For McLaren, 2016 has been a year of transition. Not quite as hideous from a sporting perspective as 2015, and without the hope that comes with wholesale regulation changes that 2017 promises, but it has, at the very least, brought about a vague sense of progression.
Perhaps not since the fall of Williams in the later 1990s/early 2000s from perennial contenders to bit-part players has one man overseen the rise and fall of a motorsport icon. Ron Dennis, as was the case then with Frank Williams, seemed to have been blind-sided by the rapid decline of the company he built from the ground up in the early 80s.
The loss of Mercedes power, a decision made by Dennis as McLaren were confident in their ability to find an alternative competitive engine while they rebuilt their road-car business, has been damaging, but Dennis’ decision to quit the sport is a far more nuanced and complex issue than a mere lack of sporting competitiveness.
First, it is well known within F1 circles that Dennis is a difficult man to work with, prone to overly evasive and elaborate answers to simple questions, and with an ability to patronise and condescend the most intelligent of rivals or journalists. It is unfair to Dennis to characterise him as that one-dimensional, however. Andrew Benson of the BBC described him in a recent article as “generous and loyal…He can also be disarmingly charming, amusing and self-deprecating.”
His departure from McLaren has its roots in a lack of commercial success, increased demands of control from Middle-Eastern investment, and a deterioration in trust between Dennis himself and long-term business partner, the Saudi-born Frenchman Mansour Ojjeh. Ojjeh, who owns the same share of McLaren Group as Dennis at 25 per cent, gained the support of Bahrain’s Mumtalakat investment fund that owns the other 50 per cent of the group.
The dispute has been growing in recent years since the two fell out some years ago, but had begun to become more pronounced when Dennis returned to the F1 side of the business after a few years away in 2014. Dennis’ autocratic nature had begun to irritate, and alongside the lack of a title sponsor since the team’s agreement with Vodafone ran out in 2013, Ojjeh was of the belief that it was time for a change.
Of course, the problems with the new Honda engines did not help Dennis’ cause, and the rifts that were beginning to show at the end of the last season gave Ojjeh a perhaps undeserved excuse. The loss of Dennis may be a turning point for McLaren-Honda.
The 2017 regulations have said to be kind to the current aerodynamic positives on the car, and the Honda power unit has been slowly, but surely, improving over the last few months. That progression has been mirrored in results, with McLaren no longer hovering only slightly above the likes of Renault and Haas but instead passing Toro Rosso in recent weeks.
The future, therefore, is bright for McLaren at a time when the clouds seem to be gathering over the sport as a whole. Diminishing crowd numbers at previously dependable Asia-based races such as Malaysia may show the plateauing of the growth of the sport, while fan-favourites such as Interlagos in Brazil, Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve in Canada, and the Nurburgring in Germany are all either struggling financially or failing to meet the increased demands of Bernie Ecclestone’s contracts.
That is before the discussion of a perceived lack of on-track entertainment comes into the picture. With the recent takeover of the sport by US-based Liberty Media, both the long-standing domination of Ecclestone at the top of the sport, and the TV deals that have bankrolled F1 in recent years are coming under increased scrutiny.
Dennis’ departure therefore comes at a complicated time for Formula One. It marks not only a sea-change in McLaren’s history, but alongside the imminent departure of Ecclestone, mirrors a change in the sport not seen since the 1970/80s Ecclestone revolution.
Image courtesy of Alistair Rickman