Ron Dennis Should Walk Away from Formula 1 for the Good of McLaren-Honda

Oliver HardenFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2016

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of McLaren Group Ron Dennis looks on in the garage during practice for the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 8, 2015 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The trapdoor sprung open and Martin Whitmarsh was instantly consigned to the history of McLaren, never to be seen again, and replaced by a blast from the past.

Throughout his time as team principal, there was always a sense that Whitmarsh was the David Moyes to Ron Dennis' Sir Alex Ferguson—a man of integrity who was groomed for the role over a sustained period of time but ultimately lacked the substance to truly succeed in the top job.

And after watching Whitmarsh oversee his team's first winless season in seven years in 2013, Formula One's answer to Fergie had seen more than enough, making it his responsibility to lead them back to the summit of the sport.

Previously preoccupied with McLaren's road-car business, Dennis—synonymous with the good ol' days—combined the role of chief executive officer with his existing duties as chairman and, as reported by the Guardian's Paul Weaver, delivered a simple message in a speech to his employees.

"We will win again," he declared, his words of reassurance greeted with a standing ovation.

And for a while, it worked. By simply being there, Ron made things better again.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 16:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and McLaren Mercedes celebrates after finishing third during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 16, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Vladimir Rys Photography/G
Vladimir Rys Photography/Getty Images

His return to the front line coincided with an upturn in form at the beginning of 2014 as Kevin Magnussen—McLaren's latest boy wonder, who wouldn't have even raced had Dennis not prevented Whitmarsh from keeping Sergio Perez, per Sky Sports' Pete Gill—claimed the team's first podium finish since 2012.

Yet far from symbolising a resurgence, that result was a case of Dead Cat Bounce or, as ESPN's Simon Barnes calls it, "the Managerial Rebound"—a brief spike in performance following a managerial change, which fuels the belief that a team are over the worst of their problems but merely disguises deeper, far more serious issues.

Despite Magnussen's podium in Australia, McLaren were often the least convincing of the four teams using the all-conquering Mercedes V6 hybrid engine in 2014.

Dennis wanted to drop Button for 2015, but Magnussen was forced to make way for Alonso.
Dennis wanted to drop Button for 2015, but Magnussen was forced to make way for Alonso.Handout/Getty Images

Indeed, only a late-season charge by Jenson Button—whom Dennis intended to replace with Fernando Alonso before losing "a power struggle" with fellow shareholder Mansour Ojjeh, per BBC Sport's Andrew Benson—allowed them to beat Force India to fifth place in the constructors' standings.

But it was McLaren's switch to Honda power for 2015—which ensured the results were no longer substantial nor consistent enough to paper over the cracks—that exposed the true flaws of Dennis and the team built in his image, as this once calming, authoritative figure became a complete and utter liability.

As noted during last season, his intimidating, overpowering presence within McLaren's garage during races must surely have a stifling effect on the team and undermine the work of Eric Boullier, who effectively replaced Whitmarsh at the beginning of 2014 but, tellingly, operates under the title of racing director.

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 11:  Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of McLaren Group Ron Dennis speaks with a member of his team in the garage during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 11, 2015
Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Perhaps Dennis, after making Whitmarsh disappear following a largely unsuccessful five-year tenure, remains reluctant for the team—his team—to fall under the control of someone else, especially someone as relatively new to the company as Boullier.

Yet it seems Boullier has been obstructed from truly establishing himself at McLaren and recreating the success he achieved at Lotus, where he transformed a team battered and bruised following the "Crashgate" scandal of 2009 into race winners and championship contenders in just two years.

The kind of quick turnaround and strong, organised leadership that, you'd think, is currently required at McLaren.

Is Boullier being given enough freedom at McLaren?
Is Boullier being given enough freedom at McLaren?Peter J Fox/Getty Images

Boullier's fluency in "Ronspeak"—the gibberish Dennis has spouted over the decades—only emphasises the chairman's influence over the Frenchman, and Dennis appeared to take pleasure in giving his racing director "a good kick in the arse" following the Spanish Grand Prix, per MailOnline's Jonathan McEvoy.

