McLaren's Dennis hands off F1 role

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McLaren's Dennis hands off F1 role

After nearly 30 years, Ron Dennis has earned promotion. The face of the McLaren Mercedes Formula One team and driver of the marque's F1 championship success announced at Friday's launch of the team's new car, the MP4-24, that he will step...

After nearly 30 years, Ron Dennis has earned promotion.

The face of the McLaren Mercedes Formula One team and driver of the marque's F1 championship success announced at Friday's launch of the team's new car, the MP4-24, that he will step aside as team principal in favor of Chief Operating Officer Martin Whitmarsh.

Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh.
Photo by McLaren.

Speaking at the McLaren Technology Center in Woking, Dennis's home town, the McLaren Group executive chairman said he will concentrate on expanding the companies that comprise the group. Along with McLaren Racing, they are McLaren Automotive, McLaren Electronic Systems, McLaren Applied Technologies, McLaren Marketing, McLaren Inc. and Absolute Taste, a catering company. Among other endeavors of the group is a recent agreement to supply engines and technical support to F1 fledgling Force India.

"Let me make one thing clear: This is very definitely not retirement," said Dennis, 61. "In fact, I intend to work even harder from now on.

"In any case, this announcement won't change a great deal because, in his capacity as chief operating officer of McLaren Group, 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 One motor racing."

McLaren won its first world title since 1999 when Englishman Lewis Hamilton took the 2008 FIA World Drivers' Championship by a single-point margin over Brazilian Felipe Massa of Ferrari. McLaren also won driving titles with Englishman James Hunt (by one point over Ferrari's Niki Lauda in 1976), Austrian Lauda (1984), Frenchman Alain Prost (1985,1986, 1989), Brazilian Ayrton Senna (1988, 1990, 1991), and Finn Mika Hakkinen (1998, 1999).

Talk of Dennis retiring was spurred early in 2007 when he sold half his 30 percent of the McLaren Group to Bahraini Mumtalakat Holding Co. He might have wished he had retired by year's end after so-called Spygate. McLaren was stripped of constructors' points and fined $100 million (later halved) for possessing confidential Ferrari information. The scandal tore at Dennis's integrity and was set against a driver feud that called into question McLaren man management. Dennis had hired double world champion Fernando Alonso from Renault to pair him with rookie Hamilton only for the two to play out publicly a workplace personality clash.

Nor has the past year been kind. The famously private Dennis suffered the breakdown of his marriage then was sued for wrongful dismissal amid charges of racism and homophobia by a former flight attendant on his personal jet. The claimant dropped the case and apologized to Dennis on Jan. 13.

Duty of overseeing F1 race weekends falls to Whitmarsh, 51, starting March 1. The season begins March 29 in Australia.

"Ron and I have had many discussions about this over the past few weeks and months, but eventually it became clear that Ron's decision was final," Whitmarsh said. "Everyone knows what an incredible career Ron has had to date; his legacy is huge. As such, I remain hugely mindful of the responsibilities I assume as team principal - it's a daunting yet exciting prospect. Despite today's announcement, I hope we will still continue to work as closely together as before."

Head of the Mercedes engine component of the F1 team, Norbert Haug said Dennis's announcement did not spell the end of a relationship.

"Ron has contributed enormously to our partnership which starts its 15th season right now," Haug said. "On behalf of Mercedes-Benz, I really want to say 'thank you' to Ron for all his work and for all the success we've had, and, hopefully, will have, in the future.

Dennis, named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in 2000 and identified in 2006 by The Sunday Times "Rich List" as worth $130 million, began in racing for Cooper Formula One in 1966. He moved to Brabham two years later and when the team-owning, three-time world champion Australian retired in 1971, Dennis began a racing team with Neil Trundle, Rondel Racing. That team and two others Dennis founded enjoyed success in Formula Two and Formula Three throughout the 1970s. Dennis returned to F1 in 1980 with the McLaren team. A year later, he and his business partners bought out shareholders Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander, giving Dennis the position he gave up Friday.

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Series AUTOMOTIVE , F1