Matters of moment, January 2017

Author

Joe Dunn

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So, farewell then Ron Dennis. You were a titan of the sport. Like many reigns the end was messy – a courtroom battle seemed somehow undignified after decades of imperious dominance, but perhaps it was inevitable: Ron was never going to go quietly. 

The sad irony is that it was apparently the very essence of his success that ultimately caused his downfall. The team’s majority shareholders argued that Dennis’s famously autocratic style was no longer suited to the company and his insistence on micro-managing every detail of the team was more hindrance than help. 

Yet it was this very perfectionism that enabled Dennis to mould McLaren into the powerhouse it is today. Forget the gossip column snippets about his insistence that all the screw heads at the company HQ in Woking had to be turned vertically rather than horizontally so that they didn’t gather dust, that the temperature had to be set at exactly 21 deg C or that he had the gravel for his driveway washed, it was his attention to detail that resurrected a Formula 1 team that could have gone the way of Lotus or Brabham and then turned it into the force it is today. 

The late Alan Henry remembered Rondel Racing – Dennis’s team before he joined McLaren in 1980 – standing out in the European F2 Championship. Amid the gentle chaos, mud and puddles of bygone paddocks, the Rondel team was always pristinely turned out, its tools in order and the atmosphere one of sleek professionalism. It was the same at McLaren where – lest we forget – he mentored world champions from Alain Prost to Ayrton Senna, Mika Häkkinen to Lewis Hamilton

You get the feeling that Dennis doesn’t buy the reasons given by his opponents for ousting him. “The grounds they have stated are entirely spurious,” he said immediately after the court judgment. “My management style is the same as it has always been. It is one that has enabled McLaren to become an automotive and technology group that has won 20 world championships and grown into an £850 million-a-year business.”

He is almost certainly right about the spuriousness. The real reason for his humiliating departure is probably far simpler: results. In 2015, McLaren had its worst ever campaign, finishing ninth, above only Manor. This year hasn’t been much better. Even the usually laidback Jenson Button appeared to have lost patience at the Brazilian Grand Prix, where he qualified 17th. “Yeah, we really sorted those problems out, didn’t we?” he snapped at his race engineer.

It would have been far better for Dennis’s assassins to have taken a leaf from Ron’s book and said it like it was: the results aren’t good enough; you’re out. It would have been a more dignified conclusion presented in a language he would have understood. 

* * *

Dennis’s departure had me combing the old issues of Motor Sport that are filed away in our office. Among the reports – going back many decades – one stood out. It is perhaps the definitive interview with Dennis, published in the November 2012 issue and also available on our digital archive. 

It concluded with a lengthy quote from Dennis that bears repeating. “I know I am obsessive about perfection,” he said. “I am very focused. Focus is thought to be good, obsession is thought to be bad. But basically they’re the same thing… Like everybody I suppose, I seek happiness. It’s an uncomplicated objective. I don’t see happiness as laughing or clapping your hands. I see it as the opposite of unhappiness, the opposite of anger, of depression. If you can get into that state of mind, you’re going to be far more productive. What we all want is success. 

“And what is success? It’s relief, relief that you haven’t failed. My biggest fear is failure. When you win, you can say, ‘Good, I didn’t finish second. I wasn’t first of the losers’.”

* * *

Nigel Roebuck this month writes with his usual verve about modern drivers literally cutting corners to gain an advantage. How then, he asks, do you get them to observe track limits? He promptly answers his own question. “In one of my last exchanges with the lamented Chris Amon, he came forth with a typically laconic response: “Well, trees and walls used to be pretty effective…”

But before anyone accuses Nigel of living in the past, it is worth noting what endurance racer Darren Turner had to say when the subject came up after the race in Mexico, where Lewis Hamilton locked up entering Turn One and cut the corner to maintain his
lead from pole.

“We raced in Mexico recently with the WEC but didn’t see any of the dramas the F1 boys had with people gaining ground by cutting corners,” said this year’s European Le Mans Series champion. “The issue is the run-off, as there’s no punishment for going over the limit. If Lewis had needed to try harder to keep the car on the track, he would have lost momentum, compromised his entry into Turn Three and been passed.  

“At the moment it is too easy for people just to open the steering lock and send it across the grass. There needs to be a design that makes drivers do their utmost to keep the car on the track. If there had been a gravel trap neither Lewis nor Max would have cut the corner. They would either not have made the mistake, as they were being mindful of the gravel, or they would be wrestling the car and losing speed as they did so. By nature mistakes have consequences, but because those consequences have been taken away
it is spoiling the racing.”

Amen to that.