Martin Whitmarsh, Team Principal of McLaren Racing, reveals what it takes to succeed in the world’s fastest motor sport.
The McLaren Formula 1 motor racing team is a British success story – and not just in sporting terms. It’s an engineering colossus whose Surrey-based, Sir Norman Foster-designed Technology Centre is at the very core of its high-achieving, results-driven attitude.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this otherworldly HQ housed an unapproachable management. Yes, the building and its contents – including the historic machines and numerous trophies that line the reception atrium – will take your breath away (think Stanley Kubrick-meets-Bond villain lair), but the extraordinary operation within is run by a band of enthusiasts who are referred to by F1 fans simply as ‘racers’.
Chief among them is 53-year-old Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh. Articulate and friendly, he is also, as you might imagine, supremely focused. It’s a job requirement in a sport where it’s not just the cars that move at astonishing speeds.
Whitmarsh’s team of engineers will make over 1,000 iterations to the 2011 McLaren MP4-26, sinking countless hours into the elusive quest for the fractions of a second that could make the difference between victory and defeat.
Before joining McLaren in 1989, Whitmarsh was Manufacturing Director at British Aerospace. It was an industry in which, he says, “It was very hard to communicate what we were doing and improve relations.” Now, of course, he could scarcely be more visible, appearing trackside on race days to a global audience numbering in the hundreds of millions.
There’s nowhere to hide, and that openness percolates through McLaren’s entire operation. “In Formula 1 there is an openness that is unique, certainly from a business perspective,” Whitmarsh admits. “The Group encompasses 2,500 massively talented people who are highly motivated, but they are all human so they – we all – make mistakes. We try to be the best we can, of course, and to innovate.”
”I’m more often than not found in the workshop talking to engineers about car upgrades for forthcoming races. Our drivers expect me to know what’s happening.”
How do they sustain that innovation over a gruelling season? “We are a very focused group of enthusiasts who all contribute to the common goal: winning Grands Prix and World Championships. The connection between people and end result is tangible. I’m rarely at my desk,” Whitmarsh continues. “I’m more often than not found in the workshop talking to engineers about car upgrades for forthcoming races. Our drivers expect me to know what’s happening.”
That attention to detail would certainly win the approval of Whitmarsh’s predecessor – Group founder Ron Dennis – whose presence reaches out across the Technology Centre from his ground-floor office. No detail was ever too small to escape his notice – even the air pressure in McLaren’s on-site canteen is specifically designed to prevent the smells of cooking escaping into the atmosphere outside.
As the F1 season closes, Whitmarsh’s attention is turning to McLaren’s activities beyond the racetrack, where McLaren Automotive is winning plaudits for its MP4-12C supercar. “The objective is to be superior to the likes of Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche, despite having no heritage when measured against them,” he admits.
But they won’t get there on their own. “We have many hundreds of partners involved directly in the process of building and running the Formula 1 operation, and that has allowed us to diversify our range of other businesses,” Whitmarsh says. “Our electronics division is a world leader, supplying the two biggest race series in the world: F1 and NASCAR. McLaren Applied Technologies, one of our subsidiary companies, works closely with the Premiership, Heathrow Airport, the Tour de France, the England rugby team and the International Olympic Committee. We are very fortunate that our technical expertise and human-performance experience helps drive these exciting collaborations.”
But Whitmarsh’s true passion will always be Formula 1. How does he explain its enduring appeal? “It’s about brave young men competing in the world’s most advanced cars,” he says. And when you put it like that, it sounds obvious.