Ron Dennis announced today that he is stepping down as CEO and chairman of McLaren Group and has walked away from all racing activities, a decision he says is unconnected with the team’s current disciplinary problems and which he reached alone.
He will head McLaren Automotive, making road cars, a business which later this year will be spun off from the McLaren Group. He has said he wants to double the company’s value in the next five years. The new chairman of McLaren is Richard Lapthorne, the current chairman of Cable and Wireless Plc. Dennis and Whitmarsh will both report to him.
Dennis says that he found it easier to miss the Malaysian Grand Prix than he had expected and so he has no qualms about relinquishing all control of the McLaren Group business to Lapthorne and full control of the racing team to Martin Whitmarsh, to whom he bequeathed the team principal role on March 1.
There has been widespread speculation about the timing and motive for this move. Dennis has categorically denied that it has anything to do with the Melbourne ‘liargate’ scandal and the FIA hearing on April 29th. It is being presented as Ron’s own work, not the result of a back room deal with Max Mosley, nor of a power play by Anthony Hamilton.
I posted yesterday that he was most likely making this move hoping that it would give the team the best possible chance of escaping exclusion from this championship. McLaren were fined £50 million and lost their constructors’ championship points barely 18 months ago and thus go into a second trial over issues of honesty on April 29th with some trepidation. What is the next stage in punishment, if you are proved to be a serial offender, after a £50 million fine and loss of constructors’ points?
Dennis is the kind of man who likes to be central to things and to take control of a situation and so if this move is not linked to their current problems, it seems odd that he should seek to move away from F1 at a time when strong leadership and experience are most needed.
It is quite plausible that he thinks that by stepping away from the team now, drawing the sting, if you will, that the team will escape the kind of punishment which might cause it’s very existence to come into question, such as exclusion from the 2009 season. I still don’t believe that this will happen, but if it did, it would rupture the relationship with many of the sponsors and would test the resolve of 40% shareholder Mercedes.
So will Ron’s move effect the outcome? The FIA world council on April 29th is seeking to uncover the facts of what happened after the race in Melbourne when sporting director Dave Ryan and Lewis Hamilton deliberately misled the stewards. Whitmarsh said in the press conference on Friday in Sepang that no-one more senior than Ryan was involved at any stage in this plot.
The WMSC will seek to discover if this truly is the case and whether Dennis or Whitmarsh was involved at any stage. Other team principals I have spoken to say it is hard to believe that Ryan would have been sent in an hour after the race without any briefing from Dennis or Whitmarsh, it’s just not how things are done, especially as Whitmarsh had appeared on TV after the race talking about the significance of the stewards’ enquiry.
Some commentators also see the hand of Lewis’ father, Anthony Hamilton in this departure. It is no secret that he spoke several times to Max Mosley over the course of the Malaysian GP weekend and his anger at the way the team allowed the situation to unfold around, and damage, his son was clear. I’m fairly sure he put pressure on the team to agree for Whitmarsh to issue the full apology in that Friday press conference in Sepang and he was instrumental in briefing Lewis what to say in his own press meeting shortly afterwards.
But does he have the clout to force Dennis to step down from the team in which he still retains a 15% shareholding? Did Anthony remove the man who had nurtured Lewis since he was 13 years old and gave him his opportunity in F1?
As world champion and F1’s biggest box office draw, Lewis Hamilton has significant power, but I can’t see that it is sufficient on its own to bring a move like this about.
I think this is a tactical play. Dennis knew in 2007 that if he fell on his sword and walked away the spy scandal would have a less painful ending, but he chose not to do that. Perhaps his reading of the situation now is that this is the only way to avoid obliteration for the team. If so it rather suggests that he believes his role will be uncovered on April 29th and he’s positioning himself and the team for that.
But I don’t know whether it is like that this time. I don’t know whether walking away and saying ‘Max and Bernie will not be displeased to see me go’ covers it. If Whitmarsh was involved in briefing Ryan and Hamilton he will still have to face the music and there is also the question of whether Dennis walking away really means an end to the saga as far as McLaren are concerned.
There is more to come from this.