Mansour Ojjeh 1952 – 2021

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.

31 thoughts on “Mansour Ojjeh 1952 – 2021

  1. Once again a splendid piece of journalism Joe. I never knew the source of the rift with Ron Dennis, but you put it succinctly.

  2. Thank you Joe. It takes a really good writer to recount the ebbs and flows of the relationship between Ojjeh and Ron Dennis with brevity. I appreciate what I have learned here.

  3. There is an interesting parable in that piece.
    I would have assumed it was Ron that would side with the Bahraini and Mansour opposed from a human rights point.
    The moral being don’t judge a book by it’s cover (namely Ron) and that we only know about him the click bait non journalists want us to know, rather than the feet on the street journalism that Joe delights us with (for free for those of you who don’t subscribe to GP+)

  4. Can you compare the motivations and capabilities of the son to those of the father? How might the management of things go in the future?

  5. Thank you, Joe, for paying tribute to his important contribution to a series of World Championships with two of the most important race stables of all time.
    I often wondered how it came that Bahrain stepped in and how Dennis lost grip. Very interesting the background of such discreet, big biz deals. Thank you, Joe.
    May he rest in peace.

  6. Great article Joe. I always found it strange that everyone talks about them disagreeing over a personal matter, whereas surely the team racing at Bahrain was a business one. He seemed to be the universally loved by everyone in f1 though.

  7. Thank you for this article Joe. Now I know where the TAG-Hauer brand name came from. Mansour Ojjeh’s life story has more to it than the rest of the F1 media has ever shed a light on. Many thanks for this enlightening piece.

  8. Thanks Joe, very interesting as always. Did Mansour have a brother called Aziz, and was he part of TAG as well?

  9. I remember reading an interview with Ron Dennis by Tom Rubython where Ron was signing cheques yet to be issued and he said something along the lines of “I trust the other person who will counter-sign the cheques implicitly”.

    How sad a proper gentleman like Ron could not trust that person implicitly when Ron voted with his conscience. The only people to come out of the Bahrain debacle with any respect were Ron and Mark Webber.

    Now we have people kneeling, saluting, linking arms etc, yet a decade ago when the Bahrain people needed someone to understand their plight, an important gesture by Formula 1 was lost because Mansour Ojjeh broke a gentlemans agreement.

    1. ‘because Mansour Ojjeh broke a gentlemans agreement’. The article states, I quote: ‘Ojjeh and Dennis had an agreement to always vote together’. As it stands, it is possible that actually Dennis broke the agreement by not voting together with Ojjeh.

      Two other things that stand out for me: It seems that the guy was universally liked by people who knew him, which is interesting and unusual having in mind the circles he was in, ‘piranha club’ etc. It also seems that he was way more important for the history and success of the team than given credit for. Which is actually understandable considering that he clearly preferred operating behind the scenes.

  10. Another lovely obituary. It’s almost a pity that these kind of pieces are only written after someone passes. Joe, do you ever write deep dives into F1’s current unsung heroes?

    1. Evie, how do You write an obituary for people still alive?
      Tank You Joe for This and one for Mr. Mosley.

  11. Hi Joe,

    I was wondering if you’ve started on Ron Denis’ biography? I can’t wait to read it… 😉

  12. Great article, the GP+ one was great as well, my question to anyone is why would you go to Paris in 1940? It’s hard to think of a worse year apart from maybe 1871.

    1. It depends on the time of year. If you went in January to April it would have been OK. After May it got more complicated.

  13. A fantastic summary of someone I had heard of but didn’t know much about other than ‘Techniques D’avant Garde’. Thank you for the information, Joe.

  14. On the fall out between Ron and Mansour ; I agree with Phil R ; the F1 team racing in Bahrain Yes or No is a business matter / decision and cannot be the sole and only reason for their fall out also because it is always called a personal matter which caused the rift ; There must be much more to this which I hope one day will be revealed in, maybe , Rons autobiography for example . The guy now writing it ; Has he written more ( F1 ) autobiographies ?

    1. This is what caused the rift. There’s lots is other rumours but the root cause was this decision.

  15. Honestly! He used his casting voting.

    They agreed their position before the board meeting and as they had agreed the position, Ron assumed that on the rotating Chairmanship it was Ojjah’s time to have the casting vote and would vote to the pre-agreed position. Ojjah then voted with the other shareholders, that’s what broke the gentleman’s agreement.

  16. Joe,

    Do you think now that Ojjeh has passed, we’ll see Ron Dennis as a guest of McLaren at any races? Dennis was a titan of the sport and it’s regrettable he has completely disappeared from it.

  17. Thanks Joe,
    Perhaps it should be added that Monsour Ojjeh was a real gentlemen in every respect. When he became a shareholder in McLaren it was only after he had proposed becoming a shareholder in Williams. I believe that Patrick Head was in favour, but unsurprisingly, Frank Williams was not.

    In many ways that is one of the stories of Williams F1: looking a gift horse in the mouth but putting the family first.

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