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GP Week : Issue 223
OPINION miKe DooDson When the Queen's Birthday Honours were published last week, there was a welcome award for Patrick Head, co-founder of Team Willy. Within the next month or two, Patrick will be making the trip from his central London penthouse to Buckingham Palace (probably not on his motorbike) to be dubbed a knight of the realm, following the steps taken back in 1999 by his business partner Frank Williams. It's a well- deserved honour for a widely respected engineer whose cars won nine constructors' world championships and carried the men who steered them to eight drivers' titles between 1980 and 1997. Knighthoods for motor racing 'greats' have always been thinner on the ground than they have for the grandees of other sports, so the founders of the Williams empire have done well. It's now more than ten years since Patrick, who turned 69 earlier this month, stepped down as Technical Director at Grove, and three since he relinquished his trackside F1 duties. I hope I will be forgiven for pointing out that since 1997 there have been no more constructors' titles for Williams and only a smattering of GP wins. One therefore imagines that if McLaren supremo Ron Dennis didn't already have enough on his plate on F1 with the ongoing Honda nightmare he might well be wondering why his own team's CV (ten drivers' titles and seven constructors' trophies, seven of them since 1984) has not attracted closer attention from Her Majesty's advisers. In fact Ron, 68, is already a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and has been showered with other awards, including doctorates from three of our noblest universities. Several times he has welcomed a British Prime Minister to visit the supremely high-tech factory where the McLaren group employs (and trains) some of the country's most outstanding engineers. While he himself has modestly pointed out that he has no hand in the design of the cars that bear the McLaren name, nor does he drive them, it will surely have crossed his mind that one day he, too, may be asked to go down on one knee by the Queen. Ron's self-imposed ambition has been to establish McLaren as the British Ferrari. Having achieved that aim on the race tracks and being well on the way to doing it with his supercars, not to mention becoming a supplier of world- class electronic devices, he should be in the running for a tap on the shoulder with a sword wielded by his sovereign. After all, they know each other already, because back in 2004 it was she herself who opened the McLaren premises in Woking. Ron has a reputation for prickliness, as David Coulthard recently told the Daily Telegraph. "I spent nine years at McLaren – more than any other driver – and there are times when Ron can be difficult to work for," wrote DC. "While Ron the man can be very generous and caring, as a businessman he can be cold, calculating and notoriously demanding." Among the complexities in Ron's approach to managing McLaren is a reluctance to get rid of employees, even those who don't fit in or who aren't pulling their weight. It has been suggested to me that this hesitation is rooted in the fact that to dismiss someone whose engagement was approved by him indicates a failure of his own judgment. It extends even to drivers, notably in 1995 with Nigel Mansell (who wasn't pulling his weight) but also to Juan Pablo Montoya, who scarpered when he sensed towards the end of 2006 that the team's affection for him was waning. Under the circumstances one can only imagine how difficult Ron found it for himself when the time came, last year, to part company with Martin Whitmarsh, a close friend to whom he had delegated the task of running the racing team, only for its fortunes to decline steadily. Perhaps even more surprising was his decision to re-assume ultimate control of racing, albeit with the popular and efficient Eric Boullier brought in from Renault to handle things on the ground. It promises to be a long, hard struggle before we discover whether the return of Ron will bear the same fruits that he and Honda enjoyed together all those years ago. While none of the chaos on the F1 front can be attributed to the McLaren side of the partnership, let alone to Ron himself, he must now address the glaring lack of a major sponsor on the cars. Somewhat unfortunately, he has dared to suggest that F1 may now be a bit too big for just one title sponsor. "We haven't given up on the idea of attracting larger sums of money to our car," he said earlier this year, "but what we don't want to do is put big brand names on at low levels of money. Title sponsorship doesn't exist any more as a concept. Where the budgets are for a competitive team, no company will come in and give you that kind of money." If that sounds like a hi-falutin' excuse for not being able to attract a suitable big name aboard, so be it. I incline towards the view that the reason why McLaren hasn't found a prestige partner rests with the miserable fact that last year's result produced a second consecutive 5th place in the constructors' championship. David Coulthard, meanwhile, believes that McLaren - perhaps unlike Williams - has the potential, under Ron Dennis, once again to rise. "He remains McLaren's greatest strength," says DC. "The state of the business and the car company today form part of his vision." Meanwhile, Her Majesty's sword will remain sheathed. 16 GPWEEK.com // 16 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: OPINION how does 'sir ron' sound to you?