So Ron Dennis was holed up in his Tokyo hotel room with a virus. He must have caught it off his motor. At least he knows how his McLaren drivers have been feeling all year.
“Like a Samurai warrior without his sword,” was how Jenson Button described the racing experience at the Japan Grand Prix. His team-mate, Fernando Alonso, likened his grunt-free Honda unit to a GP2 engine, and said so over the radio to cause maximum embarrassment.
The fall of McLaren is a story of shock and awe. Once among the most powerful, lavishly funded operations in Formula One, the Woking thoroughbred flounders, its great breakout association with Honda proving to be a ball and chain rather than an instrument of liberation.
Poor old Ron. To witness the empire he built from nothing into the pre-eminent racing team in British motor racing slowly disintegrating is a dispiriting experience for all involved with the sport. There are no winners when an organisation as grand as McLaren is on the deck.
The liaison with Honda was supposed to revive the glory years of Senna and Prost, when none could live with the Anglo-Japanese alliance. That was almost three decades ago. The state of affairs is exacerbated by the emergence of the engine-supplier McLaren dumped, Mercedes, as the superior power unit in the game.
A chance meeting at Silverstone with an automotive consultant to the team revealed an engine-supplier in deep trouble. Not only was the Honda engine woefully off the pace, my mole said, there was no sense it would improve this year or even next. It appears the cultural mores at play in Japan are not commensurate with the required response.
It’s the Honda way or no way. So the McLaren staffers pull their hair out as great drivers like Alonso and Button wither on the vine. When Dennis returned 21 months ago in the putsch that eventually ousted Martin Whitmarsh it was seen as necessary bloodletting to reverse a worrying decline.You can hardly blame Dennis for reaching out to Honda. The Mercedes unit was not the beast it is now, and as he said when he emerged from his sickbed yesterday looking remarkable perky, you want exclusive dibs on the engine supplied.
Dennis acknowledged the challenge he faces. Not only is he dealing with failure; McLaren have massive overheads, they are without a title sponsor and his drivers are in open revolt.
The whole organisation is predicated on winning. They are housed in a futuristic palazzo designed by Sir Norman Foster that bristles with grandeur and self-importance. “Second is first of the losers,” Dennis would opine loftily from the top step of the podium in the days when winning was routine.
It is a wonder Button has been negotiating so hard to be retained. The team’s treatment of one of the sport’s big driver brands is an unseemly expression of their fall. The disingenuous commentary from chief operating officer Jonathan Neale, saying it is only right the team respects the wish of a driver who does not want to take the seat. As if. Button does not need the money. What he demands is respect and a car to race.
I recall a conversation with Ross Brawn during Button’s world championship-winning year of 2009 when the eponymous team owner bracketed the would-be champion in the highest category of driver he had ever worked with when the car was quick. Considering he had been on the pit wall for every one of Michael Schumacher’s 91 race wins and seven world titles, you have to say that is praise indeed.
For a driver of the quality expressed by Brawn, Button has had his share of bad breaks. Jettisoned by Williams to accommodate Juan Pablo Montoya, on whom Sir Frank rolled the dice believing he might be another Schumi, Button was then ditched by Flavio Briatore at Bennetton/Renault for Alonso. He was the author of his own embarrassment in the BAR/Honda/Williams tug of love and could easily have spent a career fiddling around in midfield before Brawn stuck a blown diffuser on the husk of the Honda he acquired for a pound note.
At the outset of his career Button was coveted by Dennis, but he baulked at the terms of the five-year deal the Frome flier was demanding. And then along came Kimi Raikkonen to satisfy Ron’s appetite for world-class Finns. Button’s eventual arrival alongside Lewis Hamilton in 2010 should have been manna for McLaren but by then Dennis was preparing his retreat from the front line.
Whitmarsh was a bright bloke and a capable lieutenant, but he did not have Dennis’s instincts for the game. It may be, in this phase of his stewardship, that Dennis no longer has the tools or the power to affect the necessary changes. The faffing about with Button, an obvious asset in a depressing season, is an own goal the team could do without.
Dennis talked a feisty game in the Suzuka paddock, confirming he wants Button next season. A call to arms, or just words, drifting on the Japanese breeze?
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies