Changes for McLaren, Ecclestone and F1’s heart

There is no such thing as an off-season in Formula 1.

There is no such thing as an off-season in Formula 1. There may be no official races scheduled until March with the last having taken place in November, but one thing is for certain, the wheels of the sport, do not stop turning.

And as if to prove the point, a little with less than 2 weeks before testing for the 2014 season is due to start, one of sport’s most decorated teams has undergone some major hierarchical changes.

Ron Dennis has staged an internal coup and wrestled back control of the McLaren Formula 1 teamand says he has been tasked with ‘improving our on-track and off-track performance’.The 66-year-old, who stood down as team principal in 2009, has been appointed chief executive officer and replaces his former protégé, Martin Whitmarsh, whose role as team principal is now under threat.

Emerging differences

Dennis, who held that role between 1982 and 2012 before becoming Chairman of the Group in 2013, has been in dispute with Whitmarsh over the past two years and has tried to oust him, on several occasions, only failing because of his fractured relationship with other board members. It is not clear how that has been repaired. The easier-going Whitmarsh was a contrast to Dennis, who was known as something of a control freak during his time in charge of the team.

Dennis will now combine the CEO role with his position as Group Chairman as well as head of the McLaren Automotive sportscar division and says he will carry out a thorough review of the company’s businesses to help McLaren ‘win at whatever we do.’

Their latest F1 car, the MP4-29, will be launched on 24 January.

Whitmarsh ultimately pays the price for five years of failure, in which McLaren has been unable to win either the drivers’ or the constructors’ world championship. His fate was sealed last year—McLaren’s worst season since before their glory period in the 1980s.

Their best result was the fourth place won by Jenson Button in the last race of the season and they struggled to see off the challenge of the much smaller Force India team for fifth place in the constructors’ table. The team have not won a drivers’ title since Lewis Hamilton in 2008, and have failed to win the constructors’ title since 1998.

Dennis,who presided over some of the greatest years in the team’s history with champions such as Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, has been massively disappointed by McLaren’s decline. In quick succession they have lost their star driver, Hamilton, their title sponsor, Vodafone, and their chief designer, Paddy Lowe, who has taken over at Mercedes. They have also been unable to halt the dominance of Red Bull, who have won the drivers’ and constructors’ titles for the last four seasons.

In a 20-minute address to McLaren employees at the Woking factory, followed by a long ovation according to one of those present, Dennis assured them that ‘there will be change…we will win again.’

No-one at McLaren has been sacked or made redundant as of yet however, and the identity of their team principal from the 2014 season is due to be announced next month. A senior McLaren insider told BBC Sport that Dennis did not want to return to a role on the pit wall.

Game changers as the wheels turn

Sam Michael became McLaren’s sporting director under Whitmarsh’s command and many have tipped him to become the future team principal. But Dennis is likely to go for somebody with more experience of winning a team.

Whitmarsh had also been trying to persuade Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso to join the team in 2015 but Dennis’s new role must make such a move highly unlikely as the two fell out in dramatic style when the Spaniard drove for McLaren in 2007.

Ross Brawn, who succeeded Dennis as the most successful team principal of the modern era, has been eagerly tipped for a quick return to the paddock following his retirement from Mercedes at the end of last season. Brawn won two world championships with Benetton, five in a row with Ferrari and another with his own team in 2009, when Jenson Button became world champion.

The news comes as the Formula 1 teams prepare for the first testing session for the new season, in Jerez on the 28th January. With major technological and regulation changes to the engines, the 2014 season was already going to pose a big challenge for McLaren. Whoever takes charge faces a difficult season, because it will be McLaren’s last with Mercedes as their engine supplier – in 2015 they join forces with Honda once again.

So on the day that Bernie Ecclestone lost much of his power, which is unlikely to be restored, the other great architect of modern Formula 1 found himself back in the spotlight.

Ecclestone himself has stepped down from the board of the company which runs Formula 1 following his indictment on bribery charges in Germany. He admits paying Gerhard Gribkowsky, but will go on trial to face allegations he bribed the German banker who is serving a jail sentence for receiving the payment. Ecclestone denies the charges. His stepping down means he can no longer sign significant contracts, but the 83-year-old will continue to run the business on a day-to-day basis, Delta Topco said in a statement.

The chief executive of F1 has ruled the sport for almost four decades and is the long-time commercial rights holder but sold off a majority of the ownership in the 1990s. His trial could prove a real-game changer for the sport.

The wheel’s never stop turning in Formula 1.

What do you think? How will these changes affect the forthcoming F1 season? Have your say in the comments section below.

Image: Ryan Bayona / Flickr