Look who’s back

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With the news that Ron Dennis has recaptured control of the McLaren F1 team – after five years away – it’s timely to recall just how he surrendered that position in the first place. The tale is a fascinating one of politics and betrayal

December 2009, the morning after an awards night: the big news had been all about Jenson Button leaving the team for which he’d just won the world championship, to join Lewis Hamilton at McLaren. At the hotel, Jenson’s father John sat down at Adrian Newey’s table for breakfast.

“Be careful, John,” warned the former McLaren design chief.

“What do you mean?”

“Jenson joining McLaren. They will change him.”

Newey had only Jenson’s best interests at heart. One of his main reasons for leaving McLaren a few years earlier, despite enjoying fantastic success, was his railing against the level of control that Ron Dennis tried to impose on all aspects of working life. Adrian, on the surface shy and studious but actually a deeply rebellious spirit, had used his standing within the team to kick against Dennis’s obsessive need for order and uniformity by having his office painted a delicate duck-egg blue in contrast to the regulation grey.

But John Button didn’t share Newey’s concerns. “Maybe Jenson will change McLaren!” he replied with his creased-face laugh, but meaning every word.

For all its jokey delivery, John’s comeback wasn’t a throwaway line. At one time the idea of a mere driver changing the culture of one of the sport’s great institutions, a team built upon the obsessive, mechanistic, messianic personality of Ron Dennis over 30 years, would have been flatly ridiculous. Even Ayrton Senna, on the surface a much more forceful personality than Jenson, maybe the most forceful driver the sport has ever seen, hadn’t significantly changed McLaren. Although by the same token McLaren hadn’t much changed him, either. Let’s call that one an honourable draw. But Dennis was no longer there, and that was probably key to John’s belief. That and his understanding of the below-the-radar way Jenson operated, the steel beneath the boy-next-door demeanour.

Dennis had stepped down a little less than a year earlier in highly contentious circumstances that had much to do with the paranoia with which he and, by extension, his team were imbued. Dennis’s odd character traits – an attention to detail to the point of a disorder, a striving for total control way beyond the level to which things can, or should, be controlled, combined with a certainty that he always knew best – made him a difficult boss, and McLaren a far from relaxed place of work, imbued with much of its owner’s neurosis. But just because Dennis was paranoid didn’t mean they weren’t out to get him.

They? Take your pick. Max Mosley, president of the FIA, governing body of the sport? Bernie Ecclestone, commercial supremo of F1? Over the years both had been mightily inconvenienced by Ron and his heavy-handed, self-righteous attempts to limit their manipulative control of the sport. Other team principals, jealous of his success, irritated perhaps by his unfortunately condescending manner? Ferrari, arch-enemy of many years standing, who were still sore at the ‘industrial espionage’ chapter the year before? Anthony Hamilton? What? Why ever would Lewis’s father be out to get Dennis, the man who’d fast-tracked his 13-year-old karter son from a Stevenage council estate to F1 world champion and tax exile 10 years later? It helped that Anthony couldn’t stand the man: that simply made it easier to do what was best for his boy, as always. His boy and his client, all rolled into one. And what was now best for his boy was not to have every chance of success blown by an aggressively pursuant governing body, ill disposed towards Ron and his team. To somehow separate Lewis from Ron but keep the advantages of the hugely powerful team Ron had built. It almost certainly wasn’t pre-conceived – how could anyone come up with a diabolical plot like that?

Anthony was really only a bit part player in the drama. The paranoia within the team, Dennis’s adversarial relationship with Mosley and Ecclestone – they were the things forming the combustible mix that was always one day going to explode. Anthony was the opportunist who ensured that the spark, when it came, drifted the right way. But bit player or no, Dennis under-estimated Anthony Hamilton. It’s not like he’d had no warning – he’d done it before and been bitten. When a book covering Lewis’s sensational rookie F1 season was in the planning stages, Dennis had assumed the position of co-ordinator, controlling as always, keen that the image presented should be appropriate for the team and reflect well on its partners. Anthony played along for a while, then quietly did his own $2 million deal for the book with publisher Harper Collins, cutting Ron off at the knees. Not that big a thing, perhaps, but it should have alerted Dennis to the calibre of the operator. Ron did not control the Hamiltons, especially Anthony. He should have taken more from that episode than perhaps he did.

To think ‘where was the Hamiltons’ gratitude?’ is to misunderstand the ethics of F1. History is only how you arrived at now, and now is just a temporary platform. Alliances work for both sides – or they don’t happen. The debt had long since been paid. Under Dennis’s direction McLaren had invested about £13 million over 10 years in getting Hamilton to F1. In return Lewis had won McLaren a whole bunch of races, a sensational public profile and a world championship. As far as the Hamiltons were concerned, Lewis was the fastest driver in the world and McLaren needed him just as much as Lewis needed McLaren. But now McLaren, or more specifically Ron Dennis, was compromising their chances.

