F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

The pressure on Pirelli, McLaren's new-look structure

McLaren steps uncertainly into its third era in 2017. The original team can be classed as the Bruce McLaren/Teddy Mayer era from its formation in 1966, surviving Bruce’s 1970 death and continuing until the 1980 introduction of Ron Dennis. Fourteen years produced two world championships for drivers,  a proud record but just a warm-up for Dennis’s redefining of what an F1 team was between 1980 and 2016: 36 years and nine more champions, bridged by Niki Lauda at one end and Lewis Hamilton at the other. 

Dennis did of course disappear from direct operation of the F1 team for five seasons between 2009-13 and built up the automotive side before returning as Group CEO. But this time he has no operational role at all, though retains his 25 per cent shareholding. So this really is the team’s definitive third evolution, under Zak Brown’s new commercial, political and strategic leadership, with Jonathan Neale remaining to oversee the technical and engineering side. 

The Dennis departure was not a happy one, the breakdown of his long and fruitful relationship with 25 per cent shareholder and board member Mansour Ojjeh very much at the heart of it. Dennis’s contract was never going to be renewed, but when he took the team to the high court in an attempt to prevent it from imposing his gardening leave a few months early – and lost – it only added to the sense of antagonism between Dennis and the board. Even Dennis’s three-year return as Group CEO (without board membership) from early 2014 angered Ojjeh, who was recovering from a double lung transplant when he phoned Martin Whitmarsh to see how things were going – only to find Whitmarsh had been ousted. While Ojjeh underwent the operation, his brother held power of attorney and pressure was brought to bear to facilitate Dennis’s return, much to Mansour’s anger. Since that time Dennis had been trying to recruit investors that would have allowed him to retake control at board level, but it didn’t happen. There have been suggestions that Dennis could yet take further legal action against the company that he quarter-owns, though the possible grounds are not obvious, given that his contract was simply not renewed.  

Departing in Dennis’s wake after a short spell as CEO of the team was Jost Capito, who lasted just eight races. Dennis had recruited the former VW Motorsport boss to run the F1 team, somewhat treading on the toes of racing director Eric Boullier. There was a lot of mutual antipathy between Dennis and Boullier, whose appointment had been initiated by Whitmarsh. Capito’s recruitment seemed bad news for Boullier’s prospects there – and inevitably there was a somewhat dysfunctional dynamic between the two individuals. Boullier has done much in his relatively short time there to turn McLaren into a sharper team at operational level, losing it a lot of the inertia that had inadvertently been built into its organisation as it created systems to match its expansion. An early audit of roles and personnel he conducted suggested that in some cases there were as many as three people available for each role…  

But in the meantime the results on track remained woeful for a team of McLaren’s size and resource. It’s easy to lay the blame at Honda’s power unit and its premature development, but that’s only been a factor in the last two seasons. Look at the underlying long-term developments – Spygate, the loss of Mercedes as an engine and equity partner, the departure of Adrian Newey and Lewis Hamilton, the loss of big title sponsors with no replacements – and dysfunction is clear deep into the organisation. Much as Dennis should get the credit for the vast achievements of the team under his watch, so too is he implicated in many of its latter-day problems. 

It’s tempting to think that as the world moved on, Ron remained wedded to old ways and values that were becoming ever less relevant. Certainly, his insistence on staying with the golden years rate card was felt by others to be instrumental in no longer landing the big sponsors. But the style of sponsorship partnerships changed during that time: no longer was it just about a corporate image and allocating time for guests. Increasingly it has become about ‘activation’ of marketing campaigns, whereby a team has to take a more active role. Zak Brown’s commercial mindset is bang up to date and he brings his own goodwill simply through being the new broom. 

Technically, question marks remain about the aerodynamic department and about engine partner Honda. But those concerns are almost superficial compared to the longer-term changes already underway in the new era. McLaren Evo 3 is not yet a fully-formed entity and we don’t know its true potential, but it may at least be becoming less burdened by its past.