The explanations for Dennis’s departure

Posted on Author Keith Collantine

Ron Dennis is formally ending his role with McLaren's F1 team
Ron Dennis is formally ending his role with McLaren's F1 team

The timing of Ron Dennis’s announcement that he is stepping down as CEO of McLaren Racing is bound to provoke speculation that it is a consequence of the FIA’s latest investigation of the team.

But could Lewis Hamilton and father/manager Anthony have played a role in Dennis’s departure? Or did he quit in the hope of healing the rift between the team and governing body? Here’s a look at each of these explanations.

Ron Dennis and timing

If you were Ron Dennis, and you wanted to announce you were stepping down as CEO of McLaren Racing while causing as little fuss as possible, you wouldn’t announce it today. You might have buried it in a press release 24 hours ago while everyone was writing about diffusers. Or wait until the WMSC decision, only two weeks away, had been and gone.

The details of this decision were probably worked out some time ago. But that does not preclude the possibility that things have been accelerated because of new pressures on Dennis’s position.

The timing makes it very hard to believe the two are not connected. But Martin Whitmarsh’s firm denial of a link between the two (in a very detailed interview you can read here) is significant:

Ron was not, to the best of my knowledge, involved in anything that happened in Australia or in the lead up to Malaysia. So therefore I don’t believe there’s a link.

Having publicly excluded Dennis from the affair, Whitmarsh cannot go before the WMSC on the 29th and lay the blame at his departed boss’s door.

Clearly, Dennis is not following in the footsteps of Dave Ryan as the next person to carry the can for the team’s mistakes in Australia. It seems McLaren are going to stick by their explanation that the former sporting director was responsible:

As a racing team, I’d love to have Davey back. But we also have to demonstrate… I think part of this process is demonstrating to the FIA that we accept the seriousness of what has occurred, and we are working hard to change the culture of the business.

Lewis Hamilton’s alleged role

Did Lewis Hamilton have anything to do with Dennis's decision?
Did Lewis Hamilton have anything to do with Dennis's decision?

The competing explanation for why Dennis has stepped down is that it is at the behest of Lewis and Anthony Hamilton.

For the past two weeks there has been a lot of speculation that the Hamiltons played a role in McLaren’s decision to pin the blame on Ryan. Now many are pushing the line that they are responsible for Dennis’s departure. Whitmarsh denied this too:

And for Lewis, I think he has certainly expressed his support for this team consistently, and he has very kindly expressed his support for me. I think and I hope that I have a good relationship with Lewis and I think he is committed just as we are to restoring the good fortunes and competitiveness of this team in the future.

Perhaps this was delivered with more conviction, but it does not read like a man speaking with a cast-iron certainty about a partnership of allies. On the contrary, it is riddled with uncertainty.

It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve fallen out.

McLaren and the Hamiltons commitment to each other has no doubt been tested many times during their relationship. But it probably came under the greatest strain – before now – in 2004.

Hamilton, then 19, had a less than successful first year in Formula Three. But while Anthony pushed for an early jump into the new GP2 category (and began discussions with Frank Williams about a future F1 drive) Whitmarsh wanted to keep the young driver in F3. Mark Hughes, in his excellent biography of Hamilton, writes:

Probably only Anthony Hamilton’s failure to generate enough short-notice sponsorship to get Lewis a GP2 drive for 2005 rescued the partnership. McLaren were not prepared to have the terms of their backing dictated to them, and all the signs are they would have walked. […]

It’s difficult to know if this whole matter was triggered only by a genuine frustration from the Hamiltons at Lewis not being moved up the ladder quickly, or if it was a disagreement contrived by Anthony as a brilliant but high-stakes strategy of negotiating an F1 commitment.

If nothing else, this demonstrates the single-minded manner in which the two have pursued success in F1. Would they go so far as to bite the hand that fed them – and force out the man who gave Hamilton his precious break? Could they even muster the political power within McLaren to do that? We can only speculate.

