Along with, I am sure, very many of you, I am sad not only at the fact that Ron Dennis is leaving McLaren but also at the manner of his departure. Having built it up from a garagista operation to a global automotive superpower, you’d have hoped he’d be able to leave on his own terms. But sadly not. His board decided to kick Ron out, anticipated and headed off his attempt to arrange for their departure instead and now he has gone: forced into gardening leave until the end of the year when his contract expires. Poor treatment of a man who has done so much for his company?
NOV 24th 2016
Ron Dennis: Hero or Villain?
Yes and no. The achievements of Ron Dennis hardly need repeating here. He took a team that was heading down the drain and turned it into what was at one time the most successful Formula 1 team in history, winning more races even than Ferrari, which had the notable advantage of having contested every season since the start, some 16 seasons before McLaren made its debut. Under Ron’s reign, Niki Lauda and Lewis Hamilton both won world championships. Between these bookends, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna won three apiece, with a couple thrown in for Mika Hakkinen for good measure. His season of seasons was 1988, when the MP4/4s won all bar one round of the championship – an unprecedented show of dominance at the time.
But I’ve spoken to enough McLaren people to know that life under Ron could be no picnic. Supremely autocratic, he gave the impression of preferring to fall out with people with whom he had forged long relationships rather than yield on any given matter. And the list of good people with whom Dennis parted company on less than amicable terms is long indeed.
Of course people will tend to put up with far more when they’re winning than when they’re not. And the sad truth is that in the last 25 seasons, McLaren has won the Constructor’s Championship just once, way back in 1998. And just one of its drivers has been crowned World Champion since the turn of the century. Whatever was the force that allowed McLaren to crown seven drivers in eight seasons between 1984 and 1991, it now resides with Mercedes – another organisation that fell out with McLaren on Ron’s watch.
I’ve only come across Ron at close quarters twice and emerged with two completely different views of the man. The first time was in 1994 when I was sent to the Nurburgring to beg, borrow or steal a ride in the McLaren F1 that was being demonstrated to wealthy customers. It is some understatement to say Ron was not best pleased to have a member of the media present at such an event, nor do I risk exaggeration by saying he was not shy about making his feelings clear on the subject. He was, to be honest, spectacularly graceless. The second time was this year when I was present at an event where he collected an award on behalf of the late Professor Sid Watkins. I was expecting his speech to be delivered in the semi-intelligible Ron-speak dialect for which he is so well known. Instead, he spoke with a passion and emotion with which I’d not have credited him until that very moment. My perception of him changed instantly.
Recently, I found myself talking to JJ Lehto about the 1994 testing accident at Silverstone that left him with a broken neck, effectively ending his Formula 1 career, and he was keen to contrast the way he was treated by Benetton’s Flavio Briatore to how Ron treated Mika Hakkinen when he had his near fatal accident at Adelaide the following year. Lehto felt forced to return to racing before he was fully fit and when he proved unable to do the job, was promptly fired. Ron, by considerable contrast, made it clear that Hakkinen’s seat belonged to Hakkinen and he would wait as long as it took for his driver to be completely ready before returning to the cockpit.
No question, Ron Dennis is an enigma, a man of many admirable traits who nevertheless still managed to alienate many of his once closest allies. As for me, I didn’t know the man so feel unqualified to judge. But I do know this: whatever you may think of him, Ron Dennis deserved to go out with a bang, not a whimper.
One last thing: with Ron’s removal we have also lost one the last of the great F1 independents. People who did business to race, not the other way around. Once, the sport was full of them: the likes of Ken Tyrrell, John Cooper and Colin Chapman, not to mention Enzo Ferrari. With Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and Red Bull now run by hired managers, Frank Williams now represents the very last of this long and illustrious line. If you want to know why so many people feel the heart has been torn out of the sport, look no further than this.
Photography courtesy of LAT
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