Andy Hollis · Friday June 14, 2013
As regular readers of the column will probably know, I do have something of a soft spot for the McLaren team, to the extent that I decided to write a hopeful column about them a couple of weeks back, rather than something more disparaging. However after a pointless weekend (in all senses of the word) in Canada, I’m afraid that soft spot is really beginning to itch….
Let me give you some background.
Back in the day when I still had dreams and ambition, I was lucky enough to have a great conversation with the then team manager, a lovely chap called Dave Ryan (who was later to take some of the rap for the Spygate scandal). Dave was good enough to put me in contact with Steve Hallam, a name familiar to you NASCAR fans I’m sure, who invited me in to the old McLaren team factory for a chat. With youthful exuberance still pulsing through my veins, coupled with a high degree of nervousness I sat by the row of championship winning cars in the reception. Steve came in to the room, an imposing giant of a man, and began talking me through the cars. “This is Mika’s car, from last years race in Japan” he said, enjoying my clear enthusiasm. “Pity it finished behind the red car” I replied. Ladies and gents, this is how NOT to begin a job interview! No mind, we recovered from the shaky start and I met the marketing team who were later to offer me a job with the team as a Partner Manager, working with new title sponsor West. Sadly however, on hearing this West requested that anyone working on their account should be fluent in German. As a result the job offer was rescinded, and a very disappointed Andy retreated back to being “just a fan” again.
I was later fortunate to be in the paddock at the Belgian Grand Prix where I met the widely feared (though highly respected) and supposedly ‘difficult’ Ron Dennis. This was literally days after the team had been fined a ridiculous €100m for Spygate, so you’d have forgiven him for being a little spikey. That’s a big dent in any wallet. Ron couldn’t have been more charming, chatty and kind to me – to the extent that I had to interrupt him with “Ron, I think you’d best go now, the race is about to begin”. So yes, I’m a fan, which is part of the reason that it pains me to see this great team (and yes, they are still great) facing such struggles at the moment.
Following the Canadian Grand Prix, Jenson Button commented “I’ve never been so happy to get out of the car” – once again, and this is becoming a pattern; despite the resources the team has back at their beautiful Woking base, McLaren have wheeled out a bit of a dog of a car. The platitudes that “this is the best team to be in to turn this round” are beginning to wear a little thin. Lewis Hamilton certainly became tired of it, and felt his ambitions to become a multiple world champion were best served elsewhere. As a result, for the first time in living memory, as well as having a slow car (no getting around that I’m afraid), McLaren also find themselves without what I’d genuinely class as a Grade A driver. Button’s good, and Perez has talent, but we’re not talking naturally brilliant here. We’re talking competent. Even with a less than wieldy car, you’d imagine that an Alonso, Vettel, or (whisper it quietly), Hamilton would have wrenched better than a grid position of 12th and 14th.
There are a lot of factors behind McLaren’s poor form over the past few seasons – an overly aggressive development of the car this year, the loss of technical director Paddy Lowe, even the loss of Hamilton. However one can’t help but start to consider whether the issue might lie at the very top. The ever-genial Martin Whitmarsh is widely liked amongst the paddock, and within press circles. However, being widely liked is….well…..nice, but is it really effective. When did good guys come first at the very heads of business? I wonder if, were the less tractable Ron Dennis still sitting in charge of the race team, whether he’d even begin to put up with this level of performance. Yes, Ron is still intricately a part of the company, but more so these days in the road car section. Rumors have been rumbling around for a while that he might just be drafted back in to sort out the race team, but in reality that doesn’t look much like an option, either politically within the sport itself (Ron rubbed up a few members of the FIA the wrong way in his time) and it would be seen as an admission of weakness by the team, or personally for Ron himself who, at 66, is rather more UK based these days.
So what, in reality, is the solution. Well the recent announcement that McLaren are once again to link up with Honda as an exclusive engine supplier for the 2015 season onwards would suggest a bright future ahead. But is the ‘too nice’ Whitmarsh the right man to drive the team forwards to this point? Well there’s a certain Mr. Brawn who seems a little unsettled at the moment who knows all about how to get the best out of a Honda……and this spot of bother Mercedes find themselves in give them the perfect route to move him along…..
Think long and hard my old Woking friends. That’s a combination I’d personally love to see…..
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