The timing of Ron Dennis’s announcement that he is stepping down as CEO of McLaren Racing is bound to provoke speculation that it is a consequence of the FIA’s latest investigation of the team.
But could Lewis Hamilton and father/manager Anthony have played a role in Dennis’s departure? Or did he quit in the hope of healing the rift between the team and governing body? Here’s a look at each of these explanations.
Ron Dennis and timing
If you were Ron Dennis, and you wanted to announce you were stepping down as CEO of McLaren Racing while causing as little fuss as possible, you wouldn’t announce it today. You might have buried it in a press release 24 hours ago while everyone was writing about diffusers. Or wait until the WMSC decision, only two weeks away, had been and gone.
The details of this decision were probably worked out some time ago. But that does not preclude the possibility that things have been accelerated because of new pressures on Dennis’s position.
The timing makes it very hard to believe the two are not connected. But Martin Whitmarsh’s firm denial of a link between the two (in a very detailed interview you can read here) is significant:
Ron was not, to the best of my knowledge, involved in anything that happened in Australia or in the lead up to Malaysia. So therefore I don’t believe there’s a link.
Having publicly excluded Dennis from the affair, Whitmarsh cannot go before the WMSC on the 29th and lay the blame at his departed boss’s door.
Clearly, Dennis is not following in the footsteps of Dave Ryan as the next person to carry the can for the team’s mistakes in Australia. It seems McLaren are going to stick by their explanation that the former sporting director was responsible:
As a racing team, I’d love to have Davey back. But we also have to demonstrate… I think part of this process is demonstrating to the FIA that we accept the seriousness of what has occurred, and we are working hard to change the culture of the business.
Lewis Hamilton’s alleged role
The competing explanation for why Dennis has stepped down is that it is at the behest of Lewis and Anthony Hamilton.
For the past two weeks there has been a lot of speculation that the Hamiltons played a role in McLaren’s decision to pin the blame on Ryan. Now many are pushing the line that they are responsible for Dennis’s departure. Whitmarsh denied this too:
And for Lewis, I think he has certainly expressed his support for this team consistently, and he has very kindly expressed his support for me. I think and I hope that I have a good relationship with Lewis and I think he is committed just as we are to restoring the good fortunes and competitiveness of this team in the future.
Perhaps this was delivered with more conviction, but it does not read like a man speaking with a cast-iron certainty about a partnership of allies. On the contrary, it is riddled with uncertainty.
It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve fallen out.
McLaren and the Hamiltons commitment to each other has no doubt been tested many times during their relationship. But it probably came under the greatest strain – before now – in 2004.
Hamilton, then 19, had a less than successful first year in Formula Three. But while Anthony pushed for an early jump into the new GP2 category (and began discussions with Frank Williams about a future F1 drive) Whitmarsh wanted to keep the young driver in F3. Mark Hughes, in his excellent biography of Hamilton, writes:
Probably only Anthony Hamilton’s failure to generate enough short-notice sponsorship to get Lewis a GP2 drive for 2005 rescued the partnership. McLaren were not prepared to have the terms of their backing dictated to them, and all the signs are they would have walked. […]
It’s difficult to know if this whole matter was triggered only by a genuine frustration from the Hamiltons at Lewis not being moved up the ladder quickly, or if it was a disagreement contrived by Anthony as a brilliant but high-stakes strategy of negotiating an F1 commitment.
If nothing else, this demonstrates the single-minded manner in which the two have pursued success in F1. Would they go so far as to bite the hand that fed them – and force out the man who gave Hamilton his precious break? Could they even muster the political power within McLaren to do that? We can only speculate.
Better for the team
A more pragmatic explanation is that Dennis simply believes it is in the best interests of the team. I find this explanation the most persuasive.
It’s widely known that he hasn’t got on with F1’s powers that be, something he alluded to as he left:
I doubt if Max Mosley or Bernie Ecclestone will be displeased by my decision.
And Whitmarsh acknowledged it as well:
Well, I think anyone who has looked at the relationship between 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.
In a strong defence of Dennis’s character, veteran F1 correspondent Joe Saward offers this explanation:
If Ron Dennis has to leave F1 to protect his beloved McLaren, I know that he will do it. He will do anything for McLaren. There are some who say that for Ron McLaren comes first and F1 comes second and that this is what has led him into trouble with the FIA.
Heading into the WMSC meeting, McLaren find themselves in a vulnerable position. In the past fourth months for various reasons they’ve lost several major members of staff who had long histories with the team: Dennis, Ryan, head of race operations Steve Hallam (to NASCAR) and the vastly experienced Tyler Alexander (to retirement).
On top of that, Whitmarsh has also revealed that he offered his resignation to the McLaren board following the Australian Grand Prix, but it was rejected.
To some that will be tantamount to an admission of guilt or failure. The FIA’s request for an interview the BBC conducted with Whitmarsh suggests he could be a target at the forthcoming hearing. Is his position at the team vulnerable too?
McLaren’s meeting with the World Motor Sports Council on April 29 should provide more answers.
Was Dennis’s departure a pre-arranged move that was poorly timed? Did he quit over the Melbourne affair? Was he forced out by the Hamiltons? Or did he just want to end the row with Mosley? Have your say in the comments.
Read more: Ron Dennis at McLaren, 1980-2009