So when opportunity arose in the wake of Australia ’09…

A bit of book-keeping here: the last two laps of the 2009 Australian Grand Prix were held behind the safety car, meaning the race was neutralised, no racing allowed, everyone lined up in race order. Hamilton was fourth. In third place Jarno Trulli locked the cold brakes of his Toyota, left the track and slid over the grass. Hamilton passed him during this time. The Toyota rejoined behind the McLaren. Hamilton wasn’t sure if he had been allowed to pass and radioed the team with his query, wondering if he ought to give the place back. In fact, what he’d done was perfectly legitimate. If a car leaves the track, then it’s OK to pass. But Lewis wasn’t sure. The team thought it knew the answer, but because this was McLaren, paranoid old McLaren (possibly with good reason), it instructed Lewis to surrender the place to Trulli – which he duly did, slowing to 12mph and effectively forcing Jarno to pass – and they would argue the toss afterwards.

The stewards called Hamilton and McLaren’s sporting director Dave Ryan. Between them they gave an account that suggested Trulli had overtaken, rather than been handed the place. Trulli was thereby penalised for overtaking during the safety car period and Lewis inherited third. Later, the stewards were played a taped interview Lewis had given before the stewards meeting: in this he plainly said he’d slowed to allow Trulli past. At Malaysia for the next event, Hamilton and Ryan were recalled by the stewards and given the chance to withdraw their earlier claims, but didn’t do so. Convinced by now they had been hearing lies, the stewards disqualified Hamilton from Australia and reinstated Trulli. Furthermore, McLaren would be called to an FIA disciplinary hearing – set for two weeks later – for having supplied the stewards with a false account. The FIA was perfectly entitled to do this even if, by any reasonable standards, disqualification was already penalty enough. This was the same FIA that had fined the team $100 million for an unproven case of industrial espionage relating to Ferrari’s 2007 car, for which McLaren was still on probation. The suspicion was that Dennis’ poor relationship with Mosley had made this personal. So McLaren’s extreme concern about its fate at the hearing was completely understandable. The very future of the team was in doubt. Ryan was immediately fired, but that surely wasn’t going to be atonement enough…

Anthony Hamilton had nothing to do with the hot water McLaren and Lewis had got themselves into in Australia ’09. But he had a lot to do with the aftermath, which culminated in Ron standing down to preclude the possibility of disastrous consequences for the team. Before Ron resigned his position at McLaren F1, there were team members openly talking of McLaren’s collapse.

And so a phone call, Malaysia to Monaco, and a conversation that went approximately as follows: ‘I’ve got my boy in tears, Max. He can’t stand being branded a liar. Says he wants to quit the sport. It wasn’t his idea to go into the stewards and lie. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place. I’ll tell you who’s behind all this…’ He played Max beautifully – but Max was happy to be played. Each handled the role perfectly for the other, willingly fulfilling the logic of their mutual interest. You can imagine Mosley’s suppressed excitement as he explained to Anthony exactly what would happen next.

Under scrutiny following the industrial espionage affair of 2007, the team was now caught in another scandal – horror of horrors, a driver hadn’t been entirely truthful to a race official about an incident on track. But if there was any suggestion that the idea of misleading the officials had come from higher up in the team… Well, that could be a very serious business indeed. “This is a very serious business indeed,” said the FIA’s ‘spin doctor’ Richard Woods, a supremely skilled political PR man plucked by Mosley from the New Labour party (on the recommendation of former Labour MEP Alan Donnelly, Mosley’s right-hand man). “No it isn’t,” said the journalist to whom Woods was talking, “and just saying it seven times doesn’t make it so. It’s just a little bit of motor racing competitiveness, the sort of stuff that’s happened since the game was first invented.”

But the journalist had misunderstood. It was as serious a business as the FIA chose to make it. F1 is a private club and the FIA runs it. Thus it was, as Woods was saying, “a very serious business indeed”.

Did Mosley make any specific threat or promise to McLaren, do any deal for Ron to stand down? Almost certainly not. He didn’t need to; the potential dire consequences if the team were to be, say, banned from the championship didn’t need to be spelled out, and Mosley will have had no desire to implicate himself by getting specific. How could McLaren save itself from exclusion from the club – and the loss of its livelihood? Someone’s head needed to be on a platter for the sake of all those jobs, hundreds of employees, each with mortgages and families. It was obvious, even to Ron by now, whose head that needed to be. So he did the honourable thing. You could call it heroic, you could call it pragmatic. Whatever, it must have been agonising. This team was his life’s work, how he defined himself as a man.

