are very much behind the drivers and when they perform it just makes it very gratifying. It is a privilege to have been part of that, but I get almost as much satisfaction from a situation where Heikki was very much mentally destroyed and not in the best physical condition when he came to McLaren.
So I look at what he has achieved, with his physical condition and his mental approach, and his ability. It is so easy for his performance to be overshadowed by Lewis, but if you start fuel correcting their qualifying performances, then Heikki did a fantastic job last year and will do a great job this year.
That in itself is great. When you see somebody who has been put in the position where the best in them has been suppressed, then it is great to release that and get their confidence back. That cross-references to the way we run the company and the way we go about life. Obviously Lewis captures all of those and creates for everybody the clear understanding that if you are prepared to make sacrifices in life and if you work hard and if you are talented then you can succeed.
Q (from the audience). Some say you should have been knighted many year's ago...
RD: It is very flattering.
Q (from the audience). Do you think the guys in the red cars have had any influence over this?
RD: (Laughs). That has sort of floored me a bit! Well, I was very, very surprised when I received a CBE. I was surprised because I had always been led to believe that what you do, is that you actually lobby or put money into various organisations, charities etc, and this brings to the forefront your reputation and then you receive an award. It was a complete and utter surprise.
I have no hopes for anything greater. If it happens it happens, and I very much doubt that anyone really influences it and certainly not anyone sat in Italy!
Q (from the audience). Where do you stand on Bernie Ecclestone's medal system idea?
RD: Well, the position of the teams is, and I can give you a collective view on it, that we are not particularly against anything that makes F1 better. But we really believe that it should be driven by knowledge as opposed to intuition and gut feel.
The teams have financed this research and it has been conducted over two months globally, and we will bring into that research the possibility of introducing a new points system, whether it is with medals or whether pole position should carry points to incentivise people to try harder in qualifying, or whether we should adopt monstrously radical things like reversing the grid after awarding points for qualifying.
For me to say that is unheard of. I am a pure motor racer. I am a guy who likes to qualify hard, be the fastest car in front, lead from the front and win by whatever it takes. I am pure. But it can be pretty boring, not to me, but it can be pretty boring for you guys if the race is a procession.
So we have to be mindful of the fact that those people who are captured by F1, their interest is maintained. The problem when you start playing with something that works, and we have a phenomenal global audience, is that we are very, very concerned about playing with the DNA of Formula One and screwing some magic that crosses that audience.
So our attitude is let's take a scientific approach within the limitations of market research, try and understand what people like about F1 and play to our strengths, then try to handle our weaknesses.
If, within that mix, a medal system contributes something, we will embrace it, as will we embrace any idea that comes from anybody. We do not have closed minds. We want to make F1 better for everybody.
Q (from the audience). You've come over as a person of great personal integrity over the past year. Have you got any tips for people about that?
RD: I am just Ron, to everybody. I can't be familiar and call you by your first name, but whatever your first name, we all have first names. We all have the same strengths and weaknesses as humans. Some people are very complimentary of the fact that I am self made. To me, the best thing about being self-made is that you have actually started your life in business with your values, and you grow on your values and you build a company on your values.
When you look in the mirror in the morning, what is looking back is the truth because you cannot hide from the truth. You can try and compartmentalise it, but you cannot hide from it. The truth is the truth.
So when you are tested against your values, the test is not just a public one. And as some of you have read, I am going through another one at the moment which is very challenging because it is a test that has its routes in freedom of speech and the protection a process gives you.
In this case, it is a legal process where someone can say anything they want about you and you have no mechanism other than to wait and to hope that the very people who have read about what you are supposed to have done and haven't done, are the same people who are going to give you the opportunity to speak the truth. This is what life is about.
In the end everything is a test. The thing when people say, 'What did you see in Lewis?', what I saw in Lewis was the focus, the commitment, dedication, confidence without arrogance, and also the ingredient that manifested itself over time, which is the ability to make sacrifice. To achieve in life you have to make sacrifice, and sacrifice in everybody's life comes in different forms.
So when you are tested on your values, you just have to call on the fundamental principles by which you have been brought up to believe in. In the end whatever the price, whatever the price, you have to be prepared to pay it.
Our company suffered a phenomenal fiscal penalty that would normally bring any organisation of our size to its knees, but in the end the one thing that came out - and we are not judging ourselves but we are judged by those people who really immersed themselves in the situation and really analysed everything about it, I believe the company emerged with its integrity, and I emerged with my integrity, and to me that is a priceless thing. Priceless.