Mansour Ojjeh, who has died at the young age of 68, was a man who liked to keep out of the spotlight. He would often be around Formula 1 but he usually let his guests and colleagues take all the limelight. He did not feel the urge to make a lot of noise about his wealth or his achievements.
He was brought up with discretion being a byword in the family. His father Akram had made a career of staying in the shadows, putting deals together and taking commissions. He was, as a result, rather a mysterious figure. He had been born into a family of cloth merchants in Baghdad but then went to France in 1940 on a scholarship to train to be a physical education instructor. While he was there he married a French woman, with whom he had studied, and settled in France and began his deal-making career. After the war he set up a construction business in Saudi Arabia and began building houses with imported prefab materials and then expanding into infrastructure projects, petrochemical plants, bridges and barracks. Later he would build palaces as well, becoming more and more well-connected (and wealthy).
Mansour was born in France and grew up there. He was sent to the American School in Paris before going to California in 1970 to study business administration at Menlo College before moving on to study law in Santa Clara. He then began to look after his father’s ventures in the United States. Akram Ojjeh’s empire grew to extend into many different businesses, including real estate, airlines and armaments. Commissions on such deals were considerable and this allowed him to invest in other businesses, including Techniques d’Avant Garde (TAG) which he established in 1974 to broker technology deals between the Arab world and Europe. The empire was very profitable but also led to him being granted Saudi Arabian citizenship by King Abdul Aziz and being awarded a Legion d’Honneur by the French government.
In 1978 the Saudi royal family and other companies invested in sponsorship of Frank Williams’s new Formula 1 team, using the Saudia Airlines company and a number of other brands. Ojjeh was asked if he could help out and agreed and, despite still being in twenties, he began funding the team and TAG sponsorship appeared on the cars in 1979. The money provided Patrick Head and his team of engineers with the opportunity to do more aerodynamic development which led to Williams becoming winners that summer, when the Williams FW07 first appeared in the hands of Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni. After Regazzoni took the first win, Jones won four other victories and in 1980 the team won six times and Alan Jones became World Champion. In consequence TAG became the Williams title sponsor in 1981 and a year later Keke Rosberg gave the team a second Drivers’ title. Ojjeh wanted Williams to diversify into building road cars (as Enzo Ferrari has done in Italy) but Frank was only interested in racing.
At the time, F1 teams needed to find turbo engines in order to be competitive and not all of them could. McLaren struggled, but the wily Ron Dennis approached Ojjeh with the offer a shareholding in the team if Ojjeh would help to provide revenues to pay for a Porsche engine, badged by TAG. The result was a huge success with McLaren-TAG drivers Niki Lauda and Alain Prost dominating the World Championship, scoring a record 12 wins in 16 races. Further World Championships would follow before the team joined forces with Honda.
At the end of 1984 Ojjeh became the 50-percent owner of TAG McLaren Holdings. The diversification would continue with TAG buying the venerable Heuer watch company and renaming it TAG-Heuer and they set off turn it into a global luxury brand.
The idea of McLaren building road cars was Ojjeh’s idea and the resulting McLaren F1 supercar helped the firm become a serious player in the automotive world. TAG also expanded into aviation and aeronautics. The relationship with McLaren saw huge racing success, although Mansour left it to Dennis to run the business. The success on and off the race tracks led to other partners joining the business, notably the Bahrain government’s sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat.
Ojjeh sold TAG-Heuer to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in 1999 for a huge profit.
Ojjeh and Dennis had an agreement to always vote together and this allowed them to sell off shares in McLaren without actually losing control. There was a problem, however, in 2011 over whether McLaren should support the holding of the Bahrain Grand Prix, despite the civil disorder going on in the country. Ojjeh felt that McLaren should support its Bahraini partners, but Dennis opposed the race. Mansour voted with Dennis but on that occasion he was the chairman of the board meeting (the role alternated between the partners) and when the vote came out with a 50-50 result, Ojjeh decided to use his casting vote to support the Bahrainis, as he was fully entitled to do.
Dennis took the vote as a betrayal and the relationship between the two men soured. Ojjeh was seriously ill with a rare lung disease and was close to death when Dennis launched a bid to buy the company, but he was unable to raise the money he needed and after Ojjeh had a double lung transplant and returned to action, he felt that Dennis’s move had been similarly disloyal. It the end it was agreed that Dennis would relinquish his shares in the business (for a very considerable sum of money) and leave McLaren at the end of 2016.
For a while Ojjeh and Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khalifa ran the business but a new structure was then put in place and Ojjeh, who was again in ill-health, stood down from the company a year ago, passing his seat on the board to his son Sultan. The family still owns around 15 percent of the business, the second largest shareholding in the firm after the Bahrainis.
Ojjeh was a great Formula 1 enthusiast, as well as being an important investor in the sport and he had many friends in the racing world.