When he wasn't kicking Boullier's backside, Dennis was generally causing trouble elsewhere in 2015, dragging the team into a number of unnecessary PR disasters.

During pre-season, for instance, he told Sky Sports' Gill that Alonso didn't suffer concussion in his mysterious testing accident just days before the Spaniard, who spent three nights in hospital, was ruled out of the Australian GP as he continued his recovery from concussion.

With confusion over his pre-season accident, Alonso's second spell at McLaren didn't get off to the best start.
With confusion over his pre-season accident, Alonso's second spell at McLaren didn't get off to the best start.Handout/Getty Images

Dennis bookended the season by suggesting the two-time world champion could take a sabbatical in 2016—a claim dismissed as "strange" by Alonso, per ESPN's Laurence Edmondson—and became increasingly confrontational as the year progressed.

Among the targets were Magnussen, who was released after failing to achieve the team's "very clear goals," per Sky Sports' Mike Wise, and Lewis Hamilton, who "wouldn't be allowed to" behave "the way he is" had he remained at McLaren, per MailOnline's McEvoy. That explained exactly why Hamilton, now a three-time world champion with Mercedes, decided to leave McLaren at the end of 2012.

Such comments were interpreted as the thoughts of a bitter old man who'd seen a talented driver achieve bigger and better things elsewhere.

Hamilton is among a number of high-profile figures to further their careers after leaving McLaren.
Hamilton is among a number of high-profile figures to further their careers after leaving McLaren.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Yet, as the bizarre, needlessly confrontational statements kept coming, it felt as though Dennis was compelled to utter something—anything—controversial every time he entered the paddock, almost to remind us that he and McLaren were still there.

No publicity, however, is occasionally better than bad publicity, and if there's one thing sponsors hate more than an uncompetitive team in this highly sophisticated sport where everyone says the right thing, it's an uncompetitive team with a human megaphone for a chairman.

After losing Hugo Boss to Mercedes, McLaren saw a number of long-term partners depart last season as TAG Heuer joined Red Bull—in an engine-branding exercise akin to its arrangement with the Porsche-powered McLarens of the 1980s—with Dennis claiming his poor relationship with the watchmaker's chief executive led directly to TAG's exit, per ESPN's Edmondson.

Cara Delevingne, the model, and Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo were the main attractions at a McLaren-TAG publicity stunt on the morning of last year's Monaco GP.
Cara Delevingne, the model, and Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo were the main attractions at a McLaren-TAG publicity stunt on the morning of last year's Monaco GP.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Chandon arrived at the end of September but seemingly to replace Johnnie Walker, per Motorsport.com's Pablo Elizalde. And even Santander, the Spanish bank with an opportunity to work alongside the greatest Spanish racing driver to have ever lived, were set to leave the team, according to the Telegraph's Daniel Johnson, before eventually agreeing a new deal.

The loss of such key logos, all of which have been plastered over McLaren's cars for the last decade or more, has only magnified the team's difficulties in finding a new title sponsor, despite Dennis' promise that a replacement for Vodafone would be announced in early 2014, per Crash.net's Chris Medland.

But then, Dennis seemed to make a lot of promises in early 2014.

TOKYO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 10:  McLaren Technology Group Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Ron Dennis speaks during a press conference at the Honda Motor Co. headquarters on February 10, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. Honda Motor Co., Ltd. held a press conference
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

McLaren, as he told his team exactly two years ago, will win again. They are too good not to. Honda, for all their troubles last season, are too good not to.

But not like this. Not when their ultimate stalwart is locked in self-destruct mode, bringing more harm than good to the very team he once led to unprecedented success.

Not until the man who has outstayed his welcome acknowledges his own shortcomings and accepts the time has come to walk away for good.