Those were the days, my friends
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In 1979 there was a shotgun wedding. The man holding the shotgun was John Hogan, “Hogie” to the world at large, the boss of Charles Stewart & Co Kirkcaldy Ltd with company offices registered in Paisley, Scotland but operating from a building in Brentford, West London.
It sounds mundane, yet that company — and Hogie in particular — was the most powerful in Formula 1, in fact in worldwide sport and motor racing, for decades.
The company controlled the promotional sports budget for the Philip Morris company, parent company of the Marlboro cigarette brand, among others.
Hogie controlled the many millions of dollars spent in Formula 1 with the McLaren and Ferrari teams and countless drivers around the world.
The company’s name was on F1, F2 and F3 cars, GP motorbikes, sports and rally cars, as well as skiing, horse events, aerobatic aircraft and just about anything else you could think of in almost every country — and Hogie was the mastermind. He had the key to the purse.
The McLaren team, sponsored by Marlboro, was struggling in the late 1970s and looking like it would soon go under.
In 1979 Hogan, with an already considerable investment in the team, forced a shotgun wedding at the Watkins Glen F1 race between the McLaren Team, then led by Teddy Mayer, and the Project 4 team led by Ron Dennis, in whom Hogan had great faith and was already sponsoring in other formulae.
The dowry Dennis brought was supplied in many ways by Hogan but the jewels in Dennis’ hands were mainly the promise of things to come — with a new approach and a new designer in John Barnard. The new house was to be called McLaren International.
It was an uneasy wedding. The first progeny of the union that arrived in 1980 was called an MP4.
A double-barrelled name reflecting the union between the uncomfortably married couple but with the “M” initially representing the man with the shotgun, “Marlboro”.
A beautiful car of the era, still stunning to this day in its simplicity of form, the car now dubbed MP4/1 (for more progeny were expected to come along later) raced in 1981 and began an era of unparalleled success for the team.
The design also changed motorsport at a stroke with the introduction of a carbon-fibre composite chassis, now the norm in racing cars, road cars and even aircraft.
But the marriage floundered and divorce was inevitable. Custody of the progeny, as well as all the goods and chattels, was won by Dennis and a new era of the McLaren team began to develop into the huge conglomerate of today.
We at Project 4 Racing, for I was part of that small team, had fun in our Formula 2 and Formula 3 days. It was a great place to work with a small workshop in the back end of Woking, England. I have no hesitation in saying the Dennis, “RD” to all, was a great man to work for.
It was hard work, it was competitive, but we were a small team of young guys who played hard — with a boss who could work and play even harder.
So it was no surprise to us that RD would go on to much bigger things and drag his Project 4 team with him — some of those original P4 team members still work at the McLaren Technology Centre.
The MP4 car designation had replaced the “M” prefix so long used at McLaren from the very first “M1” designed by Bruce himself to the final and largely unsuccessful M30, driven by Alain Prost.
Those early years of the MP4 were not easy but the name prevailed to become one of the sport’s most respected. Until, that is, just a few weeks ago when the cars produced by the team were re-designated “MCL” beginning, bizarrely with the MCL32.
I know not what happened to the M (or MP4 or MCL for that matter) type number 31.
Many who follow the sport are incensed at this name change Because it appears that the name of Dennis is slowly being expunged from the team and with that all reference to the P4 heritage will be slowly buried. As indeed is the name of Marlboro — now hardly seen on the historic cars belonging to the team.
Even fuel sponsor Shell is now removed from many of those heritage cars, presumably to avoid embarrassment to former partner Mobil or new sponsor BP/Castrol.
It seems strange to rewrite history in this way.
But when RD took his place at the head of the table after the original wedding, he changed the designation of the cars from the original “M” to “MP4”, so I think it fair enough that, now the younger generation are renovating and modernising the old house, they should also be allowed to name their first child anything they want.
In another example of “what goes around comes around”, Hogan is now a special adviser to the “Just Marketing International Group”, the world’s largest motorsport marketing agency.
It was founded and still run, — albeit under the umbrella of CSM Sport & Entertainment — by Zak Brown, now executive director of McLaren Technology Group.
Brown was brought into McLaren after the forced removal of Dennis as CEO of the group.
The Dennis era seems to have passed with his hand no longer on the tiller, although he remains on the board as a “non executive chairman” and still has a significant shareholding.
Many of his long-serving employees — and even his new appointments — are slowly dropping from the team roster or positions of influence and either accepting new roles, moving to other teams or even spending more time with their families.
The Project 4 days and those many years I spent at McLaren are long gone, but I look back on them fondly and hope that those people now starting their careers at the McLaren team have as much fun as we did in “Our Day”.