There are few people I have encountered whom I could adequately compare with Ron Dennis. A pioneer, perfectionist, peerless visionary and a man whose influence on both motor racing and the automobile itself has been felt for decades and will resonate for many to come. His work, and his racing team, have redefined the very concept of what we understand Formula 1 to be. If Bernie Ecclestone is responsible for creating the commercial behemoth that is the Formula 1 World Championship, then Ron Dennis and his McLaren team are, by extension and in my opinion, responsible for launching the sport on a path to the engineering excellence which has become its global hallmark.
His commitment and loyalty to his sport but most of all to his team and his staff has been steadfast. For 2007 alone, I will forever be in awe of Ron. Had the Spygate scandal gone in front of any sensible Court of Law, it is fair to assume that the case would have been thrown out for a lack of any genuine substantive evidence. Which made the punishment all the more incredible. And created a feeling all the more incredulous. Going into the scandal, the largest fine ever handed down by the FIA was $5 million. McLaren’s penance was 20 times that figure.
Very few people know every detail of that season and the complex political machinations which unfolded. From the shards it is possible to piece together from the outside, however, a wholly unsavoury story emerges which would be fit for a Hollywood blockbuster, were the facts not so seemingly fanciful. One day the full story will emerge, and Ron’s falling on his sword will be seen in the true light it deserves.
I have the greatest of respect for Ron, for all he has achieved, all he has created, and all that he is.
But has the time come for him to stand aside?
His presence at the helm and as Captain of a sinking ship, with him seemingly oblivious to the fact that the hull has been breached and is taking on water, is painful to watch. He stands ignorant to the fact that his is the burden and his the responsibility for the crippling damage besetting his team, and that it has the potential to destroy all he has created.
Over the past 12 months Ron Dennis has gone from being a figure of authority and respect, to one openly mocked. “Oh God, what’s he said / done now?” has become the accepted response when one brings up his name.
There was the interview with Danish television that he asked to start again after forgetting the name of the team’s young GP2 stand out Stoffel Vandoorne. They couldn’t of course. They were live. And so Ron compounded his error by talking up their other young prospect, Nick. Nick Heidfeld.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
Even fun, though, seemingly has little place at Woking these days. When Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button dared to jump onto the podium in Brazil after their early qualifying exit, providing some much needed comic relief at the end of an arduous season, both were reportedly reprimanded by McLaren’s CEO. (* See Postscript)
Nearly two years into Ron’s return to the helm of the team, in a Night of the Long Knives which saw his able, loyal and long-term deputy Martin Whitmarsh farmed out on an incredibly expensive spell of gardening leave, McLaren is in the worst sporting health of its existence having endured its poorest Formula 1 season in three decades.
And yet still, Ron seems blind to the reality of his situation. As Lewis Hamilton wrapped up a third world championship in a season where he seemed to enjoy himself as much away from the track as he did on it, Ron couldn’t help but have his say, stating that “if he was at McLaren he wouldn’t be behaving the way he is because he wouldn’t be allowed to … He’s shaking off some chains he didn’t want to have.”
I’m sure Hamilton is losing little sleep over his former boss and financier’s words. After all, had he stayed at McLaren, bound by the very chains Ron mentions, there seems little hope, on current evidence, that Lewis Hamilton would be a three-time world champion.
His comments on Hamilton were compounded by statements that he believed his star driver Fernando Alonso was on the verge of taking a sabbatical, something Alonso strenuously denied. At the same time, he claimed that Kevin Magnussen had been let go by McLaren for failing to achieve goals set out for him at the team. “He knows himself and, no question, he knew that he didn’t perform as he should have done this season,” Dennis stated at the final race of 2015.
Lest we forget, Magnussen scored a podium on his F1 debut in 2014 before being dropped for the 2015 season. He deputised for Fernando Alonso at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix after the Spaniard’s still mystifying testing crash (more on that later,) only for the car, or rather the Honda engine, to fail on the way to the grid. Thereafter he was left on the sidelines for the year. When asked what goals Magnussen had failed to achieve in 2015, Dennis would not be drawn. Presumably because Kevin Magnussen was tasked with just two things in 2015: 1.) Giving up an Indycar race seat with Andretti Autosport, and 2.) Sitting on his backside. Both of which he performed admirably and without complaint.
Ron Dennis today cuts an outdated and out of touch figure. Again, in Abu Dhabi, he said that he hated “tweeting and all the other social media. I think it’s not the way for the future.” As a wise Paddock sage noted, these words on the future seemed to have come from a man living in the past. One who, until very recently, did not really understand what an email was and told people he needed to contact that he would do so by sending them “an internet.”
And all this, just weeks before McLaren hosted a “Think Digital” summit of “digital and social media thought leadership” at the new McLaren Thought Leadership Centre.
One noted media colleague relayed after the interview from which all of those quotes emanated, that he’d never known a team boss implode so devastatingly in the space of an hour. McLaren’s media office was tasked, once again, with putting out fires started for seemingly no reason and with no foundation by the man at the top of the food chain. Just as they had been in Barcelona after Fernando Alonso’s mysterious crash.
The comments made by Dennis pre-season were completely contradictory to the medical reports coming from the hospital and ultimately from Alonso himself. “He was unconscious for a relatively short period of time,” Dennis told reporters at the time. “We could hear him breathing but no other sounds.” He went on to say Alonso had suffered “some loss of memory” and an “inability to recall.” In spite of this and the team having already stated Alonso had suffered concussion, Dennis continued that “the CTU and MRI scans were completely clear, no indication of any damage. There was no concussion detected in the scan and physically he is perfect.”