So, with a little help from Anthony Hamilton, the Shakespearian drama of the aristocratic intellectual – with the Fascist father and the mother who was close friends with Hitler – and his adversary, the determined, principled but tiresome working-class boy made good, played out. Ron Dennis stood down to found McLaren Automotive, making road-going sports cars to cash in on the value his blockbusting F1 team had lent the brand. He was out of F1’s hair. Still standing shell-shocked at the whole episode was Dennis’s former number two, Martin Whitmarsh. Working under Dennis for 20 years, Australia had been his first race as team principal, but with the team still under Dennis’s chairmanship. Now, just two races later, Whitmarsh was in full charge. At first he blamed himself and even offered his resignation. But that would have achieved nothing; it wasn’t his head that was required. In fact it would have achieved worse than nothing – because without him there would have been no replacement for Dennis.

Whitmarsh is much easier to like than Dennis, more of this world, an engineer by training but far more intuitive. Friendly, approachable, witty, doesn’t have Ron’s sneering dismissal of anyone not in a position to help him, nor his unfortunate tendency to believe he knows more about any subject than whoever he is talking to. But he is tough when required and more pragmatic than Dennis – as illustrated by the reaction of the two men in 2007, when it became clear McLaren’s 2008 income would be hit not just by the $100 million fine levied upon it by the FIA for ‘Stepneygate’ (the industrial espionage case), but also by its exclusion from the 2007 championship for constructors. Each team’s share of the vast F1 TV revenues is determined by its position in the previous year’s championship. Dennis – with a naïveté that was one part arrogance, one part a skewed sense of outrage at perceived injustices bordering on the autistic – asked Ecclestone if he might talk the other teams into allowing McLaren to retain its original percentage. Bernie is always fantastic at keeping a poker-straight face, but even he must have struggled as he told Ron he’d “see what he could do”.

Seriously hopeful, Dennis communicated this to Whitmarsh who, more realistic but with a patience born of fondness for the man who’d brought him into the sport in 1989, warned him not to get his hopes up. The next day, Ecclestone gathered all the team principals together and invited Ron to plead his case. He did so, asking that they vote on the idea after he left the room. As the door closed Bernie said: “Right, hands up all those who think it’s a good idea to give their money to Ron. No? Thought not. Right, onto more pressing matters.”

At McLaren under Dennis, there were frequent conflicts between what was the pragmatic thing to do and what people were asked to do. Whitmarsh acted as the buffer or the expansion joint, as required, between Dennis – who did, after all, have many great qualities as a leader, an industrialist and a passionate competitor, but who, no two ways about it, is odd – and the rest. So when Whitmarsh assumed control the whole vibe of the team changed – and very much for the better.

His pragmatism was a great strength at the transition. Had he allowed emotion to cloud his judgement it could have been disastrous. His deep distaste for the way Dennis had been treated, the way the team had been hounded disproportionately over ‘Stepneygate’ and ‘Liegate’, the questionable loyalty of Anthony Hamilton to the man who’d made his son’s dreams come true; all these things could have got in the way at a time when the team desperately needed a steadying hand. Instead Whitmarsh was conciliatory – with the governing body, the media, the Hamiltons, the other teams, with pretty much everyone. It might be small fry compared with the Good Friday Agreement, but still it’s impressive. It’s to do with clear-sightedness, an ability to depersonalise issues, to see many sides of a story and not a little to do with simple, genuine charm. In conversation, he has a way of giving perspective to an issue by posing a number of his own questions and then answering them, narrowing it down until he’s at the core point. To borrow that technique in describing his qualities, could he have taken the failing team that was McLaren in 1980 and had the ambition and vision to build it up into the colossus it became, the way Ron Dennis had? Possibly not. Was he a better choice to lead McLaren in its current circumstances? Absolutely, yes.

With the team’s undoubted brilliance – built on sheer financial horsepower thanks to Dennis’s ambition and vision – repeatedly thwarted by a governing body headed by a man with a vindictive streak who simply didn’t like Dennis, who might well have been jealous of his achievements, or at least found it distasteful that someone of such inferior intellect to his own should succeed,

McLaren was now in serious danger.