Better for the team

A more pragmatic explanation is that Dennis simply believes it is in the best interests of the team. I find this explanation the most persuasive.

It’s widely known that he hasn’t got on with F1’s powers that be, something he alluded to as he left:

I doubt if Max Mosley or Bernie Ecclestone will be displeased by my decision.

And Whitmarsh acknowledged it as well:

Well, I think anyone who has looked at the relationship between McLaren and the FIA over the last few years would have to conclude that it would be healthier for all of us to have a more positive, constructive relationship than perhaps we’ve had in the past.

In a strong defence of Dennis’s character, veteran F1 correspondent Joe Saward offers this explanation:

If Ron Dennis has to leave F1 to protect his beloved McLaren, I know that he will do it. He will do anything for McLaren. There are some who say that for Ron McLaren comes first and F1 comes second and that this is what has led him into trouble with the FIA.

McLaren weakened

Heading into the WMSC meeting, McLaren find themselves in a vulnerable position. In the past fourth months for various reasons they’ve lost several major members of staff who had long histories with the team: Dennis, Ryan, head of race operations Steve Hallam (to NASCAR) and the vastly experienced Tyler Alexander (to retirement).

On top of that, Whitmarsh has also revealed that he offered his resignation to the McLaren board following the Australian Grand Prix, but it was rejected.

To some that will be tantamount to an admission of guilt or failure. The FIA’s request for an interview the BBC conducted with Whitmarsh suggests he could be a target at the forthcoming hearing. Is his position at the team vulnerable too?

McLaren’s meeting with the World Motor Sports Council on April 29 should provide more answers.

Was Dennis’s departure a pre-arranged move that was poorly timed? Did he quit over the Melbourne affair? Was he forced out by the Hamiltons? Or did he just want to end the row with Mosley? Have your say in the comments.

Read more: Ron Dennis at McLaren, 1980-2009

73 comments on “The explanations for Dennis’s departure”

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  1. No sooner have I pressed ‘publish’ on that than another report appears with some interesting new insight. This from The Guardian:

    Dennis is clear that he “most certainly was not in charge of the team” in Australia, and blames Hamilton for the untruths. “Whether you are Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button or Michael Schumacher, if you’re world champion you’ll have a spotlight on you,” said Dennis.

    “When there are errors of judgment they will reflect negatively and that’s understandable. It has become very, very difficult [for Hamilton] always to live up to the perfection he presents to the world. Everyone in this world makes mistakes, but very few people have the courage and the conviction and the honesty to own up to them and that’s what he did.”

    1. Sorry, I don’t buy into this theory that he may have been manipulated into leaving. He was contemplating it publicly, even before Stepney, and his winning ways. Somebody like Dennis has probably had a plan for several years now, and it is an unhappy coincidence that what is going on occurred when it did.

  2. It is impossible in this day and age for anyone in the public eye to do anything without conspiracy theory being evoked. Keith wisely takes the stance that McLaren have taken a management decision based on observed factors.
    However Ron changes his role he still owns a chunk of the F1 cars.
    Lewis seems to have joined the merchant bankers, Al Queda and Gordon Brown as the source of all evil in the popular press (the Times even have a ping pong player slagging him off)
    Thank heaven the wheels turn again on track tonight. Could be rain, will be dodgy tyre choice, Ferrari KERS! Eyes peeled everyone, watch for overtaking problems if any,report back to Keith and lets talk cars.

    1. Good post!

    2. yea to that…

  3. Hmm, what is he… 60+ something? And he probably has enough money to live a good life. That’s reason enough in my book. Retire and enjoy life. No need trying to find any other reasons. If I had been in F1 for that many years and now see all this FIA crap and legal BS, I too would retire and just go fishing.

    1. People like Ron Dennis aren’t like you or me though. They are constantly driven and wouldn’t be happy playing golf and putting around the Algarve (or the French Riviera). Ron needs a new challenge to sink his teeth into, and McLaren road cars is that challenge.

