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Archive for the ‘McLaren’ Category

Today’s verdict by the World Motor Sport Council to issue a three race ban for McLaren, but to suspend it for 12 months has received a fairly balanced reaction.

Given the original incident, where Trulli was allowed to pass Hamilton behind the safety car in Melbourne, what happened in the stewards’ room there and in Kuala Lumpur and what has transpired since with McLaren going out of its way to demonstrate that it has accepted mistakes were made and changed the governance of the team, this is a well balanced and light judgement. To go further would have been excessive.

McLaren pleaded guilty and the human cost at the team has been very high, with the departure of Ron Dennis, the architect of McLaren’s success and of Dave Ryan, one of its most dilligent and loyal employees for over 35 years. Lewis Hamilton has taken a huge blow to his prestige and integrity, which will take many years to redress. No doubt many of the team’s major sponsors have been in contact expressing concern that the team’s questionable sporting integrity might damage their brands by association.

FIA president Max Mosley saw no need to labour the point on this matter and said he was satisfied that a real and lasting change had been made at McLaren with the departure of Dennis and the appointment of a new chairman, a captain of industry, Richard Lapthorne.

Mosley said, “In the end there were decisions taken by the people who are no longer involved. That being the case, it would have been unfair to go on with the matter.

“We think it’s entirely fair. They’ve demonstrated there’s a complete culture change and under those circumstances it’s better to put the whole thing behind us.

“Unless they do something similar, that’s the end of the matter.”

Mosley suggested that the decision to lie to the stewards in Melbourne and to continue the deceit in Malaysia was down to sporting director Dave Ryan and implied that the FIA felt Dennis had been involved. Although Whitmarsh told journalists in Malaysia that no-one more senior than Ryan had been involved in the matter and Dennis strenously denied that his decision to move away from the race team had anything to do with the case, the implication in Mosley’s words is that he feels he was involved.

The press attending that conference at which Dennis made his announcement on April 16th was notably light on F1 journalists, they were either general media or media from the motoring side and those who were there were not fully aware of the facts of this case, so did not question Dennis as rigorously on the F1 side as they might have done.

Mosley added that he was impressed with the attitude of team principal Martin Whitmarsh and the way he has conducted himself since the controversy.

“Martin Whitmarsh made a very good impression,” said Mosley. “He’s straightforward and wants to work with us. We’re all trying to do the same thing, which is make the championship successful. Martin fully understands that and we reacted accordingly.”

McLaren team boss Whitmarsh said, “I would like to thank the FIA World Motor Sport Council members for affording me the opportunity to answer their questions this morning,” said Whitmarsh.

“We are aware that we made serious mistakes in Australia and Malaysia, and I was therefore very glad to be able to apologise for those mistakes once again.”

Compared to Dennis, Whitmarsh is a very uncomplicated man with a light touch and he has decided to go the non-confrontational route with the FIA, something Dennis could not contemplate. How that leaves him and the team in the future will be interesting to watch.

As will his reaction to the budget cap, which is likely to be announced tomorrow.

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McLaren race on as ban is suspended

The FIA World Motor Sport Council announced at lunchtime today after a brief hearing in Paris that McLaren will not be forced to miss any races this season, nor will it lose any constructors’ championship points. Instead it has decided to suspend the sentence it planned to hand down, namely a three race ban.

Interestingly, given that this is the second time in two years that McLaren has faced disrepute charges, the suspension is for a period of one year. It’s hard to imagine that they would do anything like this again – and the team was at pains to show that it has changed culture with the departure of Ron Dennis and Dave Ryan and the appointment of a new chairman, Richard Lapthorne, from industry.

The FIA statement reads,

“Having regard to the open and honest way in which McLaren Team Principal, Mr Martin Whitmarsh, addressed the WMSC and the change in culture which he made clear has taken place in his organisation, the WMSC decided to suspend the application of the penalty it deems appropriate.

whitm-pressure
“That penalty is a suspension of the team from three races of the FIA Formula One World Championship. This will only be applied if further facts emerge regarding the case or if, in the next 12 months, there is a further breach by the team of article 151c of the International Sporting Code.”

