Remember the times when McLaren were good? I mean, really good. Think back to the mid 70’s, the dominant 80’s and the very late 90’s after a nothing patch in between. The man credited for a lot of the success was a man who stepped in the doors at Woking in September 1980, 35 years ago.
His name was Ron Dennis, a 32 year old former Cooper and Brabham mechanic and founder of Project Four Racing from Woking. At this point, McLaren were in decline; they hadn’t won a race for 3 years, a Drivers or Constructors Championship for 4 and were well down the order come the climax of the 1980 season, even with a certain Alain Prost at the wheel.
However, with the help of Mansour Ojjeh, he persuaded Niki Lauda to rejoin Formula 1 after his retirement the previous year, and got Ojjeh to bring in Porsche turbo engines to boost performance and of course introduced the Formula 1 world to ‘Ronspeak’, which is still used today….
This was the new beginning for McLaren and success followed, first through Lauda in 1984 and then Prost in 1985. They looked like then team to beat, and Dennis was at the heart of it. He held great power within the racing world and usually got what he wanted, the biggest example of this was when the late, great Ayrton Senna joined from Lotus. Also, he managed to bring Honda to the team, starting one of the best partnerships ever seen in Formula 1 to this day. And so the dominance started, if Jean-Louis Schlesser hadn’t caused Senna to spin out whilst being lapped at Monza, McLaren would have taken 16 wins out of 16 races in 1988, but they still took the Championship every year from 1988 to 1991. But in turn, the in-fighting rose to the forefront with Senna and Prost coming to blows multiple times, leaving Prost feeling like an outcast, thinking Senna was held superior to him in the team.
Prost was gone for 1990, he left for Ferrari. The mid 1990’s were disappointing to say the least, Honda power was lost and the team were stuck with an uncompetitive Ford engine followed by an even worse Peugeot engine. For 1994, Senna packed his bags realising it was a sinking ship, leaving for Williams which ended so tragically at Imola just three races into that year. The team didn’t even register a win from the 1993 Australian Grand Prix until the 1997 Australian Grand Prix when David Coulthard was at the wheel alongside a Finn named Mika Hakkinen (above at Monaco, 1998).
However, Hakkinen had nearly died in Friday Practice for the 1995 Australian Grand Prix, suffering major life-threatening head injuries in a high speed crash, the force measuring upwards of 200G. Miraculously he made a return for the start of the 1996 season to everyone’s surprise. Without him, the new McLaren era may not have started. With Mercedes-Benz engines behind them, Hakkinen and Coulthard grabbed the 1998 season by the horns, winning 9 of the 16 races and scoring 5 1-2 finishes with Hakkinen beating Michael Schumacher to the title, McLaren’s first in 7 long years. Although Ferrari took the 1999 Constructors Championship, Hakkinen won his second world title ahead of Eddie Irvine.
For the next 4 years, Ferrari and Schumacher ran away with the sport, taking 5 successive titles, nearly producing 2 cars as dominant as the all conquering McLaren MP4/4. The closest the team got to another Drivers Title was with a new, younger Finn Kimi Raikkonen who took the retiring Hakkinen’s seat in 2002, he lost the 2003 title by just 1 point. He was left speechless (as always, I guess).
2005 was a frustrating year for Dennis. The MP4-20 was sensationally quick at the hands of Raikkonen and ‘balls to the walls’ driver Juan Pablo Montoya, but poor reliability gifted Fernando Alonso and Renault both championships. 2006 produced no wins, Alonso and Renault holding off Ferrari and the departing Schumacher. Dennis made sure than the Spaniard came to McLaren alongside young rookie Lewis Hamilton for 2007 with Raikkonen leaving for Ferrari.
It was another tumultuous time. Alonso and Hamilton both coming to blows, similar to Prost and Senna 19 years before, but it didn’t end in a championship. Instead out of all people, Raikkonen won the title for Ferrari with both Hamilton AND Alonso 1 point behind him. A botched strategy call in China that year ended up costing Hamilton a famous World Championship in his first season. The year also ended in disaster for the team. Although they romped away with the Constructors Championship, they were excluded for the use of confidential Ferrari information, given to them by former chief-mechanic for the Scuderia, Nigel Stepney. This was infamously referred to as ‘Spygate’ and the team were also handed a whopping $100 million fine for their troubles.
Alonso left in 2008 and went back to Renault after an unhappy year, but Hamilton went on to dramtically win the Championship, this time by 1 point from Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Although Dennis was relinquishing control, passing the baton onto Martin Whitmarsh, in favour of focussing on McLaren’s road cars and other aspects of the McLaren Group.
In January 2014, Dennis came back to the McLaren F1 team, but the team has endured a barren run. No more Hamilton, no wins since aforementioned driver’s victory in Austin 2012. For 2015, he has brought back Honda to try and rekindle former glories but with no success. He also brought back Alonso, there’s no fighting (yet) but he’s now at the back of the grid, forced to battle with the Manor’s and his own team-mate, Jenson Button.
Dennis doesn’t want Button, he’d much rather have reserve driver Kevin Magnussen or young driver Stoffel Vandoorne, but Ojjeh is now overruling him. Some may even argue that Dennis shouldn’t be accredited for most of the team’s success, if it wasn’t for Senna, Prost, Hakkinen, Raikkonen and Hamilton, where would McLaren be?
Is this the true end for Ron Dennis in Formula 1? Little power (this can be taken quite literally in terms of the car) and no success suggests it may well be.
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