Today's McLaren launch was a quietly confident affair.
Today's McLaren launch was a quietly confident affair. The team looked composed and calm ahead of what is likely to be a hard fought and chaotic season, with complex new rules and an intense development programme away from the circuit. And then just as the thing was winding to a close, Ron Dennis, the sport's most successful entrant, goes and lets slip that he's standing down as team principal at the end of February.
It's no great surprise in one sense; he is 61 years old and has been discussing stepping down for some time. He was under pressure from the authorities to quit in 2007 during the Stepney spy scandal, but he toughed it out, determined to stay in charge until Lewis Hamilton had clinched the world title, which he regarded as the culmination of a project he put in place over 10 years ago.
But that success and the pleasure it gave him seemed to have given him a fresh love of the sport and renewed motivation. So it was still mildly surprising that he chose today to announce that he was finally going to allow his loyal deputy of 20 years, Martin Whitmarsh, to take the top job. As Ron said, they've been sharing the job for years anyway and practically speaking Martin has been the boss for a few years, with Ron the figurehead who makes his presence felt at race meetings and in the public arenas. There will not be much change in the way McLaren goes about its business, although they will probably enjoy better relations with the FIA now that Dennis is out of the way.
He had a positive and negative effect on his team. He tended to intimidate the team members on the pitwall, as he did in China in 2007 when they messed up by leaving Hamilton out on worn tyres. Even senior engineers were afraid to take the initiative sometimes once Ron "took over" in a crisis, which he couldn't stop himself from doing. Whitmarsh will let them get on with it and they will probably be a more effective and more instinctive racing outfit because of it. Last year he drove the mechanics mad at the final race in Brazil by going round urging them to check and double check their work, while saying "Don't panic" like Corporal Jones, all weekend, which had the opposite to the desired effect.
But that passion which make Dennis such a prickly and wearing character, was also a crucial part of the reason why McLaren has been so successful. His relentless attention to detail and obsession about constant self-improvement made the team what it is. There is no more professional outfit in the pit lane, but it verges on the excessive and I think they can afford to ease off a notch or two on that and perhaps even do a little better, but they will miss his passion.
I've had a lot to do with him over the years and have had some very tough experiences and some pleasant ones. He loves jokes, but is better at telling them than listening to them. He's an enigma of a character; extremely complex and yet apparently quite simple, rather like Nigel Mansell - a fellow dyslexic, who also felt he had something to prove. Ron needed to impress, needed to find superiority and this was very effectively channeled into a competitive desire, which is what made him so successful, but at the same time rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way.
As for Whitmarsh, he is a very experienced hand, from an engineering management background. He's the kind of guy who designs a management matrix, rather than a dirt-under-the-fingernails racer like Dennis or Frank Williams. He's a more laid back individual than Dennis (but then who isn't?) and a brilliant manager. Of course, you can argue that he could afford to be laid back, because he wasn't ultimately in charge and we'll see how he changes now that the buck stops with him.
The reason why it is the right time for this change is because the map of F1 is being redrawn and a new generation of bosses is coming through. Stefano Domenicali has taken over from Jean Todt at Ferrari and the formation of FOTA and all the energy that will take from the team principals makes it the right time for Whitmarsh to be given his head. He's a pivotal figure in FOTA and a more suitable character than Dennis to develop and nurture the atmosphere of unity which now pervades between the teams.
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Why it was time for Ron Dennis to stop
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