"Well," Ron smiled, "all I can say is that there's nothing la la about our car..."
So the newly unveiled presence of the Ferrari LaFerrari – or whatever we're meant to call it – at Geneva earlier this week under the same vast hangar roof as the production-ready McLaren P1 had long-term observers of the two old foes dribbling in anticipation.
As it happens, TopGear.com had been offered an audience with McLaren boss Ron Dennis, and duly made its way to the stand in time to watch him present his intriguingly styled new car to the media hordes in an occasionally stilted three-way with 2013 McLaren F1 driver Sergio Perez and the BBC's pit-lane lady Lee Mackenzie. There were some useful updates, though. McLaren will be making 375 P1s, at £866,000 a pop, with around 45 destined for the Middle East. Ron was very pointedly talking up the car's investment potential, which explains why there was an F1 LM on the stand (current market value: up to £3m). And he went on to reveal that he himself had beaten the fastest Top Gear power lap (a 1.13.8 by the Pagani Huayra) around Dunsfold in the P1 by a walloping 10 seconds, which surely puts it on a par with the speed of light. Finally, he claimed that nobody else would be able to get near the P1's performance.
When we sat down together 15 minutes later, Jean-Christophe Babin, the super-smooth boss of TAG Heuer who's off soon to run Italian luxury goods behemoth and hotelier Bulgari, joined us. As you'd expect of one of Formula One's most enduring relationships, there will be a TAG Heuer P1 chronograph in the fullness of, er, time, powered by an “engine”. “You can tell the time accurately for about five quid,” Ron conceded in his famously honest manner, “but this is about technology, style and differentiation. A TAG Heuer watch isn't just about how it looks, it's about how it works, which is a great fit for McLaren. Yes, life has been very challenging recently, but we're not just fair-weather friends, and something very dramatic indeed would have to happen to end our relationship.”
On the P1 itself, Ron sums it up in one word: “Exclusivity. I want our customers to have an appreciating asset.” This represents something of a tactical shift, in the six months since the car first broke cover at Paris, when the emphasis was firmly on performance and the ultimate in track ability. Of course, that's not all that's changed since last September: McLaren sources have confirmed that McLaren Automotive managing director Antony Sheriff is on gardening leave, even though, as one added waggishly, ”he doesn't actually have a garden”. COO Mike Flewitt is in charge while Sheriff is ”away”. Which surely begs the question, is all well at Woking?
As my 15 minutes with Ron ticked their last, I had to ask about the P1's Ferrari rival, which was being unveiled at precisely the same moment. “Well,” Ron smiled, “all I can say is that there's nothing la la about our car...” A good line, and delivered with perhaps unexpected panache.
Turns out I would get another go at him on the subject, because who should I find myself standing next to on the Ferrari stand 45 minutes later than Ron Dennis. The name LaFerrari is undoubtedly a bit cuckoo, but the rest of it more than holds up to scrutiny, as the expression on Ron's face began to suggest. Ferrari will be making 124 more LaFerraris than McLaren is planning P1s, so technically it's already won the exclusivity battle. That, however, is just the start of it. “Interesting,” Ron mused. “I think the market is big enough for both cars. But why that name? I bet if you googled the coverage on the car its name would be the most talked-about aspect.”
“Because it's meant to be the definitive Ferrari,” I answered hopefully. “Anyway, you can ask the man responsible yourself. Here's Luca...”
At which point TG.com shuffled discreetly into the background as Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo greeted his old friend and rival Ron Dennis warmly, and the banter began. “The name? You don't like the name? Why?” Montezemolo said, flicking a perfectly coiffed lock of hair away.
This one's going to run and run.