Would the Return of Ron Dennis Give McLaren the Tune-Up It Needs?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistDecember 10, 2013

Ron Dennis
Ron DennisClive Mason/Getty Images

Ron Dennis is a legendary perfectionist. McLaren's 2013 Formula One season was anything but perfect.

Speaking to Motor Sport's Simon Taylor last November, Dennis said, "Do I feel pain when we don’t win a race? Yes, acute pain." 

All this has combined to form the rumour, voiced by Sky News' Mark Kleinman, that the former team principal and current minority shareholder is about to buy out other McLaren owners and reinstate himself as team principal.

Despite focusing on the company's road cars since 2009, Dennis sightings are common in the paddock on race weekends, and in the same Motor Sport interview, he said that, "I still go to about half the races." In February 2013, he told Roger Blitz of the Financial Times that:

You cut yourself, you bleed McLaren. We’re about winning, we care about how we win . . . We want to win with the right principles, the right values. If people don’t want to be part of that and want to go and do different things, then fine.

The first thing to wonder about is: Is the rumour true? More importantly, though: Would such a decision be beneficial for the team?

Well, it cannot get much worse. Despite the third-largest budget in F1, McLaren finished the 2013 season in fifth-place. More embarrassingly, the team did not score even one podium finish for the first time since 1980 (not-so-coincidentally, the last season before Dennis took over as team principal and built the team into one of the sport's powerhouses).

Past and present: Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh.
Past and present: Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Parents who have worked hard to send their children to university, only to see them spend four years in a drunken stupor, can probably relate to Dennis's current feelings. Under his leadership, the team won seven World Constructors' Championships and 10 Drivers' titles. In the five years since Martin Whitmarsh has taken over, the team has won nothing (although they were close to both championships in 2010).

Still, the success Dennis achieved over his career at McLaren somewhat overshadows the final years of his reign, when the team also struggled at times:

The Last 10 Years at McLaren
Team PrincipalDrivers' ChampionshipsConstructors' ChampionshipsWins
Martin Whitmarsh (2009–2013)0020
Ron Dennis (2004–2008)1025

The team's last Constructors' Championship was in 1998. Lack of success in the Drivers' Championship is at least partly attributable to Dennis's insistence on, "a team with absolute driver equality, which I’m proud to say we’ve always done," as he told the official McLaren website in an interview celebrating the team's 50th anniversary.

In 2007, team orders probably would have given the championship to either Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton, both McLaren drivers. Instead, they were allowed to compete all season and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen beat each of them by one point. 

The glory years: Ayrton Senna in a McLaren-Honda in 1989.
The glory years: Ayrton Senna in a McLaren-Honda in 1989.Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

Under Whitmarsh's watch, the team has made some good decisions and some questionable. In the good column would be the move to bring Honda back into the sport as the team's engine supplier from 2015.

Questionable decisions include the hasty decision to sign Sergio Perez after Lewis Hamilton announced his intention to drive for Mercedes in 2013 and the equally hasty sacking of Perez just one year later. (Of course, if Magnussen ends up winning a championship for the Woking-based team, Whitmarsh will be rightly hailed as a genius.)

Another current rumour is that Whitmarsh is trying to lure Fernando Alonso back to McLaren for 2015. Provided the Spaniard's skills and desire are undiminished, despite several frustrating seasons at Ferrari, this would be a big coup for McLaren. If the move is more than a rumour, it would likely disappear should Dennis re-take the reigns of McLaren's F1 operations. His relationship with Alonso is not particularly amicable in the aftermath of the 2007 Spygate controversy.

One thing is certain: So far Whitmarsh has not delivered to McLaren's expectations. Another season or two of sub-par results would probably spell the end of his tenure whether Dennis decides to come back or not.

If Dennis does want to return, there is not much that can stop him. However, two other quotes from the McLaren 50th anniversary interview should give pause to anyone currently anointing him as the next team principal.

First, his plans for McLaren are much bigger than just winning world championships. He said that, "I love racing and I always will. F1 is in my blood and always will be, but these days I’m focused on helping McLaren become a world-class group of ultra-high-tech companies. That’s what drives me today."

Dennis in 2007, on the pit wall.
Dennis in 2007, on the pit wall.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Second, Dennis talked about the dedication needed to be successful as a team principal, saying, "the F1 team must become your entire life; only then are you able to create the conditions in which engineers, designers and of course drivers can deliver their very best."

At 66 years of age, and with his interest in growing the McLaren Group at a global level, Dennis may not have the desire to completely immerse himself in F1 again.

If he does have the desire, then you will not find a doubter here that he can return the team to the pinnacle of F1. If he does not, he still has his finger on the pulse of the team and can assist Whitmarsh as he works through the challenges of returning the team to the top.

As Dennis said in the Motor Sport interview, "I may give Martin my opinions, ideas, perspectives, and I think most of the time he takes them as wise counsel. But I avoid coming even remotely close to telling him what to do."

At this point in his career, and in his life, calmly providing behind-the-scenes advice may be a much more attractive option for Dennis than stepping back into the fray on the pit wall.

Besides, a McLaren spokesman denied the Ron Dennis rumours to the Financial Times, saying, "it is business as usual for all at McLaren, and we are fully focused on developing our new Formula 1 car so as to improve our on-track performance for the 2014 season."

But they would say that, wouldn't they?

Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter @MatthewWalthert


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