  4. Excellent as always. But, I think you left out a possible engagement of Mercedes in all that mess. I believe, that Mercedes played a major role in the last few weeks. Just two points:

    1. Since some years, it seems, that Mercedes ist not satisfied with McLaren. They should have won the title in 2007, they should have won the constructers title in 2008. There are clearly disappointed about the new car. What the engine is capable of is shown by BrawnGP. Norbert Haug showed his anger in some interviews on the german pay-tv channel “Premiere” when he said, that Mercedes is very pleased by the victorys of Brawn this year. “At least, its a Mercedes… costumer relationship is very important”, he said. A slap in the face of McLaren. Just think about, if a Honda representive would have said something like that.

    2. Nobodys knows, what kind of part the Hamiltons are playing in this thing, but it seems, that Mercedes “rescued” the whole situation in Malaysia, when Anthony was openly looking for a new team. They cannot afford to lose Hamilton, after they had to release Alonso. But they can afford to lose Dennis.

    It`s hard to say, what Ron Dennis did know about the “Lie-gate” in Australia, but my feelings (not more) are, that Mercedes (they own 40% of the McLaren Group) made a “deal” with the FIA. They forced Ron Dennis to step down and leave McLaren, they will restructure the Team throughout the year. The FIA will take care, that the hearing on the 29th will be not that dangerous, as it could have been with Ron Dennis. I think, the outcome will be a small fine, maybe they will drive the whole year under probation. At this point, I strongly agree with Joe Saward.

    1. Probably the most accurate reading of the situation I’ve seen. Mercedes are the single largest shareolder in VMM (40% IIRC) so they are in effect calling the shots. Dennis “only” owns around 20%.

  5. So Keith what do you think to the other possible explanation for Ron’s leaving Mclaren. The possibility he will go back on his idea that a team boss should not be FIA president and have been persuaded by others in FOTA to put himself forward against Mosley,(and in my opinion against Jean Todt).?

  6. All this off track action is starting to get rather depressing.

    1. Scott Joslin
      16th April 2009, 22:07

      Ditto – feels like a very long hang over since the start of the season. It doesn’t help we are mid way through a Tiker trio of tracks which means it’s more exciting off track.

      Can’t wait till Europe and for all this garbage to be over

    2. I’m trying to imagine all this turmoil happening within McLaren if they’d backed Alonso instead of Hamilton, and I just can’t quite visualise it.

    3. Williams 4ever
      16th April 2009, 22:41

      @Mondo – Thats what modern F1 has reduced to a Soap Opera, where more interesting(sex,lies and videotapes) happen between the racing sundays..

  7. This is more bull**it to those how get bored with the FORMULA ONE races… It’s like soccer – TVs spend more time with debates than with real games…

    Leave McLaren, Whitmarsh, Dennis and Hamilton alone and go watch the first 2 Free Practices from China – that’s were FORMULA ONE is… the rest is garbage, political, power and money driven utter garbage…

    As a long time FORMULA ONE fan… it sickens me…

    First Hamilton was to blame, then Whitmarsh and now it’s Dennis the guilty one and he’s running away…

    Poor little souls… Don’t suck up everything you read on those english (and others) tabloids…

  8. Isnt there any end to all this drama; shouldnt we all get back to racing!!!!!! N i find it appaling whats happened today.

  9. (the Times even have a ping pong player slagging him off)


    The Times have a fellow sportsman giving his view.

    Rather than a bunch of armchair enthusiasts who have no concept of sporting codes (me included).

    Coulthard is right, but what he talks about is the Vettel/Kubica incident for example where of course they put across their position as best suits them… but they don’t tell absolute lies. Hamilton told a complete lie and stuck to it even when exposed, and saw Trulli penalised for something that wasn’t in the slightest his fault (unlike Vettel/Kubica where they both have a part of the blame to take).