The job for the media department was thus complicated by contradictory comments which were not at all helpful at a time when the message should have been minimal, clear and concise.
Ron will be Ron.
But how much is Ron being Ron hurting the team in real terms?
There has been an exodus of sponsors at McLaren. This season was embarrassing enough, with a car and overalls so devoid of sponsorship that even Manor looked flush in comparison. Long term clothing partner Hugo Boss has jumped ship to Mercedes. Santander have renewed but downsized their sponsorship of the team, continuing mainly due to the advertising opportunities surrounding Button and Alonso who are such huge stars in two of the bank’s key markets. The team has lost long-term partner Diageo and their Johnny Walker brand after a 10 year relationship. Ended, too, that seemingly most symbiotic of relationships with TAG Heuer. The watch brand and McLaren have had a 30 year history, but all of that is now in the past. Dennis himself seems unperturbed about the loss, stating that the departure of TAG Heuer comes just as the team has lined up a deal with the watch maker’s sister arm at Hennessy Chandon, and indeed Ron was happy to see the brand depart after its Monaco Grand Prix marketing exploits.
Monaco, allegedly, was the tipping point for Ron. So what did TAG Heuer do that left Dennis so aghast? It turned up with Cara Delevingne and put her in one of his cars. Yes they put her in a hideous outfit, but this is Cara Delevingne. Now I’m with Ron in that I genuinely don’t have a clue what she is famous for, but I do recognise that she is one of the biggest stars in the world at the moment. Four million twitter followers. Just shy of Twenty Four million (I’m going to write that out… 24,000,000) followers on Instagram. And having her sit in a McLaren was a bad thing?
Ron believes that social media isn’t the way of the future. Perhaps not. Who knows? But it’s the way of today. And in Monaco, that one person alone had a reach of almost 30 million sets of eyes. If that’s not considered good for business, it stands to reason that the person who holds that belief may, themselves, be bad for business.
And so the search continues for sponsorship with comments out of Dennis in the past few days, once again, that he will not drop the team’s rate card for title sponsorship. This, in the face of partners jumping ship either due to personal disagreements with Dennis himself, or simply not wishing to be associated with a team in the non-competitive state in which McLaren finds itself.
“When you start to wrestle with competitiveness,” Dennis said this week, “people inevitably try to use that to optimise their commercial relationship with the team. I’m very robust on rate card so I have the overview as chief executive of the group where the revenue streams are, and it’s my job to predict where we’re going to go.
“You don’t need to be an Einstein to know that the climate for F1 and sports sponsorship overall is challenging – I don’t think you’ve seen a new sponsor at Ferrari in the last two years for example – and the worst thing you can do is get into a situation where you drop your rate card and everything spins out of control.”
So Dennis can see the challenge and yet is unwilling to react to it. Commercially, and competitively, his team IS spinning out of control. With him at the helm, the buck ultimately stops with him.
Of course, the great irony is that while McLaren struggles on track, its road car department is excelling. I had the pleasure myself of test driving the fabulous 650S earlier this year, and can say with all honesty I have never driven such a piece of automotive perfection. It has, for me, ruined driving forever because I now know what flawlessness feels like, and I will have to spend the rest of my life knowing that, unless I win the lottery and can afford one of my own, nothing I drive will feel so good.
McLaren only started making cars again four years ago, and in that time has firmly established itself on the international scene, and filled a genuine niche in the marketplace. This was Ron’s baby. It is entirely independent of the Formula 1 team and, perhaps, should become Ron’s focus once more.
The fear that many will have, is that as Ron’s focus is drawn ever more towards the Formula 1 project, and should that project continue to fail, the falling reputation of the team on track could negatively impact sales of McLaren cars. You see, the whole McLaren concept is predicated on perfection and excellence.
The McLaren F1 team of 2015 does not reflect these ideals. And with Ron Dennis at its helm, there is a feeling that it may take longer than absolutely necessary to get back to the position it once held as the flag bearer for engineering and technical prowess in Formula 1. It is no longer the 1980s. Formula 1 has changed. The world has changed. Ron, seemingly, has not.
His team, to whom he has stayed loyal, for whom he has sacrificed so much, is beginning to lose faith. Its not just the big name departures we should note, of sponsors and staff, but those we don’t hear about. It’s the hidden genius that is plucked from a junior office that should have McLaren worried. Because the future needs to be built today. And there is a fear that for as long as Ron continues to plough forwards with his blinkers set firmly in place, the team will not lift itself from the doldrums in which it finds itself.
I read many years ago that one of Ron Dennis’ mottos is that “neither success nor failure is ever final.”
I’ve always liked that motto. I’ve always believed in it. I’ve always believed in Ron. But sometimes, we have to acknowledge when we do more harm than good.
And that sometimes to allow success to flourish, we must admit our own defeat.
Postscript: This article makes reference to a report (originally in Marca) which stated that Ron Dennis had reprimanded his drivers following their antics at the Brazilian Grand Prix, however at the time of writing I was unaware that this story had in fact been refuted and clarified here. I’d like to thank the McLaren Spokesman who pointed me towards this article, and notified me of my oversight. The reason the paragraph in question remains as it did when published is that I have always believed the internet to be written in ink rather than pencil, and that any inaccuracies be dealt with individually and in this manner, rather than editing them out and pretending they never happened.