Word that former McLaren team principal Ron Dennis has taken a non-executive role with the company he piloted to incredible success got the Internet blazing with speculation this week.
Many latched on to a report out of Germany that he had been demoted because the supercar arm of McLaren was losing wads of money. Others claimed that the Middle East partners of McLaren had attempted to push Dennis out, while another bit of gossip had him trying to retake the reins of the Formula One team from its principal Martin Whitmarsh.
Although it appears that Dennis put a plan in place three years ago to scale back his day-to-day involvement with McLaren beginning this year and the move to a non-executive role happened four months ago, none of that did anything to slow the rumour mill. For all we know, Dennis, who turns 66 in a month, may simply be taking the first steps toward his retirement years.
Unfortunately, the significance of the possibility that Dennis may not be involved in the day-to-day operation of McLaren for much longer got lost in the silly chatter.
No matter what happened and who decided what, a McLaren without Dennis – even if he hasn’t been a fixture on the pitwall since 2008 – is difficult to contemplate.
The man who started his Formula One career as a teenaged mechanic and built one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport remains inexorably linked to the McLaren name.
Along the way, Dennis headed a team that delivered some of the best grand prix action and suspense its fans have ever witnessed.
When looking for greats in F1 history, it’s hard to argue with his success. Dennis took the reins of a floundering team in 1980 and transformed it into a world champion in four years. In all, McLaren is second only to Ferrari in drivers’ championships and third in constructors’ crowns, behind Ferrari and Williams. Only two of 12 drivers titles and one of eight constructors championship were not earned under Dennis’ watch.
McLaren’s drivers also delivered some of the most dominant performances in F1 history, including the incredible 1988 season where Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna fought each other tooth and nail as they combined to win an astonishing 15 of 16 races.
The Prost-Senna years were spectacular for McLaren, but also corrosive. The two multiple world champions developed a nasty relationship on and off the track and the acrimony between the pair threatened to split the team.
Despite a bomb waiting to go off in the McLaren garage during the two years they raced as teammates, Dennis always let them battle, although it was clear he had a soft spot for Senna.
That situation repeated itself in 2007, when Dennis hired two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and brought in rookie Lewis Hamilton as his teammate. Dennis allowed them to race and it cost the team a world championship. As Alonso and Hamilton squabbled, Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen slipped up the middle and took the 2007 crown by one point over both McLaren drivers. The next year, Alonso was gone and Hamilton won the team’s most recent driver’s championship.
While eager to let his drivers do their thing on track, away from the tarmac it was a different story under Dennis’ direction. Many didn’t like his management style, with McLaren always being one of the less open outfits in the paddock. The team also put strict controls on its drivers, from their personal sponsors to comments in media interviews.
There’s no doubt that Dennis was crushed by the emergence of the Spygate affair in 2007. Spygate was the term coined to describe the 2007 affair where a McLaren engineer was caught with confidential technical documents belonging to Ferrari.
After the sports governing body finished its investigation, the team was fined $100-million (U.S.) and stripped of its constructors’ points from the 2007 season. Although Dennis has his failings, problems with integrity was never one of them and the damage to the McLaren name hurt immensely.
After the ruckus died down, he left his post as team principal to concentrate on the supercar side of McLaren. He was replaced by Whitmarsh prior to the 2009 season.
In his time in the paddock, Dennis also displayed a blunt and crusty side, and wasn’t always the most liked person in the F1. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that the origin of the demotion rumours was an old paddock foe.
A stinging example of Dennis’ no-holds-barred approach happened in the regularly scheduled Friday press conference during the 2003 Canadian Grand Prix weekend in Montreal. Earlier in the day, Minardi team owner Paul Stoddart alleged that the richer teams in F1 reneged on a cost-sharing agreement hammered out early in the year.
With Stoddart sitting next to him in the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile press conference, Dennis let fly.
“I climbed from humble backgrounds into a position of being responsible for a competitive team and, along that way, I can’t remember anyone giving me a handout and, more importantly, I never asked for one,” he snapped.
“This is a tough, competitive sport and, if you can’t take the heat, get out the bloody kitchen. Paul’s position, I understand, but he is damaging Formula One by his actions and I love Formula One. And because of that, I’m not particularly ingratiated by what he said, and even more so, less ingratiated when he infers that there are people, one of which is myself, that is not keeping his word, which is absolutely not true. Formula One has a place for everybody, but it’s not – we do not have a soup kitchen in Formula One.”
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone