On Sunday in Baku, Formula 1 honoured two late personalities with a minute’s silence: former FIA president Max Mosley, and Mansour Ojjeh. The former was well-known beyond the sport; the latter’s name was familiar only to hardcore F1 fans. Yet the Parisian-born billionaire hugely influenced the sport from the sidelines without ever seeking the personal glory he so undisputedly deserved.
Ojjeh, who died on Sunday morning at the age of 68, came into Formula 1 via Frank Williams and his eponymous team in 1978. Ojjeh’s Syrian-born father Akram operated his conglomerate out of Paris and Luxembourg, trading in commodities as diverse as aviation, arms and real estate under the TAG banner, and enjoyed close relations with the House of Saud. Hence Mansour’s birthplace, although he later moved to Geneva.
When the royal house agreed to sponsor then-struggling Williams via Saudia Airlines they co-opted parties with whom they shared commercial links. One such company was Techniques d’Avant Garde – as TAG was formally known – and Mansour became the family’s contact with Williams. The team’s first title followed in 1980, and there are no doubts Ojjeh enjoyed F1’s hustle and bustle, although he stayed out of the limelight.
In 1983 Ojjeh took a call from McLaren’s Ron Dennis, then seeking a backer for a V6 turbo engine to be built by Porsche to specifications laid down by technical director John Barnard. Despite being a Williams sponsor, Ojjeh agreed to bankroll the project provided the TAG Turbo logo appeared on the engine covers. A year later the engine won the first of three consecutive drivers titles with Niki Lauda followed by Alain Prost in the next two years.
Never one to rest on his laurels, in 1985 Ojjeh acquired the iconic Heuer watch brand, renaming it TAG Heuer. It was later made famous by a succession of Ayrton Senna commercials using the strapline ‘Don’t crack under pressure’.
Shortly thereafter Barnard departed McLaren and Ojjeh bought into the team, via nominee companies, increasing his holdings to 50%, joint equal with Dennis. Ojjeh drove a succession of ‘hot’ customised cars, including a Porsche 911 powered by a road-going version of the TAG Turbo, and once suggested that Williams build a road-going sports car, which Frank declined.
Ojjeh set his sights on a McLaren supercar and outlined his plan to Dennis and new technical director Gordon Murray while the trio was stranded in Milan’s Linate Airport after the 1988 Italian Grand Prix. The limited edition McLaren F1 road car, a modern icon, was the result. Success has many fathers and there are no doubts Murray’s design genius and Dennis’ dogged determination ‘made’ the car, but Ojjeh’s dream and funding made possible what many still believe to be the world’s best supercar.
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The race team rewrote history – winning 15 of 16 grands prix in 1988 (now powered by Honda) and taking serial titles with Senna and Prost – before hitting a fallow period. Ojjeh’s funding and belief smoothed over the inevitable financial troughs suffered by all race teams as results waxed and waned. McLaren’s survival as F1’s second-oldest team is largely down to his support. Never one to flaunt his wealth, estimates placed his fortune at £3bn.
However, Ojjeh’s biggest professional challenge lay ahead: Spygate, which saw McLaren fined $100m after being found guilty of sporting breaches by the FIA, presided over by Mosley. By then Ojjeh and Dennis had sold a total of 60% of McLaren Group to Mercedes and Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund – Ojjeh was friendly with the desert island’s royal family – but it was he who steered the ship diplomatically.
Around this that relations between Dennis and Ojjeh chilled, then froze over – they never recovered, suggesting a deeply personal fall-out – but he kept faith in McLaren. In 2013 he underwent a double lung transplant – according to sources the first attempt was unsuccessful, and the operation was repeated – but a year later he re-appeared in the paddock, still as courteous, polite and understated as ever.
Little did he know then that McLaren was heading for a disastrous period under Dennis – who had returned to the helm of the team after a spell running the resurrected Automotive division – and cars powered by Honda’s unsuccessful early hybrids. Dennis was ousted; Ojjeh and the Bahrainis restructured the company, primarily by bankrolling a switch to Renault power units, then recently Mercedes.
Although unconfirmed, sources suggest that it was Ojjeh who engineered McLaren’s deal to reunite with Mercedes after being refused by executives at the latter team. Ojjeh knew Ola Källenius, chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz from the Swede’s tenure as Mercedes nominee director on the McLaren board, and appealed directly. Deal done, without which McLaren would still be with Renault.
As Ojjeh’s health declined so he played a less visible role in the company, yet his heart and mind were still fully in it and one can only imagine the pleasures he felt as McLaren’s fight back began. True, world titles remain some way off, but so they were when TAG first sponsored Williams back in 1978.
I cannot claim to having known Mansour personally, having shaken hands thrice and nodded reciprocated greetings across the McLaren hospitality a few times. But I recall a man whose courtesy and manners remind of days gone by, and above all, whose passion for F1 and McLaren remained undiminished regardless of what this most capricious of sports threw his way.
He was a true enthusiast to the end, without whom McLaren would likely have been consigned to history. Rest in peace Mansour – your legacy is secure.
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