Mansour Ojjeh: The unknown driving force behind McLaren
While it was widely known that he had experienced health issues, having undergone two lung transplants in 2013, few knew that his situation had recently become more serious.
Ojjeh was a fixture in the sport for 43 years, known first as a sponsor of Williams, then as the backer of the TAG Turbo engine that won three titles, and subsequently as a shareholder in McLaren.
He was the man whose financial support and strategic vision helped Ron Dennis to grow the Woking organisation, making it into a globally known brand, and something so much bigger than a racing team.
Despite that long involvement in the frontline of the sport, he remained largely unknown to the public, rarely appearing in the media, and always preferring to stay in the background.
And yet Ojjeh was anything but a wallflower. Those who knew him well recall a charismatic personality with a commanding presence who lit up any room he entered and counted Hollywood stars among his close friends, and yet who treated everyone he met with equal respect.
“Mansour was probably the best human being I’ve ever come across,” says current McLaren CEO Zak Brown. “No one will have anything other than great things to say about Mansour.
“I’ve never met someone who didn’t think he was an unbelievable individual. And I understand why now, having worked for him. McLaren was his family. And everyone that worked at McLaren was family. He cared about the people, immensely.
“It’s time he gets a little bit of the recognition he deserves that he never sought out. He would not have liked to read this story, but I think I think we owe it to him to tell the story of his contribution to McLaren in F1.”
Andreas Seidl, Team Principal, McLaren, Mansour Ojjeh, co-owner, McLaren, and Zak Brown, Executive Director, McLaren
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
“To me I think he was the heart and soul of McLaren for nearly 40 years,” says former team principal Martin Whitmarsh. “What people have got to realise is how big he was as a personality. He was an incredible man, loved by so many.
“And I think he inspired everyone at McLaren during the winning years. He was discreet, and he had tremendous humility. And so generous.
“And despite that low-key discretion and humility, every room, every garage, every motorhome, he just filled it with his charm, his wit, his warmth and his passion.”
“From the mechanics or the tyre men to the drivers, I don’t know anybody in the paddock who had something against Mansour,” says Eric Boullier, another past McLaren team boss. “He was very likeable, very charismatic, very clever. You can only find positive things about him.”
Ojjeh was at his core an astute businessman and marketer. He had a head start in life, as Techniques d’Avant Garde and the companies that it comprised were founded by father Akram. He thus grew up in a privileged world of private jets and yachts.
However, instead of purely pursuing a life of leisure, he studied hard, gaining a master’s degree in business in California. That made him ably qualified to eventually take over TAG and further expand the family’s interests.
The company’s involvement in motor racing was entirely down to his own efforts. It began with a trip to the 1978 Monaco GP, a visit that sparked his interest and led to modest sponsorship of Williams. That would grow over the years, and TAG became a major backer of the team as it developed into a World Championship winner.
Although loyal to Williams, Ojjeh was intrigued when an opportunistic Dennis came looking for the finance with which to pay Porsche to build a turbo F1 engine. Ojjeh liked the idea of TAG hooking up with such a prestigious manufacturer, and beyond its use in F1, saw a future for the little V6 as a helicopter engine.
It’s often assumed that he simply jumped ship from Williams having been romanced by Dennis, but that would be doing a disservice to Ojjeh. Not only did he originally want the team that he already sponsored to share the new engine with McLaren, he also wanted to buy a stake in it.
However, Frank Williams turned down both opportunities, preferring to retain joint ownership with Patrick Head, and ultimately to pursue a works Honda deal.
Having been spurned Ojjeh was in effect obliged to put all his efforts behind Dennis and McLaren.
Ron Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh
Photo by: David Phipps
“There was no real falling out between Frank and Mansour,” Head recalls. “I think Mansour was just disappointed that Frank didn’t see the bigger picture, and he believed that Ron had bigger potential. He would have been a fantastic partner. But anyway, it didn’t happen.”
“Obviously I wasn’t around then,” says Brown. “But knowing Mansour as I did, he would have been very straight about it, and he would have been sympathetic and very honourable. I don’t believe for a second he would have just packed up his bags and left Frank hanging. That’s not who Mansour was.”
The TAG engine won the world championship with McLaren in 1984, ’85 and ’86 before Ojjeh backed the switch to Honda. By then, he’d become the majority owner of the team.
