What next for McLaren?


Following the inevitable somnolence of Christmas – the only time of the year when racing websites fall relatively silent – we have been through a tumultuous few weeks in motor racing.

First came the scarcely believable news that Michael Schumacher, who suffered only a broken leg in more than 18 years as history’s most successful Grand Prix driver, had been critically injured while skiing in France on a Sunday morning with his son. Nearly a month on, the racing world awaits further news of his condition, and hopes.

Early in the New Year there was widespread sadness when it was announced that John Button had died at his home in the south of France. Like everyone in the business, I was immensely fond of Jenson’s old man – about as far from the traditional ‘karting father from hell’ as ever you would find – and savoured his irreverent observations over many a glass of red in the paddock.

A few days later came the news, not altogether unexpected, that finally the authorities in Germany had concluded that Bernie Ecclestone should stand trial on bribery charges relating to the Gribkowsky case. While it was swiftly announced that Ecclestone was stepping down from Formula 1’s management board, rather more surprisingly CVC declared that Bernie would continue with the day-to-day running of the business. Quite how much time he will be able to devote to that between now and April (when he goes on trial) is uncertain.

Change at McLaren

Immediately before this news broke, we had learned that Mansour Ojjeh was standing down as a director of the McLaren Group, to be replaced – temporarily, we are told – by his brother Aziz. Late last year Ojjeh underwent major surgery, and it makes sense that he would wish to reduce his work load while recuperating, but at the same time it did cross my mind that perhaps this was a precursor to some impending change in Woking.

On January 17 this ‘impending change’ took flesh – and a stunning one it was: Ron Dennis, as well as being chairman of the group, was now back as its CEO.

It has long been no secret in the paddock that the relationship between Dennis and Ojjeh, once not only business partners but also the closest of friends, had in recent times deteriorated to the point of virtual non-communication. The timing of Mansour’s standing down from the board may be unconnected with Ron’s re-elevation within McLaren, but few are of that opinion.

As his appointment became public, Dennis addressed the entire McLaren workforce, stressing that changes would be made within the F1 team, and as I write the widespread assumption is that Martin Whitmarsh, who took over its running from Dennis in 2009, will be replaced.

Although it has long been known – not least to Whitmarsh – that Ron wished to regain control of the F1 team, the board stuck resolutely by its commitment to Martin – until now. As yet there are no details as to how the change has come about, how Dennis, for some time widely perceived as ‘yesterday’s man’ at McLaren, has persuaded the company’s shareholders to back him anew, but apparently his speech to the workforce was rapturously received.

Why is the change necessary?

It is inescapable that in 2013 McLaren had a season terrible by its own standards, and most would say that two major mistakes were made: one, the signing of Sergio Pérez (when Nico Hülkenberg was available), following Lewis Hamilton’s departure to Mercedes, and two, the decision, for the final season of the ‘V8 era’, to go with a radical new car rather than evolve the one which had finished 2012 as probably the best in the field.

Pérez, less fit (and light) than a contemporary F1 driver needs to be, proved also to be less quick than Button – who had usually been less quick than Hamilton. More importantly, the MP4-28, pull-rod front suspension and all, was uncompetitive from the beginning, and this time around McLaren’s signature quality – an ability, demonstrated many times, to develop itself out of trouble – did not materialise, so that the team finished the season without a podium to its name.

McLaren under Martin Whitmarsh
2009: Third in Constructors’ Championship, three wins
2010: Second in Constructors’ Championship, five wins
2011: Second in Constructors’ Championship, six wins
2012: Third in Constructors’ Championship, seven wins
2013: Fifth in Constructors’ Championship, no wins

If Whitmarsh is replaced as team principal, many will be dismayed, for Martin is a well-liked and decent man – it was he, let’s remember, who flew to Germany to persuade Mercedes chairman Dieter Zetsche to supply engines to Ross Brawn in the aftermath of Honda’s withdrawal five years ago – and if McLaren had a disastrous season in 2013 there were plenty of victories for the team in previous seasons on his watch. No, there were no Constructors’ Championships, but that in itself was no condemnation of him, for the last of those to come McLaren’s way was back in 1998.

Some suggest, however, that Whitmarsh is perhaps ‘too nice a guy’ to be an inspirational leader in the Dennis mould, and there’s no denying that the atmosphere around the McLaren motorhome was considerably more relaxed with Martin at the helm.

The official line at McLaren is that no decision has yet been taken as to the identity of the team principal, but given Whitmarsh’s absence from Dennis’s ‘state of the nation’ speech – and the fact that one cannot anyway imagine his willingness to continue ‘under Ron’, with whom he never had the easiest relationship – it seems unlikely to be Martin.

Being team principal of McLaren is a job he loved, but, as he once told me, it did not define him in the way it had his predecessor, and I never had the impression it was something he planned to do indefinitely.

What might happen next?

It is not thought that Dennis himself wishes to return to ‘day to day’ running of the team, and therefore the rumours are strong that Ross Brawn, late of Mercedes, will be brought in at some stage. God knows I’ve been wrong before, and maybe it will come to be, but knowing both men I confess that such a thing would surprise me, for Ross is a man who likes to be firmly in charge, and it’s a right he has indisputably earned. There again, down the road, after a few months of fishing, and with Honda coming to McLaren in 2015, you never know…

If Whitmarsh is replaced, on a personal level Stefano Domenicali, like so many others, will be regretful for the two men have always got along extremely well; professionally, though, there will be some relief at Ferrari, for Martin never made any secret of his wish to bring Fernando Alonso back to McLaren – and it’s my belief that he had a high chance of pulling it off.

Now, though, I’d reckon there’s little likelihood of such a thing, because Dennis is back at the helm in Woking, and Fernando is on the long list of former McLaren drivers – most notably Kimi Rӓikkӧnen – who, it has to be said, do not remember Ron with great affection.

There again, as I said, I’ve been wrong before: after the way they parted in 2009, I never thought Kimi would go back to Ferrari…

More from Nigel Roebuck
The farce of the 1999 title decider
The pros and cons of social media
In praise of NASCAR’s Tony Stewart

You may also like