    Schumacher/Senna et al inconvenienced their foes, they didn’t force unjustified penalties on them.

    As for Ron, this was something that was always planned and brought forward in an attempt to save the team. I hope it work, in respect for the guy.

    1. I agree that sporting behaviour transcends the boundary of whichever sport you are playing, so I take your point about the ping pong player.
      However, Schumacher is not a good example to give of sportsmanlike behaviour. He regularly cheated on-track, occasionally resulting in someone else being penalised for his actions, but almost always (with the Villeneuve incident being the notable exception) getting away with it.
      Although I will accept that, despite never accepting fault or admitting his unsporting behaviour, I’m not aware of Schumacher blatantly lying. It is however a very fine line.

    2. The ping pong player is Matthew Syed and he has always had a real hatred for LH even before this hoo ha. This article was written the day after he won the World Championship: (Do read the replies – it is heart warming to see so many people defending Hamilton.) Instead of celebrating what a fabulous British champion Lewis is who is an inspiration to many around the world, he had to drag it down to spiteful criticism. I would just love this Syed guy to spend a day with Lewis, and I’m sure he would never write a nasty article about him again.

  10. Keith, that piece you quoted from the guardian has been in the mainstream news media for over a week now.

    By the way, why was Vettel handed a hefty punishment after his accident with Kubica. Do we know if he changed his version of the event during the stewards hearing?

    1. Really? I hadn’t seen them before. Oh well, no regret about not including them now!

      Vettel’s punishment was for causing an avoidable accident, which I thought was pretty spurious.

    2. @Jelibeli, I’m curious whose been penalised (in the stewards sense) unjustly for an unsporting action of Schumachers??

      I genuinely can’t think of any, but memory is not all it was.

  11. Vapors. Can anyone propose, in support of the press’ current “theories,” some conceivable mechanism to suppoort the ideas that
    1. Dennis’ removal from a non-management F1 role at McLaren benefits Lewis Hamilton’s career or
    2. Dennis’ same move will earn leniecy from the FIA? The only candidates are personal animosity generated from unseen sources working in the absense of interest.

    Its a shame that at this time we can’t even take a moment to recognize the last verses of a tremendous contribution to the sport over so many years. Whether or not you support the silver cars the end of this man’s involvement in the support is a historic event due proper recognition.

  12. Dougie, that times article is a mere opinion, and not news. Who says journalists are saints.

    1. Oliver, I think we’ve covered that view elsewhere

  13. Yes Keith, Vettel caused and accident so to say. He knew he was part responsible for the accident and immediately got on the radio to apologize to the team. But at the stewards meeting, he would be giving the team line when interviewed. What I’m simply saying is the team always prepare their drivers when they go meet the stewards.

  14. craig lemoine
    16th April 2009, 22:55

    If in fact the Hamiltons played a part in Ron’s leaving than they should be ashamed…Ron Dennis and McLaren have done much more for them than they would have gotten from any other F1 team…fact is Lewis is in F1 because of Ron Dennis and McLaren.

    1. “If in fact” – yeah, let’s stick with the facts please instead of beating up on people over speculation. Lewis is in F1 not only because of Ron Dennis and McLaren, but also because of his father, his talent and his determination.

  15. Lewis lies & Ron takes the blame. The Hamiltons are no where near half the man Ron is.

  16. The sentence in this piece that is the most significant to me is “We can only speculate.” Because that is what this whole article is – pure speculation. We don’t have any facts. Lewis and his father/manager are loathe to speak to the press, especially the British media, because it is just so vicious and negative towards them, so you probably won’t hear anything about this from them. I don’t blame them either, as the Mail and the Times have spent the entire last 2 weeks using speculation and paddock gossip as a substitute for fact.

    The problem with this is that this speculation and guesswork is taken by bloggers and internet “experts” and discussed as if it was fact, with the result that Lewis and his father are abused and blamed and accused of being the vilest Machiavellians. I think that is such a shame because neither of them has said a word and yet the talk about them goes on regardless, mostly negative.

