A WATERSHED moment in McLaren’s history unfolded yesterday that could prevent Lewis Hamilton heading for the exit door, and the FIA from handing the team another devastating punishment.
For the first time in 28 years, Ron Dennis will not be involved in the Woking-based marque’s Formula One operation in Shanghai having stepped down as chief executive of McLaren Racing, and of greater significance, chairman of the McLaren Group.
Although Dennis has retained his 15% shareholding, he no longer has executive authority, with the change taking place after a recent meeting with the group’s other shareholders.
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who has admitted to tendering his resignation — which was rejected — in the wake of the ‘lie-gate’ scandal, now assumes full control of all matters F1.
From June 1, Richard Lapthorne, currently chairman of Cable and Wireless, will be appointed non-executive chairman of the McLaren Group.
As for Dennis, he takes up the chairmanship of McLaren Automotive, and is effectively marginalised as that is due to split from the McLaren Group later this year and become an independent company.
Even Dennis can appreciate his departure will be viewed by many as a blessing given the animosity that has existed over the years between himself and F1’s hierarchy.
“I admit I’m not always easy to get on with. I admit I’ve always fought hard for McLaren in Formula One,” he said yesterday.
“I doubt if Max Mosley or Bernie Ecclestone will be displeased by my decision. But no-one asked me to do it. It was my decision.”
The latest furore, coming so soon after the ‘spy-gate’ saga in which McLaren were fined $100m and thrown out of the constructors’ championship, has put tremendous pressure on the team.
At a time when McLaren were meant to be re-building bridges with the FIA, they dismantled them again in spectacular style as they attempted to lay claim to third place in the Australian Grand Prix.
But it appears the penny has finally dropped at McLaren that they have to work with, not against, motor sport’s governing body.
As Whitmarsh added: “Anyone who has looked at the relationship between McLaren and the FIA over the last few years would conclude that it would be healthier for all of us to have a more positive, constructive relationship than perhaps we have had in the past.”
A changing of the guard will certainly help in that respect, which will be tested at the WMSC hearing in Paris on April 29.
Hamilton’s humble, emotional apology, the sacking of Dave Ryan from his role as sporting director and now Dennis’ departure, will all help the FIA to see McLaren are looking to turn over a new leaf.
The team will still face five charges of bringing the sport into disrepute, for which the penalties are severe, and up until today a race ban was being mooted as likely censure.
Now, though, another hefty fine may be the order of the day if Whitmarsh can prove to the WMSC McLaren are cleaning up their act.
When asked if he felt Dennis’ decision would have an influence on the WMSC verdict, Whitmarsh’s answer was vague, albeit laced with hope.
“I think you must answer that one for yourself,” said Whitmarsh.
“You can speculate on that as well as I could, but it would be wrong to give you my view on it.”
Of paramount importance going forward will be Whitmarsh’s handling of Hamilton and his father Anthony, who has become an influential figure.
Anthony’s relationship with Dennis had deteriorated, in particular as the latter was set against Hamilton using the FIA press room in Malaysia to offer his apologies in front of the world’s media.
Throughout the course of a turbulent weekend in Sepang, Anthony held lengthy conversations with Mosley, and it was with the FIA president’s blessing that the press conference took place.
With Dennis out of the picture, the Hamiltons may feel there is room to breathe, although a more competitive car would go some way to the 24-year-old seeing out the remaining three and a half years of a five-year contract. Insisting the Hamiltons remained on board, Whitmarsh said: “Lewis and Anthony have been very supportive through what have been some difficult times.
“They’ve been with the team a long time, and are committed to being with the team for a long time in the future.”
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