When it was announced in January that Ron Dennis had returned to a position of power at McLaren, it was thought that the team’s return to glory would be imminent.
It was difficult to resist being sucked in by that notion. After all, Dennis is the face of McLaren’s glorious past. He has seen it all, managed the biggest of names and most inflated of egos to lead and establish his team as one of the most iconic in Formula One.
He had witnessed the sport evolve first-hand from the eighties until the latter stages of the last decade, with that experience—as well as his well-known meticulousness and eye for detail—meaning the ultimate consequence of his return to the front line was apparent at the moment of its confirmation.
As Dennis, quoted by Paul Weaver of The Guardian, said himself, "We will win again."
Only a select few individuals in sport can have that effect, inspiring confidence through their presence alone. Sir Alex Ferguson is the most obvious example; Jose Mourinho, despite his irritating exterior, is another.
It is often said that these people have the ability to change the atmosphere in a room by merely opening the door—a simplistic way of saying that they provide a perfect mixture of encouragement, awe, responsibility and fear, effectively a gentle kick up the backside.
Dennis’ kick up the rear of his hundreds of employees seemed to have immediately worked a treat following the Australian Grand Prix, which produced the team’s first double-podium finish since April 2012 with Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button finishing second and third, respectively.
McLaren left Melbourne at the top of the constructors’ championship for the first time in almost two years, with it being noted as little coincidence given that Dennis was a visible figure in the garage and, occasionally, the pit wall over that weekend.
The team’s alarming drop in form at the Malaysian Grand Prix only a fortnight later, however, has provided a much-needed reality check regarding McLaren’s current state.
Button’s underwhelming sixth-place finish and Magnussen’s struggle to ninth in Sepang—despite the introduction of notable upgrades for the MP4-29 car—were results more reminiscent of the 2013 season, which ended with team principal Martin Whitmarsh losing his job, than those typical of the team’s glory years of the late 1980s and '90s when Dennis was first in charge.
And with racing director Eric Boullier, the man whom Dennis appointed to effectively replace Whitmarsh, predicting that McLaren’s loss of performance in Malaysia will not prove to be a one-off, the immediate future looks bleak.
The Frenchman told Autosport’s Ben Anderson following the Malaysian Grand Prix:
I don't think it's going to be a one-off, that's the problem. We said in Melbourne we were happy with the result because we had been opportunistic.
But obviously we knew the others were going to massively catch up once they started to fine-tune their balance and ride and everything on their cars, especially the electronic parts. It's exactly what happened.
We know performance-wise we have to massively catch up and aggressively develop the car.
The notion that the team’s double-podium finish in Melbourne, and not their anonymous showing in Malaysia, was a freak result is indicative of just how distant McLaren are from the front and acts as a reminder of why Dennis felt the need to return in the first place: to put a structure in place to ensure his team remain a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
His push for the signing of 21-year-old Magnussen, at a time when Whitmarsh was eager to re-sign Sergio Perez for 2014, was a statement of Dennis’ desire to return vibrancy and long-term stability to the organisation. His appointment of 40-year-old Boullier, meanwhile, was the capture of someone who could potentially lead the team for the next 20 years and beyond.
McLaren’s renewal of their ties with Honda, who become the team’s engine manufacturer from 2015, is both a tribute to their past and an exciting development for their future. Whether the Japanese firm are helped or hindered by missing the opening season of F1’s new era, however, remains to be seen.
The biggest obstacle preventing McLaren’s return to greatness, though, is arguably the one aspect that Dennis fought so hard to create.
Despite failing to win a constructors’ championship this century, McLaren have made a habit of being befallen by their own arrogant, complacent mindset. It seems that a belief exists that, because McLaren own the flashiest base, have a proud history and access to endless resources, they have an almost Divine right to appear at the front of the grid.
This, in times of struggle, runs to the point where you get the feeling that the team would rather align their tins of chrome paint on the factory shelves in perfect formation than add more silverware to the trophy room in Woking.
McLaren almost see it as a badge of honour to take unconventional routes either in terms of car design or operation. The most recent example came last season, when the team decided to begin the campaign with what was essentially a new car while rival outfits opted to evolve their 2012 vehicles. That decision, of course, led to McLaren failing to secure a single podium finish for the first time since 1980.
Just as Dennis viewed inter-team battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost or Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton as opportunities to display his managerial skills, his team under his vision seems to view particular situations as chances to show how much cleverer they are than the opposition.
But all too often in recent times, these have backfired, made the team look foolish and, most significantly, led to the exits of talents such as Adrian Newey, Kimi Raikkonen, Alonso, Hamilton and Paddy Lowe, all since 2005.
If 2014 really is a season of transition, as the team themselves have claimed, McLaren’s mindset must be reset, taken back to basics, if they are to return to the top. But you have to wonder whether Dennis, for all his greatness and influence, is just too stubborn to accept that.