Martin Whitmarsh was back where he belonged last weekend. Well, he was in the Austin Formula 1 paddock. If he was back where he truly belonged he’d have been in the McLaren garage. But CEO of Aston Martin is probably the next-best thing for a man who would have bled for his beloved former team had it been required during his 25 years in Woking.
Lawrence Stroll has made a fine hiring in Whitmarsh. For so long Ron Dennis’s trusted lieutenant, the ex-British Aerospace engineer didn’t achieve the heights he expected of himself as much as anyone when he served as McLaren’s team principal between 2009 and ’14, before his former friend contrived to have him removed from the company. Some have written him off as too nice, too principled for a team principal. But you don’t survive in a senior F1 role for as long as he did by being a pushover.
A man who experienced first-hand championship successes with Ayrton Senna, Mika Häkkinen and Lewis Hamilton clearly has a great deal to offer – and in the midst of his spell working for Sir Ben Ainslie’s Ineos America’s Cup yachting team his name has cropped up in F1 circles from time to time.
He almost ran a Maserati F1 return, apparently, before Luca di Montezemolo was pushed from the top of Ferrari and Sauber became Alfa Romeo instead. Also, it says much about Hamilton’s regard for Martin that he recruited him personally for the eponymous commission the seven-time champion set up to investigate the lack of ethnic minorities working in UK motor sport.
In a conversation I had with Whitmarsh last year, he reflected on how proud he was to be asked by Hamilton to join the commission and revealed there had been a recent offer to take up an F1 team principal position at a team he wasn’t prepared to name.
“I’m quite a strange, loyal person and just didn’t want to race against McLaren,” was his telling comment – although he also admitted: “Never say never. I’m still relatively young and fit [he’s 63]. This year I have freed myself up, so I don’t hold any executive positions. So there is a bit of hankering for one last hurrah.
“But I’m open to anything if it’s challenging and different. To come back and turn the same handles… it would have to be something extraordinary. But maybe I had the best of it. I’ve been a team principal and a chairman of FOTA” – the old Formula One Teams Association that sadly didn’t last – “so it would have to be something pretty special. You can’t do it part-time, it’s a 24-7 thing, with good people in the team. But you can’t always choose the owners, who have to be extraordinary, and quite lot of them aren’t. Well, they are extraordinarily rich…”
Running Aston Martin’s F1 team certainly qualifies as “something pretty special”, although it occurred when Stefano Domenicali became CEO of F1 that Whitmarsh would have suited that role just as well as his Ferrari contemporary, given Martin’s ability to recognise the bigger picture, sometimes beyond the selfish needs of McLaren and arguably to his own detriment during his time as team principal. His role in Brawn GP gaining Mercedes power in the wake of Honda’s withdrawal in 2009 is the main case in point for that one.
But Aston Martin it is – and what a task now lies ahead of him. There’s that new factory, including a bespoke wind tunnel, to build and make operational at Silverstone; more technical recruitments to be completed; a team to galvanise and structure in a way that will have the greatest effect; what must be a tricky internal management situation to resolve (one way or another) with team principal Otmar Szafnauer; not to mention one of those “extraordinarily rich” team owners to pacify with signs of genuine and regular progress. As he said, it’s a “24-7 thing”.
“I would have been the person who tore up Lewis Hamilton’s contract!”
Beside all of that invaluable experience, Whitmarsh has a reputation as a decent man who will always honestly stand up for what he believes in – for the better of those around him, far beyond his own selfish needs. In our conversation, we reflected on the time he ripped up Hamilton’s McLaren contract, before the ‘boy wonder’ had taken F1 by storm. That could have been embarrassing.
“We had a lot of friction and disagreement at the end of his first year of F3 ,” Whitmarsh recalled. “He wanted to go to GP2 [in 2005], Nico [Rosberg] was going to GP2 [and would end up champion] and I wanted him to do another year of F3. It was a source of tension. I didn’t feel there was a rush and he needed to get back to how he was in karting with that self-assurance which he’d lost. I wanted Lewis to have the pressure of a second season.
“In your rookie year you can always excuse yourself because there’s always those who have done a few more years and you’re learning. If you stay back you go into a season with pressure as the favourite and having to deliver.
“In that second F3 season he restored that reassurance he had in karting. He didn’t want to do it, in fact I released him from his contract. I’m delighted he and his father came back otherwise I would have been the person who tore up Lewis Hamilton’s contract! I moved him from John Booth’s Manor Motorsport to Fred [Vasseur] at ART and he dominated the European series. He was then more ready to graduate to GP2 with career momentum and self-assurance. Hopefully Lewis believes now it was the right call.”
Lawrence Stroll has made no secret of his ambitious plans for the Aston Martin marque in Formula 1, and his stated intention is to make it a World Championship contender…
Did Lewis ever admit that it was? “I’m sure [his father] Anthony didn’t… as for Lewis himself, we’ve never explicitly had that conversation. In the end it was their call. Lewis and Anthony were in my office saying I was holding him back, ruining his career and that I didn’t believe in him. So I tore up the contract in front of them, saying we’re here to help, if you believe we’re injuring your career then it’s best you go. Fortunately six weeks later they came back.”
As it’s been told time and again, Hamilton scorched to the 2006 GP2 title and stepped into a potentially title-winning car for his rookie F1 season.
“We signed Fernando first before we gave Lewis the other seat,” Whitmarsh recalled. “I remember we were telling Lewis and saying ‘your dad knows, but what about your mum?’ She was working in a factory. So I rang the factory, asked for a supervisor, then asked for Brenda and got her off the line. I handed the phone over to Lewis and he said ‘mum, I’m an F1 driver now’. It was a lovely moment.
“Then when we told Fernando he said ‘we’re meant to be fighting for the championship. How can we fight when we have a rookie in the other seat? You can’t be serious. We need someone to push me’. We all know how that one turned out.”
We sure do.
In Austin last weekend, it must have twinged a bit for Whitmarsh to find himself lining up against McLaren. But with the workload he’s got that’ll probably soon wear off. Given how it ended for him in 2014, he deserves a dose of redemption at his new team. Whether he achieves it without ripping up another contract or two remains to be seen. Welcome back to the Piranha Club, Martin.