Will Ron Dennis be around next year?
Ron Dennis is a 15% owner of McLaren and is about to have a great deal of his time devoted to avoiding criminal conviction in Italy for theft. The scandal in which he involved his team now engulfs the team’s engine supplier, Mercedes-Benz, and its primary sponsor, Vodafone. The team’s ability to compete in the 2008 Constructor’s Championship is very much at doubt.
Any multimillion dollar corporation faced with scandal in the executive suite does the obvious: it tosses the executives and gets new ones.
McLaren is a multimillion dollar corporation. Their Vodafone sponsorship contract alone is thought to be worth $1.6 billion – that’s with a “b.” There is no benefit to the corporation and no advantage to be gained by it in keeping Dennis around. There are tangible benefits that result from getting rid of him.
The first, of course, is the 2008 season. McLaren will have to prove that the 2008 car is not, in any way, influenced by information Dennis’ team stole from Ferrari. That will be a whole lot easier to do if the person making the pitch to the FIA isn’t Dennis and is, instead, someone brought in from the outside.
Second, there’s the matter of concentration. For some time to come, Dennis is unlikely to be able to give team management his full attention. He’s already been informed that he and several others at McLaren are under criminal investigation in Italy. Italian criminal proceedings can, and do, drag on for as long as a decade. For at least several years into the future, Dennis’s attention is likely to be focused on the past, on the months of March, April, and May of this year, the months that McLaren was so busy stealing information from Ferrari that the emails and phone records alone totaled 366 pages.
Third, there is the money issue. Race cars are not just moving billboards to their sponsors. They are also symbols. The underlying advertising concept is one of association: after a time, the sponsor’s product is reflexively associated with something glamorous and exciting, and thereby it becomes glamorous and exciting. But for the past several weeks, the phrase “Vodafone McLaren” has been in the news as the team that cheated. That product image is not worth $1.6 billion.
Fourth, and related, is the honesty issue. Whether or not the theft of information from Ferrari was bad enough to justify the sanctions imposed by the FIA, Ron Dennis’s perpetual lies about it certainly did justify those sanctions. He claimed to the FIA that McLaren had not used the information it stole when he clearly knew that statement was false. Even after the FIA’s decision was announced on Thursday, Dennis persisted, saying that “140 McLaren” engineers had sworn they didn’t use information stolen from Ferrari. That’s like saying, ‘some of are not crooks.’
Ultimately, Ron Dennis has to go because he has displayed disastrous judgment throughout, and continues to do so to this day. He involved his team in cheating. He did it in a fashion that made it possible to be caught. Then he lied about it, on behalf of the team, when he should have known the chances of being exposed were extremely high.
Ron Dennis has become a liability to his team. Dennis built that team and made it a winner. What matters now, however, is what he can do for the team in the future. What the team is going to need most in the next few years is credibility. That is something Ron Dennis now lacks.