McLaren and Lewis Hamilton were disqualified from the fourth place they attained at the Australian Grand Prix, where the lying incident in the stewards’ room occured.

Whitmarsh wrote to the FIA pleading guilty to all charges last weekend. He is determined to get away from the polemics of the Dennis era and the antagonistic way the team dealt with the FIA.

In light of all that has happened between the FIA and McLaren since it first came to light that the team had a 700 page Ferrari dossier in its possession, it now feels as though things have calmed down. McLaren has a good chance of fighting for the drivers’ world championship this year. Lewis Hamilton has only 9 points to Jenson Button’s 31, but his car is improving very quickly. With the five points he lost in Melbourne, he would be on 14 with three quarters of the season to go. As it is, I think he can fight for the title this year.

As for the damage to Hamilton’s reputation, he has gone down in many people’s estimation over the incident. It was a lose-lose for him as one the one hand he looks bad because he lied to the stewards, allegedly because he was told to by the team. On the other hand, by doing what he was told, he appears to be a product of the team and not his own man. He has to just park it and move on, there’s nothing he can do about it now, but I’d expect him to act more individually in the future.

No doubt to reach this verdict there has been some horse trading behind the scenes in terms of commitments that Dennis will never return and that his influence is negated, despite retaining a 15% shareholding in the company. And I wonder if there was some dealing on the proposed budget cap as well. We are due to find out more about that at some point soon.

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Bahrain was a good weekend for the McLaren team. Although fourth place will not feel like win for them after the slow start to the season, the team is heading in the right direction and was only a few tenths off the pace here.

The circuit somewhat flattered their car, with its long straights and lack of high speed corners, but all teams agree that McLaren have clearly made a big step forward. As team principal Martin Whitmarsh explains below they have done this by making constant small steps at every race, whereas teams like Ferrari and BMW have put all their effort into one massive upgrade for Spain.

McLaren has another step for Spain, including the double diffuser, so it will be interesting to see if that takes them a step close to the pace of Brawn, Toyota and Red Bull. The gap is now only around 4/10ths of a second per lap, having been over two seconds before the season started…

How satisfied are you with the progress which led to this fourth place in Sakhir?
“If you had asked me in Barcelona (test) would I have accepted a strong fourth place here, competitive with all the cars and fourth in the constructors then I would have snatched your hand off, but being McLaren we want to win. It’s not good enough for us. We’ve made steps in the right direction but we need to keep pushing.”

Looking at the progress you have made and Lewis’ position in the points table, you must be thinking that Lewis has a pretty good chance of winning the world championship?

“We have to be a little bit wary about this circuit. Maybe we were a little bit flattered here anyway, Barcelona is going to be tough. I know that we have a decent step forward for Barcelona but I’m sure the others have too,

“We’ve made good progress and if we can continue that progress I think we have to be in a strong position. Certainly I’m not one of those people who was saying after two races that the championship was over.

But we’ve got to be frank about it, as a race team we have thrown everything we could at it. There are 12 performance modifications on this car from last weekend and that takes a huge amount of effort. We’ve certainly thrown a lot of effort at it compared to some of our competitors. If you do that, sometimes it can be to the detriment of longer term development, where you stand back and make bigger incremental steps.

You mean you have gone for a small gain everywhere, while the opposition is focussing on one big step for Barcelona? Why did you do it that way?
“As a race team it is not in our character not to come to a race and throw everything we can at it. I think what it does is whilst it is not the most efficient development process, it creates an environment which I think you can sense here, you don’t sense it’s a losing team, people in our garage sense that we are heading in the right direction. It gives momentum to the drivers, the team to think, ‘Right we can do this. We can overhaul these people and we can win some races this year.’ Once we’ve done that we’ll see where we are in the championship.”

