Ron Dennis refused to accept it yesterday but his decision to step down as
head of the team he has led for almost three decades is the end of a
sporting era. Dennis took over McLaren in 1980 and, in the 28 years since,
produced five remarkable Formula One world champions and built a company
that stands as an example of all that is best in British industry.
Although rumours of his departure as team principal have circulated the
Formula One paddock for months, Dennis's announcement at the launch of
McLaren's challenger for the 2009 World Championship still came as a
bombshell for those who regard him as one of the fixtures and fittings of
the sport. When Dennis started life on the Formula One pitwall, Enzo Ferrari
was in his pomp, towering over the sport.
But Dennis went on to create what is arguably the most successful team in the
sport, making champions of Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen, Niki
Lauda and, last season, Lewis Hamilton.
Although Ferrari have more race victories and driver champions, the team have
been in Formula One since the start of the modern world championship in
1950, unlike the relative youngsters from Woking in Surrey.
McLaren is being passed into safe hands, though, in the shape of Martin
Whitmarsh, McLaren's chief executive and Dennis's right-hand man for the
past 20 years. He will take over the decision-making on race days, replacing
Dennis who has been a familiar sight to Formula One fans the world over.
There is no doubt that this was both the best and the worst time for Dennis to
move on. He would probably have gone a year earlier, but for the appalling
scandal of Spygate - the furore over McLaren's appropriation of secret
Ferrari documents - and Lewis Hamilton losing the championship by a single
point at the final race of the 2007 season. Dennis was deeply scarred by the
events of that year but is not a man to leave on such a low.
Last season was a demonstration of Dennis's immense grit and
single-mindedness, with Hamilton, Dennis's personal protege, winning an
electrifying championship and McLaren's reputation restored. It was a fine
time to hang up the pitwall headphones.
But the recession has also focussed the mind of a man, who has taken his
company beyond the confines of motor racing and Formula One. Unlike other
teams, McLaren is a multi-faceted and multi-national technology business,
the sort to make Gordon Brown glow with pride. Dennis built the business
from scratch and McLaren's headquarters is now a glittering, £250 million,
Norman Foster-designed building on the outskirts of Woking that stands as a
temple of innovation.
It demonstrates that McLaren is more than two cars on the grand prix grid.
Dennis wants direct his attention away from Formula One to the challenge of
keeping his entire business growing. He calls it "powering through the
recession", and, if he is as successful at that as he was in Formula One,
McLaren will remain a beacon of British technology.