Tarred with the brush of ‘cheating’, regardless of how misleading that label was, the team was becoming ever less attractive to mainstream commercial sponsors. Even its existing 40 per cent shareholder Daimler-Benz was becoming nervous about Ron’s poisonous relationship with those in a position of control over the team’s destiny. After the $100 million fine for industrial espionage in 2007, Mosley humiliated Dennis by insisting they shake hands for the cameras in the Spa paddock while, according to a team insider, he whispered into Dennis’ ear that, “one million is for the espionage, 99 million for being a c***!” It couldn’t go on. McLaren could have gone legal and challenged the fine for a case that was far from proven. But then would the team’s 2008 car have been passed to compete by the FIA, which was busy deliberating whether that car had any of Ferrari’s DNA? The FIA was judge and jury. If the car wasn’t passed and the team wasn’t racing, and therefore receiving no income, McLaren could have simply expired while the slow wheels of justice turned. It was outrageous, but then a private club can play to whatever rules it wishes; no one is forcing you to be a member. ‘Liegate’ was just one further piece of evidence that things were becoming untenable, with Ron at McLaren’s helm and Mosley leading the FIA.

So Whitmarsh, after taking over, said things like: “I think anyone who has looked at McLaren and the FIA over the last few years would have to conclude that it would be healthier for all of us to have a more positive, constructive relationship than perhaps we’ve had in the past.”

And: “Ron is an immensely complex individual and I don’t think anybody would doubt his passion for this sport and this team. Inevitably, as in any relationship, I will miss some things and won’t miss other parts of it.”

And: “Ron at times has great wisdom and at other times we have different views.”

Asked if Dennis had spoken to Dave Ryan before entering the stewards’ office, Whitmarsh would say only: “What I will answer is that we are focused on a World Motor Sport Council hearing, and because of that it is inappropriate to say any more.”

Given the chance to deny the Hamiltons had been pushing for Dennis’s removal from the team, Whitmarsh said: “I cannot comment on it. I have personally found Lewis and Anthony very supportive through what have been some difficult times. They have been with the team a long time and they are committed to being with the team for a long time in the future.”

These answers would doubtless have been phrased rather more saltily if given to a close friend over a drink, but you could see what his beliefs actually were in the delineations of where he refused to lie: Ron’s acrimonious relationship with the FIA was killing the team. For all Ron’s positive qualities there were plenty of downsides. Sometimes Ron is bereft of wisdom. Ron probably did speak to Dave Ryan before Ryan and Hamilton went to the stewards. Anthony Hamilton has always been supportive of me, but not always of Ron.

Mercedes for one breathed a huge sigh of relief at the management change. The German car manufacturer had been less than impressed that the launch of the 2009 McLaren-Mercedes, at its Stuttgart base, had been overshadowed by constant questions from journalists about Dennis’s future and whether handing the team principal role to Whitmarsh was a precursor to his full withdrawal from F1. This, of course, was before Melbourne ’09 blew that question into an altogether more contentious orbit, but already it was a raw-nerve subject. Dennis’s relationship with Mosley and its implications for the team was building the pressure for Ron to go even before events at Melbourne forced the issue. For Mercedes, and those board members supporting the F1 programme, the Dennis question was just one more irritation about their partnership with McLaren. There was an anti-F1 faction within the board of Mercedes, arguing that it cost the company too much, especially for an entity that did not carry full Mercedes identity, and that the sport’s image was becoming increasingly at odds with the ever more green route the car industry as a whole was being forced to follow. Besides, Mercedes didn’t even get any choice over driver selection – despite paying the salaries. The team with which it was associated had been tarred with the cheating brush in 2007 and, worse still, Dennis had insisted that the payment of the $100 million fine be shared out according to the shareholdings in the team, thereby making Mercedes liable for an unbudgeted $40 million – for something over which it had no control because Dennis, and not Mercedes, ran McLaren. The marriage was going through a rough patch.

Well, now he was gone. Though he remained a 15 per cent shareholder in the team, he had no operational role whatsoever. McLaren duly received a fairly soft punishment at the hearing – a three-race ban, suspended pending good conduct for the rest of the year – and got on with being a racing team once again.

It worked for a time. Whitmarsh presided over the team turning its initially woeful 2009 car into a winner, into bringing Button on board to make a golden partnership with Hamilton that brought it a lot of success in 2010-12 and without any of the poisonous overtones that had derailed previous McLaren joint number ones. But always in the background there was Ron. The main reason he’d had to stand down – Max Mosley – had himself been forced to leave office a few months later and it was easy to see how Dennis and Mosley had each inflicted mortal wounds to the other. But with Mosley gone, what reason was there for Ron not to retake control?

Because the board backed Whitmarsh – for all the reasons talked about above. But throughout the changes in ownership structure – Mercedes being bought out and going with Brawn, the Bahrainis’ increased stake in the team – Ron has chipped away, certain that he could bring a vision and a steeliness that perhaps Whitmarsh lacked. McLaren’s disastrous 2013 campaign can only have helped Dennis’s cause enormously. After the conciliatory Whitmarsh had carefully steered the team through dangerous waters maybe it is, after all, Dennis’s time once more.

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