Are you worried about Wednesday’s disciplinary hearing?
“To be honest I’ve been concentrating on going racing and I haven’t been worrying about that and I’m going to concentrate on things that are under my control and that hopefully we can improve.”

There have have been a lot of meetings this weekend with FIA. Is this all part of a process that has been going on in the build up to Wednesday?
“ I think it’s safe to assume that, yes. We are trying to build a relationship with the FIA and beyond that we already have. On KERS and a lot of regulation issues we have always had that relationship and I think we have to build in some other areas to that relationship to make sure that we steer this team in the right direction.

Will the relationship with the FIA improve
“I’ve been working with the FIA recently and I’m grateful for the support they have given me and this team. I think that hopefully that is the start of building a better relationship for the future.”

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McLaren pleads guilty…

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh has written to the FIA ahead of next Wednesday’s world council meeting, essentially pleading guilty to all five charges of bringing the sport into disrepute over the issue of lying to the stewards in Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur, according to the Times.

“Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, has written to Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, informing him that his team accept that they are in breach of Article 151c of the Formula One sporting regulations, which covers bringing the sport into disrepute. The letter also contains a full apology from Whitmarsh for this latest serious transgression by the Woking-based team, ” the paper says.

By acting this way the team is essentially saying to the FIA, ‘Look, we accept that what happened with the stewards was wrong, we’ve taken steps to correct this with Lewis’ apology in Malaysia, key people leaving the team and a new chairman coming in who will provide a new style of management, just tell us what the sentence it, ‘

Whitmarsh appears to be taking a pragmatic approach to this crisis. There is now no need for the motor sport council to carry out an exhaustive investigation into what happened on April 29th, no need to call Hamilton, Dennis or Ryan into the courtroom to give evidence.

But the world council has a hard job on its hands in deciding what the punishment should be. Some experienced hands here are talking about a points deduction, which would also have a financial penalty to it as the lower they finish in the constructors’ championship, the less prize money they would take home. Others still talk about a two race ban.

I have noticed that the FIA’s Alan Donnelly has been spending a lot of time around the McLaren area this weekend and all sides realise the importance of getting it right on Wednesday.

Meanwhile Mercedes are playing down stories about their involvement in F1 being in doubt, after negative comments made by a union leader in Germany. It is however possible that the manufacturer, which has a 40% shareholding in the team, might seek to take a greater say in the overall management of the team after this second embarrassing incident.

The Telegraph, meanwhile, quotes an unnamed McLaren sponsor saying, “I can say that if a disproportionately large penalty were given to McLaren on April 29 then the sponsor that I am associated with might leave. But the punishment must fit the crime.”

It is the second time in 18 months that Whitmarsh has had to pen a letter of open and full apology to the FIA. He did so in 2007 at the conclusion of the case over the Ferrari dossier which ended up in McLaren’s possession. In both cases it came after the team had initially claimed that it had done nothing wrong.

This case has already been very costly for McLaren in human terms, it has lost Dave Ryan, the veteran team manager and Ron Dennis, the driving force behind the team for almost 30 years.

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A lot of people are confused by the performance of Lewis Hamilton in the Chinese Grand Prix.

Rain is a great leveller in Formula 1. Talented drivers who do not have the car to compete in normal conditions can shine on a wet track and we have seen plenty of that over the years.

Wet races in the last couple of years seem to have been dominated either by Sebastien Vettel or by Hamilton. Hamilton delivered his masterpiece at Silverstone last July, but in Shanghai this weekend he had a very different kind of race, which showed that having the right car is just as important in the wet as the dry, especially with these 2009 cars.

