'It's not about vindication or redemption, just winning'

Last season, Ron Dennis' McLaren were accused of espionage, fined £50m and lost the Formula One drivers' title in the final race. This year it will all be different, he tells David Tremayne
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The Independent Online

There is a rather sinister image that some people within the so-called sport of Formula One entertain of Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, limping into the sunset with his tail between his legs, a man broken and humiliated by the "Stepneygate" spy scandal which rocked the sport last season.

Forget it. It is not going to happen that way, no matter how much his myriad enemies might pray for such a spiteful scenario.

Let's clear up a couple of things about the man whose Formula One career began in 1966 working as a mechanic on Jochen Rindt's Cooper-Maserati. Yes, he is a competitive and proud, possibly even at times arrogant, man. You don't get far in life, let alone Formula One, without combining those characteristics at times. Certainly he is driven, and frequently obsessive. Even he once pondered aloud his habit, when working as a mechanic for the old Cooper team, of having a bath in the morning while his mother prepared his breakfast, another upon returning home as she prepared his tea, and a third before going to bed.

Let's say your specialist passion in life is for American unlimited hydroplanes; over dinner Ron would undoubtedly seek to express more insightful views on the subject than you could, even with no knowledge of them. Such conversations can often degenerate into bouts of oneupmanship.

But you speak as you find in this game. Dennis, to this writer, has always been an honest man of integrity and high morals, proud and far-sighted. Not a saint, for sure, for there have been very few of them in Formula One. And yes, he would lure away your driver, or engine supplier in a heartbeat if it could help his beloved McLaren, the team he took over running after a shotgun marriage between them and his Project Four Racing operation was engineered by sponsor Marlboro in 1980. But not a man who would resort to a low trick to achieve an advantage. Not, in my book, a cheat.

Last year was his annus horribilis, not because of the stigma of the scandal surrounding a team in which he has invested so much of his passion, nor the stain of their disqualification from a world championship for constructors that they seemed set to win. Nor even for the draconian £50m fine levied by the governing body, the FIA, which dealt much more leniently with a similar, and apparently more bang-to-rights, case against Renault.

It was quietly announced recently that Dennis and his wife Lisa have separated. A very popular figure in the paddock, she not only helped him to present his more human side, but clearly completed him.

Had 2007 been a less cruel year, and had his protégé Lewis Hamilton succeeded in winning the world championship at the first attempt, Dennis would probably have stepped down from his role as team principal at McLaren by now. Over the years he has learnt to delegate, and is a great disciple of Jim Collins' Good to Great business book, which advocates getting the right people sitting in the right seats on the management bus. Dennis has great faith in Martin Whitmarsh and will step aside for him to become team principal. When he is ready.

"I'm not sure when that will be," Dennis admits. "There are things I have to sort out in my life and I am in the process of doing that. I am 60 years old, and there are many other things I want to do outside Formula One."

But he is also a racer, and racers do not walk away when things get tough. He will not be chased from the sport by the scurrilous, but will step back when he judges the time right.

In recent weeks both Whitmarsh and McLaren's shareholding partner Mercedes-Benz have voiced their complete support for him, at a time when carefully placed rumours from other sources have suggested that his demise is imminent.

"People who suggest that Ron may be forced to step down don't understand the corporate structure of the McLaren Group," Whitmarsh says. Dennis and his business partner, Mansour Ojjeh of TAG, hold 15 per cent of the shareholding each, after selling 30 per cent to a Bahraini group two years ago. Mercedes-Benz holds the remaining 40 per cent. "Ron is fully supported by all our shareholders, all our management, and all who work for our team and our company. He currently has three roles: chairman, McLaren Group; chief executive officer, McLaren Group; team principal, Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes. It therefore follows that it is for Ron to decide when and if he should step down, step back, or whatever."

Norbert Haug, the motor sport chief of Mercedes-Benz, recently also supported Dennis's role: "I'm now in my 14th year of working with Ron and during this time only one other team has been more successful than ours. As team boss, Ron has played an immense part in achieving that success.

"Any negative statements appearing in the media are mere speculation. We stand by Ron and are continuing to work with the same management structure. Options for the future development of the company are under discussion all the time. We don't need to own more than 50 per cent of the shares in order to ensure that we're listened to as much as we want to be."

Dennis will definitely be in Australia for the opening race of the season this weekend, arriving on either Thursday or Friday. Inevitably, everyone wants to know whether the prime motivation this year is purely to win the two world championships, or whether there is any degree of seeking vindication and/or redemption.

"We at Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes aim to win every grand prix we enter. That's our stated objective," he responds flatly. "It's what all of us, as a team of highly trained and hugely motivated individuals, are striving for. Clearly, if we're at all successful in that endeavour, then the logical outcome is world championships. But world championships have eluded us for the past eight seasons, despite our having sometimes won more grands prix in a given year than the team which eventually won the world championship, and I admit that we're all extremely keen to change that this year.

"However, we never under-estimate our opposition, and it's clear from pre-season testing that the season ahead will be a very competitive one; but we expect to figure prominently in that competition.

"As for vindication or redemption, that isn't the way we think. People tend to complicate simple things, whereas we're always aiming to simplify complicated things. The simple thing that question is seeking to complicate is this: we at Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes aim to win every grand prix we enter. The complicated thing that we're seeking to simplify is achieving just that."

So what about morale, after the bruising events of 2007?

"Excellent," comes the immediate response. "As I've already said, this is a team made up of highly trained and hugely motivated individuals. That hasn't changed, and it never will. When, in the future, motor sport historians come to look back on 2007, and begin to look beyond all the controversies that dominated the headlines at the time, they'll see that, although neither Lewis [Hamilton] nor Fernando [Alonso] won the drivers' world championship, they both won a lot of races and scored a lot of points. In other words, on track, 2007 was a relatively successful year for McLaren and therefore reflects positively on everyone who works for the team. However, it goes without saying that we all hope 2008 will be better still."

In Barcelona recently McLaren's new MP4-23 went extremely quickly, even with Ferrari present, and the team appeared to have taken a step forward just as everybody was beginning to predict a redwash. How confident is Dennis of challenging their arch-enemy for victory in the opening three races?

"I never make predictions of that nature, for the simple reason that Formula One is an unpredictable sport," he says, but it is a considered response rather than a glib retort. "Also, the first three grands prix are held at circuits which are in a sense atypical. Albert Park is a bit of a stop-start track, and history has shown us that those who go well there don't always go well everywhere else, and vice versa. Equally, Sepang and Sakhir are, respectively, atypically humid and atypically hot. Having said that, it would appear from pre-season testing data that the MP4-23 is a reasonably competitive package, and that we're there or thereabouts as regards being on the pace. Our principal competitors will be ... as usual."

It is no secret that Dennis and the FIA president, Max Mosley, have never had an easy relationship, which many see as a class conflict. Dennis likes to play that down, and scoffs at ironic suggestions that he might have his long-term eye on Mosley's job.

"As Max has frequently said in the past, commentators tend to exaggerate the level of personal discord that exists between him and me. As regards the FIA presidency, I've never aspired to it in the past and I don't aspire to it now. It's the running of a company that motivates me, not the governance of a sport."

For driver profiles and a look at this season's circuits, visit independent.co.uk/motorracing