On March 1 2009 Ron Dennis formally transferred his powers as team principal of the McLaren Formula 1 team to his long-time deputy Martin Whitmarsh. He wasn’t retiring, Ron insisted. McLaren’s horizons were expanding, not least with ambitious road car plans that would require his famously particular form of close attention. And anyway, “this announcement won’t change a great deal,” he claimed. “Martin and I already jointly take all the major decisions that affect this company.
“What today’s decision means is that Martin will now become solely responsible for the performance of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and will be entrusted to ensure the team remains a competitive force in Formula 1 motor racing.”
Five years and six days later, we were back at the McLaren Technology Centre to be addressed once again by the man at the helm of Britain’s most successful F1 team. But like Vodafone, Whitmarsh was gone – far gone, even if he officially remains on the payroll. In his place sat Dennis, exquisitely smart in sober dark suit and seemingly no older than that day he stepped away from the F1 front line. He was back, as if he’d never been away.
We’d been summoned because Ron wanted to explain. Not about Whitmarsh’s ousting, you understand. Rather, about the restructure now under way in Woking and how the F1 team was ready to bounce back from its worst season in years. Predictably, Dennis was defiant – and engaging, in his own inimitable way.
In his words, McLaren is motor racing’s very own “Man U” – a giant that has gone through a slump in results, but one that should never be “written off”.
McLaren endured one of its worst seasons in 2013
He spoke of the processes of “evolution and revolution”. “Things evolve and very often they don’t always evolve positively. So when companies go down a certain path small things go wrong and the focus goes.”
He blamed the lack of results on “distractions” from the main job of being competitive, such as support programmes for other F1 teams. “That’s gone, completely finished.”
Back in 2009, Dennis had claimed Whitmarsh would be “solely responsible” for the running of the F1 team. But it hadn’t worked out like that. “The responsibilities of Martin were as a CEO and that carries with it a lot more than just running a Grand Prix team, and I must say I was partially responsible for that,” Dennis now admitted.
Whitmarsh has vanished from F1 since Dennis reclaimed the reins in January. Not a word has been heard from him. Would Ron be drawn on the state of play between them? “I appointed him to this company 20-odd years ago. He is a friend. It is 100 per cent between him and I.”
But are they still in touch?
“Of course. There are different opinions of how I run companies and how I function. But the one thing I am is very principled, and the behaviour of this company to its employees is exceptional. There are ways to do things and I am very comfortable in the principles and values I choose to use.”
It was as far as he would go on the subject of his ‘friend’ – and it was certainly not “appropriate” to go into the details of how he’d convinced previously sceptical shareholders that he should return to the helm.
A new model army
But it was appropriate to explain McLaren’s new, “more focused model”. The team now has no team principal, we were told.
“There’s been a big shift in the last 10 years,” said Ron. “The number of races has gone up from 16 to 19, and whereas we had something like six intercontinental races and 12 in Europe it’s now switched round. Teams will be away for two months at a time. For a team principal it’s like being out of the company for four months of the year. I defy anyone to run a company and have four months out [like that].”
He talked about the recruitment of former Lotus team principal Eric Boullier. “He doesn’t have any reservations about the fact he is a racing director, and that is what he’s responsible for,” said Dennis. Income and revenue will not be part of the Frenchman’s job description, apparently.
But still, the model is not entirely clear. Boullier will have someone else to answer to, other than Dennis and the shareholders: a chief executive “who is yet to be defined or selected,” according to Ron.
“That choice of person is critical to the long-term future of this company,” he added. “I will take my time, and ultimately with such an important decision, it will not be mine and mine alone. I would expect to share that with the shareholders and key individuals. It is not at the moment at the top of my must-do list. I am comfortable with what we have in place at the moment.”
The number one choice, as discussed by Mark Hughes in the latest issue of Motor Sport, is the man who fought McLaren so hard and bitterly for so many years at Ferrari. But can Ross Brawn and Ron Dennis really unite, working together in a state of harmony? And how would it work? How much influence would Dennis carry – and crucially dictate?
Brawn would surely have to consider the following.
“I won’t be active at the circuit, I won’t be in uniform,” Ron told us. “No one will be but the team. During this restructuring period I will take a direct involvement, but not so much at the coalface.
“I’ve no intention of running a Grand Prix team. I will guide the Grand Prix team and if necessary I will use my authority to change things…”
Those last words will hang over whoever is appointed. Whenever that might be.
The new season
Dennis also addressed the specific challenges of 2014 and spoke of the team’s title sponsor search, again alluding to his Manchester United analogy. “Our cars will not feature a title sponsor at the first event, but there will definitely be a title sponsor from one of the next few races. Why? Inevitably in a run of poor results people try to push the rate card down and I won’t accept that. I know what this company is and what this Grand Prix team can do. We’re negotiating with several companies.”
On the drivers, he praised his team leader and the promising young rookie in the other car. Of Jenson Button, he said: “There are similarities to Ayrton [Senna] in many ways. He is an incredibly good human being. He has principles and values, and the way he conducts his life and his relationship with his team is right up there with other great drivers.
“He is dedicated and I don’t think anybody has a better physical condition. He is intelligent, which has become an absolute prerequisite now… and he’s quick. He’s capable of winning races and world championships. He’s also an incredible mentor to Kevin.”
Magnussen Jr, son of McLaren reject Jan, was Ron’s signing last autumn as the power play with Whitmarsh began to boil. “It was a decision I took. Why? Because there was an overwhelming feeling among our engineers that he is an exceptional talent. I listened to them and spoke to him – not extensively. I had reservations. I’m not a great believer in sons of drivers and Jan was… a little untidy. He did my head in sometimes! But there is something special about him [Kevin]. He has a steely determination and he will keep Jenson honest.”
While stating the new V6 turbo formula has introduced “the most expensive engines in the history of motor racing,” he dismissed fears that F1 is losing its appeal. He spoke enthusiastically of the “great tortoise and the hare” racing to come, and ended by warning: “Don’t be too hasty to jump on the initial growing pains.”
The usual considered delivery and respect he voiced for Whitmarsh and that other outgoing partner Mercedes-Benz couldn’t hide the zeal and energy Dennis feels right now. He’s got what he wanted – and he’s loving it.
Of old foes such as Max Mosley, he spoke about the “the past being the past” and how “hate shouldn’t be in anyone’s vocabulary”. But that competitive pride still raised its head…
“Leaders carry scars,” he said, with more than a hint of melodrama. “But now, without being philosophical about it… I’m here. You understand what I mean by that? I’m here.”
We got the point.
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