    I am sad to see Ron leave F1 but he had to do it eventually. He was a remarkable team principal and I am sure his relationships with the Hamiltons and Whitmarsh are no better or worse than before. I am sure Lewis knows he owes Ron so much and that Ron still has immense affection for Lewis. I would just advise Lewis to say as little to the media, particularly the British, as is humanly and contractually possible. Then they can speculate and gossip their little hearts out because they will never get the real inside story. Gosh, no wonder Lewis still has his father as manager – he wouldn’t be able to trust another living soul.

    1. I am sure his relationships with the Hamiltons and Whitmarsh are no better or worse than before. I am sure Lewis knows he owes Ron so much and that Ron still has immense affection for Lewis.

      Is that not also speculation?

    2. Say it like it is S Hughes. Cheers!

    3. Yes Keith, but I would rather speculate positively than negatively because no damage is done if the positive speculation turns out to be false.

    4. I´m no so sure that the Hamiltons have power enough and character to force Ron Dennis out of McLaren. No way!

      I´m reading too much crap written by some journalists that jumped in the Formula 1 wagon recently and do not understand the dynamic of the sport…

      Those are the same ones whom came to accuse the team to have the “culture of cheat” without know Ron and the team´s history enough and properly.

      Those guys doesn’t care about McLaren even about F1.

      The same Joe Saward, now my hero, quoted here, has written a good piece about those mercenaries:

      I accept that perhaps I am a little strange in that the ups and downs of F1 really do affect my mood. You can call it sad, if you like, but it is my profession and I care. I read the stuff being produced in national newspapers, by people who do not care, and it makes me angry. They are happy to destroy heroes before lunch and more than one of them tells shocking lies all the time when it comes to claiming expenses from the F1 races… So let us not ride high horses about honesty. These same people were attacking McLaren two years ago, then turned to attack Mosley during his scandal (at which point they started having lunch with McLaren again) and now they are back attacking McLaren. Do they care about the sport? Do they even like it? Or are they just journalists trying to climb the greasy pole in the trade (it used to be a profession but, alas, it has fallen from that status)? I think I am more upset by the coverage of the Hamilton Affair than I am with the facts of the case.

    5. Becken, thanks for showing me that piece by Joe Saward. There are decent journalists still – how refreshing to know!

  17. Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max Max

    The powerful move in secret ways – never tamper in the lives of the aristocracy.

  18. Well said S. Hughes.

    And I do agree Steve, this was just a fall out of the “Class” warfare in which Ron was engaged in against Max.

  19. My view on this is that Ron just got fed up with the whole situation.

    If I had been in his shoes I would have quit right after the $100m fine.

    1. Hear hear.

      In my mind that’s also the only thing that makes sense. He’s been showing the signs of this for a while now.

      People forget, Dennis’ personal life has suffered a lot from the situations he was pushed into over the last few years.

      Can you imagine living under that much stress and negative attention all the time?

    2. Yes, i think so also. Putting up with Bernie and Mo must be enough to drive anyone crazy.

      Besides, now you have to spend long hours on an airplane flying to the end of the world to go to the GPs where Bernie´s company makes money. Ron did not feel like spending half the year going to China and Korea and Arabia. It must not be fun at all.

      Now he will be living in his own home and making beautiful street cars. Much more pleasurable !
      Best wishes to Ron in his new life !

  20. I think Ron’s departure was very much hastened by the events of recent weeks- if he wanted to walk away around this point in his career, why not do it at the end of last season, on a high note? It has been in the making for some time, but these events have no doubt made things move far quicker than at other times.

    As for who caused it, I am beginning to think that Hamilton and his family-based management deal are more trouble to deal with than people think. Still, I doubt his opinions would be enough to force Ron into a different role. Ron probably made the move on his own merit, in the best interest of the team. This way, Max and his people can’t target Ron when they hand down the punishment for whatever they are found guilty on.

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