Former McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh has now started his new job as head of the Ben Ainslie Racing America’s Cup challenge, where he will be reunited with Adrian Newey.
In an interview on the BAR website Whitmarsh compared his former and current roles, and talked about his original move from British Aerospace to McLaren.
“It wasn’t a logical career move,” he noted. “But it was an unavoidable and unmissable opportunity that I had to go and do. Everyone thought I was mad to leave that job – where I appeared to have some success and a large organisation of thousands of people working for me – to join a little team, but I never had time or thought or occasion to regret it.
“We grew McLaren within Formula One. But we also realised that racing was a volatile business, and if we were going to have a sustainable business, we needed to diversify and use our technology, our capability and, ultimately, our brand to spawn a range of other businesses. And so we founded McLaren Automotive, Applied Technologies, Electronics and all the rest. It was a fairly significant metamorphosis from the race team that I joined. It was an interesting and exciting path.”
Whitmarsh said the key is growing an organisation successfully: “I don’t think organisations necessarily have to grow for the sake of the organisation. They have to grow for the sake of the people in it. If you’re going to go out and recruit the best people into the team, then I think it’s implicit in your duty of care to them that you are going to grow.
“If you are growing, there are necessarily challenges and demands on people in the organisation and that leads to opportunity. If we said that in ten years time we were going to be the same size and the same organisation, then it’s hard to make a compelling case for people to remain motivated to stay here.
“Firstly [at McLaren] we had to make sure we could succeed and win. In any of these environments, to have confidence and credibility you have to go out and succeed in the core proposition, and develop technical capability as you do it. The next step is to say ok, we’ve got an organisation that’s running well, it’s performing, it’s got technology, how can we monetise that? How can we take some of those opportunities and create shareholder value?
“At McLaren, our first developments were largely technical, selling technical services, then we reached a point where the brand had become established in its own right. We’re in a brand conscious world and if you are going to sell to consumers as well as businesses you need the brand.
“The America’s Cup is a fantastic platform from which this team can demonstrate its capability in high technology, in performance, and in achieving things like cycle-time compression. I think we have a great opportunity to demonstrate how the technical endeavour associated with seeking to win the America’s Cup can be the catalyst of change in bigger technical organisations, can be a hotbed for technical development.
“I think it’s our job to ensure that we can capture the essence of that racing culture and tempo and speed of response, competitiveness and creativity. Those are things that are being searched for and worked hard for in big, big technical organisations. We have them, and that’s a valuable asset.”
He also spoke about the future of the America’s Cup – and made some observations that could also be applied to the state of F1.
“The Cup has been producing great contests for over 160 years, and has often relied on very wealthy benefactors. That’s great if you can find them, and great if you’ve got them, and we should be very grateful for the legacy that those people have funded and created. But if we’re going to have something with a little bit more continuity then we probably need to find a more consistent commercialisation of the sport, with initiatives like the America’s Cup World Series.
“The problem with any form of entertainment – and that’s the business we’re in – is that people have an almost infinite number of choices in how they can spend their leisure time. What I saw in San Francisco – watching as an average punter – was a truly exciting and televisual America’s Cup. And there are those who would say; great we can do it again in four years time. But I think it’s quite difficult to commercialise the sport and grow public interest in it when it only hits awareness once every four years.
“If we want to have the pinnacle of our sport with advanced technology then that costs money, and if it costs money then you have got to find either a rich oligarch who’s going to indulge you, or you develop a business that is actually sustainable because the commercial value of the business exceeds the cost of participation.
“And as I’ve already said, we owe it to the people here at BAR – who bring their time, energy, passion, knowledge and capability into this team – to see if we can not only win, but develop a business that means that they have a career path and development in front of them. That’s our duty of care to our people.”