Ron Dennis faced the room with a wide smile and that customary steely glint in his eye as he insisted today that he alone has decided to walk out on Formula One after more than 40 years as one of the sport’s most influential forces.
The man who built the McLaren team into serial world champions with some of the most charismatic drivers in history at the wheel, such as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Mika Hakkinen and now Lewis Hamilton, says he was not pushed out by angry sponsors and will not look over his shoulder longingly at the sport that has dominated his life.
But there will always be the lingering doubt that Dennis was in charge of his own destiny, underlined when word of a press conference at the austere but impressive McLaren headquarters in Woking, Surrey, circulated late on Wednesday night. Ostensibly, the conference early Thursday morning was to announce Dennis’s leadership of a new automotive business under the McLaren banner that will launch in 2011, but it was soon hi-jacked with questions about why he had stepped back from Formula One.
Most of the press release announcing the £250million project was taken up with quotes explaining Dennis’s departure, not just from Formula One but also relinquishing the chairmanship of a group he has built from scratch into one of the most successful motor racing and technology companies in the world. The new non-executive chairman of the McLaren Group will be Richard Lapthorne, chairman of Cable and Wireless, while Martin Whitmarsh, handed the reins of the Formula One team before the start of the season, steps up to become full chief executive of the Formula One team.
With an FIA court hearing into the calamitous cover-up surrounding Hamilton’s disputed third place at the Australian Grand Prix scheduled for April 29, the conclusion that Dennis was distancing himself from the team persists. He has long been an adversary of Max Mosley, the FIA president, and it is thought that a McLaren team as a Dennis-free zone might lead to slightly more lenient treatment by the world governing body.
Dennis admitted: “I am not always easy to get on with. I have always fought hard for McLaren in Formula One. I doubt if Max Mosley or Bernie Ecclestone [chief executive of FOM, the commercial rights holder for the sport] will be displeased by my decision. But noone asked me to do it – it was my own decision.
“Equally, I was the architect of the restructuring of the McLaren Group. Again, none asked me to do it. It was my decision.”
Dennis was present in Australia when the fuse was lit under the missile that appears to have shot down one of the great sporting careers.
Hamilton, along with Davey Ryan, the team manager, was accused of lying to race stewards, as they claimed that Jarno Trulli illegally passed under a safety car to take away the McLaren driver’s third place. Ryan was sacked and Hamilton apologised and now appears to have got his way.
It is an open secret that Anthony Hamilton, Lewis’s father and manager, has been at loggerheads with Dennis for some time and there have been veiled threats that the youngster would leave for a rival team.
Hamilton is staying but now the chairman of founder of the modern McLaren team is the one who is leaving.