In later years, his actual shareholding would vary as other investors came on board, but he remained a driving force. It’s impossible to properly quantify his contribution over the decades.
“I think he was the guy who encouraged Ron and everyone to think big,” says Whitmarsh, who joined McLaren in 1989. “And to dream and to strive for those dreams. And you did that kind of just naturally by being around him.
“You wanted McLaren to be the best. You wanted it to have the best cars, best motorhome, best pit wall, best garage, the best catering. Some people will not relate to that, they will say that’s the absurdity of McLaren, or whatever. We didn’t always present it in the right way!
“But that wasn’t the fault of Mansour, that was the rest of us. He was just the inspiration – we will set out to try and be the best. We went to every race thinking we should win this one.”
Ojjeh backed the creation of subsidiary TAG Electronics, later rebranded under the McLaren name, and which is now a key supplier across the motor sport industry.
He also deserves much of the credit for the birth of the McLaren F1 road car, the project that helped lift the company to another level, beyond that of rivals such as Williams.
“He was the driving force,” says Whitmarsh. “He was a car enthusiast, more so than anyone else, and we were a race team at the time. He was the guy who said, ‘Let’s do a road car.’ He was the guy who dared to dream. And not just dream, it was let’s build the best road car in the world.
“Gordon [Murray] certainly deserves credit, Ron deserves credit. But it wouldn’t have happened without the passion and the instigation of Mansour.”
Ron Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh on the pitwall.
Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch
It was a similar situation many years later when Whitmarsh pitched the plans for what became McLaren Automotive – in the middle of a global economic crisis.
“Without someone like Mansour being instrumental and supportive, would we have done it?,” he recalls. “Mansour was just a big supporter, he wanted one of each of the cars himself. He was a much more passionate and knowledgeable supercar guy than anyone else that we had around us.”
Ojjeh was involved in all the big strategic decisions at McLaren, such as engine partner choices. He wasn’t responsible the day-to-day activities – for decades he left that to partner and co-shareholder Dennis. Sadly the relationship between theses two driven but very different men would eventually implode.
The dynamic changed as Whitmarsh and subsequently Boullier, Brown and Andreas Seidl took senior roles, and as their boss, Ojjeh helped to steer them.
Like any good company owner he knew the value of delegating to people he trusted. However, he always knew exactly what was going on.
“He was into the details, but he empowered,” says Brown. “He always gave me a tremendous amount of support all the way through. When things were tough when I joined, he was totally supportive. And he liked being in the know, so he could be involved and contribute.
“He didn’t want to be into the detail so he could be a micromanager, he wanted to be into the detail so he was informed. He contributed a lot of direction, had an opinion, but he empowered me to run the team.
“There are probably some owners that show up and just want to go to the race, but he was way more involved than that.
“He always used to say as an owner of many businesses he felt his job was to hire the best management and give them the support they need.
“But he needed to be knowledgeable enough about his respective businesses so he could form an opinion on whether the management was doing a good job or not.”
“He was actually very involved,” says Boullier. “Behind the scenes he was very active and very connected. But he was keeping his distance. He knew everything which is important, he paid a lot of attention to people, how people interacted, and how they felt.
“He wanted to know all the high level stuff, and he was aware and involved and was giving advice, but behaving like a shareholder, which is very rare. It’s very tempting to be attracted to get into the details of an F1 team, but he was not like this, he was staying at his level.”
Mansour Ojjeh, TAG and Ron Dennis, McLaren Executive Chairman
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
That degree of trust was appreciated by senior McLaren people.
“I think he inspired you to make the right decisions,” says Whitmarsh. “He didn’t tell you what the decision should be. And that’s a huge thing, really.
“If you are team principal and you think I’m not being supported here or ultimately, someone else is going make a decision, you don’t own it in the same way.
“And I think he caused you to own it, and he caused you to want to deliver as well. He wasn’t heavy-handed. He made us do lots of things, but he did that by inspiring us, not by directing us, if that makes sense.
“And that’s the most powerful leadership, isn’t it? That’s the most confident form of leadership.”
Ojjeh wasn’t just a good delegator, he was a force of nature who could sweep everyone along with his enthusiasm.
