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Sunday, March 2, 2008

McLaren boss Ron Dennis set to quit

McLAREN Mercedes boss Ron Dennis, whose driver Lewis Hamilton is one of the favourites to win this year’s Formula One world championship, is likely to step aside this week.

Sources close to Dennis made it clear that the man who has built McLaren into one of the most powerful teams in the history of the sport is determined to achieve a better balance between his family life, other McLaren businesses and the Grand Prix team. Dennis, who recently announced that he had split with his wife of 22 years, Lisa, is understood to feel that the time demands of heading up the F1 team have become disproportionate and, contrary to reports last week, is increasingly inclined towards a change of priorities. There are 18 races scheduled this season.

Now 61, he is adamant that he intends to be more available to his children, and also believes that the role of team principal has changed. Unlike Dennis, who is a major shareholder commanding a majority on the McLaren board, several other current team principals are essentially employees who sometimes have to refer major decisions.

Dealing with the ‘Spygate’ affair stopped Dennis from fulfilling his original intention of stepping down at the end of last season. However, he believes that doing so now would not adversely affect the business, including Hamilton’s chances of winning the championship. This is despite the investigations of Italian police regarding the 780-page dossier of Ferrari data that was passed to Mike Coughlan, then McLaren’s chief designer, last year. The sport’s governing body, the FIA, fined McLaren a record £50m and disqualified the team from the constructors’ championship, which it would have won. Last week Italian detectives carried out an oddly-timed and theatrical series of raids on the homes of several McLaren employees, and took copies of the e-mails which the FIA concluded proved the information was more widespread within the company than Dennis had originally claimed.
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However, those who believed a fine of £50m would have a detrimental effect on McLaren’s championship challenge have – so far – been proved wrong. Preseason testing results suggest that the title will come down to a battle between the Woking-based team and rivals Ferrari, as it did last season.

Dennis is expected to announce his decision in midweek. He is under no pressure from other shareholders and many staff have been urging him to stay on. The biggest factor which might still stay his hand is the perception outside McLaren.

Dennis maintains that when he told the FIA that the Ferrari information had not been disseminated widely within his team, he was telling the truth as he then knew it. He will not want it to be said that he is being forced into moving as a result of having been proved to have misled the FIA, unwittingly or otherwise. A compromise is also being considered whereby he hands over the role to chief executive Martin Whitmarsh a few races into the season. Dennis by nature is not, however, a man who compromises.

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