He started brightly, attacking in the opening laps and making up places. He passed Raikkonen for 6th place on the first racing lap, then Trulli for 5th, then dropped back to 10th. He passed Kovalainen, Raikkonen again and was 4th on lap 24, with pace not too far off Button’s. He pitted on lap 33 and at that time his pace was comparable with drivers who were already on new wet tyres. So the tyres held up quite well in the first stint and all was going well. Perhaps the two safety car periods had given his tyres the right treatment.

But he pushed very hard in the opening laps of the second stint, fuel adjusted he wasn’t far off Vettel’s times. On lap 35 for example, he did a 1m55.153, a second faster than Button despite being significantly heavier and only 1.3 secs slower than Vettel (who was about to pit) despite his fuel weight slowing him by 2 secs/lap.

However he had taken too much out of the tyres. His pace dropped off after lap 44 and a spin on lap 49 lost him fifth place to team mate Heikki Kovalainen.

Here Lewis frankly admits that he didn’t deliver the kind of performance he expects of himself in those conditions. Perhaps the way the tyres held up in the first stint fooled him into thinking they’d be okay in the second. He didn’t think his way through the race..

That wasn’t what people have come to expect from you in the wet
“I love racing in the wet but I would say that was one of my worst wet weather performances. I made lots of mistakes. It was tricky out there, I was pushing hard, had quite good pace early on when I had some grip, but too many mistakes.

“You know me, I generally have good wet races, this one was incredibly tough. It was almost too dangerous to drive, you saw lots of people sliding off. I don’t have enough downforce on this car anyway, so it was a struggle but as least I scored some good points for the team.”

Did you push the car harder than it wanted to be pushed?
“All weekend I’ve been pushing that car beyond its limits and beyond what it is really capable of. Today when the tyres dropped off, I wasn’t able to avoid the oversteer moments.”

Why so many spins?
“There is nothing wrong with the car except the lack of downforce. I guess the guys with more downforce had no such a problem. My tyres were finished quite early so I was struggling with them. It was fun at the beginning when I had some grip. I don’t know if it’s the car or my driving style but it seems to destroy the tyres very early on. I remember I had just come out (of the pits) and they said I had 20 laps to go and my front left tyre was gone after 5 laps.”

What do you think about the performance of Sebastien Vettel?
“Congratulations to him, he did a fantastic job today. They have been very fast all weekend, so clearly they have one of the best cars.”

How long before you have a car which will allow you to race for a win?
“It’s going to be a good four or five races, it’s going to be some time. The guys are doing a fantastic job, so we’ve got to keep pushing.”

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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.

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According to Autosport website there is something cooking at McLaren, with the suggestion that former team principal Ron Dennis is to make some kind of an announcement about his future plans today (Thursday).

There are  suggestions he could step back completely from his involvement with the Formula 1 team. He already relinquished the team principal role to Martin Whitmarsh on March 1st, but has stayed involved with at least a finger or two on the tiller and was present at the Australian Grand Prix, where the team was found to have ‘deliberately misled’ the stewards after the race.

If it is the case that Dennis is removing himself from the racing team altogether, it is likely to be connected in some way with McLaren’s strategy for the April 29th FIA world council hearing at which the team is set to face charges of ” fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interests of motorsport generally.”

It is often said that all political careers ultimately end in disappointment and the same is often true of other competitive animals, like sports figures and particularly racers. Dennis has had a stunningly successful career thanks to his relentless attention to detail and determination, but in the last few years he has repeatedly left himself and his organisation exposed, as they are now over the lying scandal in Melbourne. Partnerships like those with Mercedes and key sponsors are at stake.

A career like Dennis’ should have ended with a final world championship followed by a knighthood, but the spy scandal of 2007 can’t have helped that cause and any association with what went on in Melbourne would add to the damage. To quit now appears to be a sign that this mighty career is ending in disappointment.

The facts concerning what went on in Melbourne and Dennis’ part in it will be established on 29th April, but if Dennis is walking away it is either because he has been pushed or because he is taking control of the situation and positioning himself for what is to come, thereby protecting the team and its future.

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