“Great sense of humour, very witty, tons of energy,” says Brown. “And he wanted to win and wanted to win the right way. Highly ethical. And you can see it in his family, his wife, his kids, his friends.
“He lived life well, he lived life large, beautiful homes, planes and boats. He was a wealthy man, and he lived accordingly, but it wasn’t about being flashy.
“He was just a first-class person in every way, shape and form. Very well educated, very worldly, as you can imagine. He was such a motivating force for everyone in the factory.
“He didn’t want or need the limelight. He was a lot more influential and contributed a lot more to McLaren than people may think, because of the way he didn’t seek any attention, or didn’t want credit. He very much just saw it as being part of the team.”
Mansour Ojjeh, co-owner, McLaren
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
“I think he made all of us want McLaren and ourselves to be better,” says Whitmarsh. “He was a guy who cared about everybody. He was a big, big man, a big personality.
“But what always impressed me if you watched him in a room, on a boat, in any circumstance, social, private or public, he cared about everyone. He wanted everyone to feel included and comfortable.
“He wasn’t one of these big guys who gravitated towards the other big guys in the room, and ignored the little people.
“Wherever you went in the world he inspired this incredible loyalty from his staff, and that was just because he inspired people, he was charming, he was considerate.”
Ojjeh was close to generations of McLaren drivers, from Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna through Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton to the current line-up.
All valued him as a true friend much more than as a boss, and thus those friendships continued for years after they left the team.
“When we recruited Daniel [Ricciardo], he played a big role in that,” says Brown. “Just relationship-wise, he was someone who gave you very warm vibes and made you feel very welcome and loved.
“He wouldn’t get into it with Daniel on ‘We’ve got a new wind tunnel coming,’ but he would make people feel like they were welcome in his home.”
He wasn’t afraid to share responsibility for difficult decisions.
“When we didn’t renew Stoffel’s [Vandoorne] contract it was very important to him that it was done respectfully,” says Brown. “Even though it didn’t work out with Stoffel, Mansour loved all the drivers, and we shared that news together.
“So he was very honest. Some people might say, ‘Zak you can handle the hard stuff.’ He had no problem sitting at a dinner table and just being honest with people.”
Ojjeh had experienced health issues for several years before undergoing two lung transplants in 2013, and in typical style, few knew about his problems. The second, successful operation gave him a fresh start, although in reality he was living on borrowed time.
Mansour Ojjeh, co-owner, McLaren
Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images
“His determination, his energy, and his love for life and what he was doing, and his family and his racing team, is what drove him,” says Brown. “He was impressive, how he carried himself.
“And I think he lived in the most recent times in a lot more pain than people realised. But that’s not what he was about. He lived life to its fullest, great family, great friends, unbelievably successful.
“So he was not the type of individual who would want anyone to feel sorry for him. And he just got on with it.”
Sadly, that extra time ran out for him last weekend. His McLaren role aside, Ojjeh will be missed by those who knew him, not just as valued friend, but also as someone who was so inspirational that they aspired to be like him.
“He was so influential as a teacher,” says Whitmarsh. “So many people wanted to be like Mansour. I don’t know anyone who’s achieved it. But we all wanted to be a bit like him. We all were inspired by how he treated people, how he treated life.
“There are times with my own children, in my own life, when I know I’m not as good as Mansour Ojjeh. There are times when I should have more charm, I should have more patience, I should have a better manner with people. And he was the exemplar of that.
“I don’t want to sound too gushy about it, but I can’t emphasise it enough. There are not many cases where I could say I actually loved this man. It’s incredibly sad primarily for Kathy and the family, but also for so many of us who loved him, and will miss him so much.”
The family’s interests will now be looked after by Mansour’s son Sultan, who is already a board member of the McLaren Group.
“The Ojjeh family is totally committed to McLaren,” says Brown. “Mansour came off the board last year, and he was clearly bringing Sultan on. Sultan is very smart, he’s been around racing his whole life.
“So Sultan will now carry the torch for the Ojjeh family. I think he’s going do a great job.”
So how much will McLaren miss Mansour’s input?
“A ton,” says Brown. “But I think he’s also going to drive tons of inspiration and motivation inside the factory.
“I think while he may not be there in person, he’s there in spirit, and it’s going keep us highly motivated. Our next win will be 100% for him.”
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 and Mansour Ojjeh, TAG
Photo by: Sutton Images