Will Gray

Gray Matter: Why Dennis can make McLaren great again

Will Gray

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Ron Dennis is back at the helm of McLaren F1 after a disastrous 2013 season and things are already looking up – but how can the returning boss bring back the glory days?

Dennis, who stepped down as team principal just over five years ago, saw what was happening to his operation last season and quickly stepped in to stage a boardroom coup. Now, positioned as McLaren Group CEO, he is spearheading not a revolution, but a simple but effective evolution.

For a man who is known for his straight-talking approach and desire not to over promise, his pre-season statement that McLaren will win again made people sit up and listen, particularly after last year when the team failed to reach the podium for the first time since 1980.

This time, however, Dennis will not be driving the team from the front line – because F1 has changed since his last time in charge.

Dennis claims that with the modern day 20-race F1 season, the role of team principal as it once was is no longer achievable. He believes an F1 programme must now be run in two distinct parts – the part that builds the fastest car possible back at base and the part that runs it to the best of its ability on race tracks around the world.

So the first thing Dennis did on his arrival was to scrap the position most people thought he would take up.

Instead, he pulled off a bit of a coup by bringing in Eric Boullier, who has done a great job on a tight purse-string for Lotus in recent years, as ‘racing director’ to head up the at-track operations. The other position Dennis was looking to fill, the one back at base, is defined as F1 CEO position and is still to be filled.

Dennis will now be working in a day-to-day capacity to bring it all together, and that trio of leaders is a vital element in the new structure of McLaren.

But the crucial part of Dennis’ masterplan is not in the leaders, it’s in the core of the team – which seems to have lost focus since the rule of former team boss Martin Whitmarsh (conspicuous by his absence in any communications so far since Dennis took over).

Back in the McLaren-Honda glory days, and even the successful seasons in the late 1990s, there was one sole focus and that was racing. These days, with budgets increasing and sponsors needing to keep up, teams needed to diversify to survive.

McLaren has done this very well, setting up six different technology and enterprise businesses within the walls of Woking, but some of that has taken away focus from McLaren Racing’s core task: to win.

Recently the racing side has been turned into a moneymaking operation, supplying Marussia with both parts and wind tunnel access and even seconding one team member to Force India in a key technical role to gain front-line experience without weakening the McLaren team.

In the new Dennis regime, however, McLaren Racing is fully focused on success and nothing else. It is not there to make money. It is not there to help other teams. And it is not there to lead FOTA, which Whitmarsh spent a lot of focus on.

McLaren lost its way. Last year was a massive low, but ultimately it was the culmination of a long descent. And it had to be stopped before the team tumbled down the grid.

With a new Honda engine and relationship on the horizon for 2015, this season is a stopgap, but it is also a crucial opportunity to get the ducks in a row once again.

It’s easy to be positive with a car that looks strong, but off the track it does already seem like Dennis is heading in the right direction to turn the team back around.

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