When Ron Dennis broke cover on Friday morning the night after seizing the coveted CEO spot of McLaren’s Formula One team, he probably didn’t get much work done. With the press burning up the phone lines in search of quotes, reaction and controversy, they never paused to realise this had been done in typical Dennis fashion. Sharp, sudden – but planned.
What does it mean?
Let’s be very clear about this; Martin Whitmarsh remains Team Principal for now. The CEO role serves to place Dennis in a position of power that he has not held since his 2009 relinquishing of the helm in the wake of the Australian Grand Prix ‘lie-gate’ scandal. From here, he can exert direct influence on the runnings, wheelings and dealings of the team he effectively molded without the interference of the board – ‘the middlemen’. It’s no secret Dennis has been at loggerheads with the board for months as repeated attempts to oust Whitmarsh throughout 2013 were frustrated. Key in the older man’s reasoning was the doomed decision by his one-time protege to retain the troublesome MP4-28 in place of the 2012 MP4-27 during the first few races of 2013, a time when the weaknesses of the new machine were all too apparent. As Dennis lobbied for its predecessor’s return, Whitmarsh steadfastly stuck to his guns and consequently lost the faith of his mentor.
Who will be announced Team Principal in February?
Given the announcement takes place after the first test of the year, it would be somewhat naive to imagine the name above the door in 2014 will be anything other than ‘Martin Whitmarsh’. Although Ross Brawn is believed to be the man in Dennis’s crosshairs in the long-term, Brawn seems content to leave F1 well alone this season as he did during his previous 2007 sabbatical before joining Honda. The dynamics of a Dennis/Brawn McLaren would be fodder for the press, but awkward in execution; Brawn’s desire to be the lone ‘top dog’ is the very reason for his departure from rival’s Mercedes. Supposing Dennis is stepping in to ensure ‘his’ team gets back on an even keel before it is too late would leave the door open for Brawn to take such a position.
Where does this leave McLaren’s drivers?
For young Kevin Magnussen, it makes no difference who is in control come Melbourne. As an F1 rookie his job is straightforward; impress whoever has their hands on the power. For Jenson Button, the decision is more telling. His capture by McLaren at the end of 2009 was a Dennis-driven deal (in defiance of contemporary belief that labels him a Whitmarsh decision) and he makes no secret of his Honda background, experience that would benefit McLaren as they switch to the Japanese powertrain in 2015. Whitmarsh though is an avowed Alonso supporter, and would dearly love to lure the Spaniard away from Ferrari – something that looked increasingly likely in the aftermath of last season’s Italian Grand Prix. Dennis has always had great faith in young talent (witness his promotion of Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton last decade to see that in action) and believes in posessing the two fastest drivers on the grid. While Button’s outright speed may be a source of constant debate, his technical prowess in a changing era could be his ticket to longevity. Ron Dennis knows this, and is not keen on Alonso returning to the garage where he sowed so much discord in 2007.
With the MP4-29 launching on Friday and the Jerez testing beginning next week, attention is likely to be dampened somewhat in the coming days. On-track action never fails to trump political machinations. An internal power-struggle at Woking would be tempting feed for journalists as a plot-line to what will be an interesting 2014 season.