Exclusive interview with John Watson
20 January 2014 – Following the announcement of Ron Dennis' return as CEO of the McLaren Group, GPUpdate.net conversed with one of his former employees, five-time Grand Prix winner John Watson, to discuss how the Woking-based outfit will be affected moving forward and the future of current Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh...
What is your general reaction to Ron's return and is it a move that needed to be made?
I think surprise. Partly because of the circumstance that Ron has been in within the McLaren Group – there have been some questions regarding his future and position. Ultimately, with the consequences of losing the title in 2012, which they had the chance to do with Lewis [Hamilton], losing Lewis to Mercedes and a bad 2013 where they didn't get a podium let alone win a race, I think that his argument would have been sufficiently compelling to persuade the board that he was the person that should regain control of the company and try to reset its future.
Bearing in mind, the company is going into partnership with Honda in 2015 and the success of the team has been in effect based on its success. If you think back to the 80s, the 90s and the 21st century, McLaren has been a winning machine in all three decades. 2013 was the worst season they have had since 1980.
Was this the tipping point in your eyes?
I think that it's part of all that has taken place. But what I know is that McLaren has enjoyed enormous success, and largely under Ron's leadership. That has enabled them to secure very strong commercial partners over a very long period. When you see what happened in 2013, on the one hand not winning a race or getting a podium, the first thing that happens is that the amount of television time that you are given reduces. That then has an indirect bearing on how you can negotiate future sponsorship. Vodafone has not continued and it's yet to be announced who the replacement is.
When you negotiate with a new partner, you negotiate in part on the reputation of the company, the personnel, the stature of the company, its record. But at the end of the day, if you can't turn around and say you got zillions of television hours... it's a situation that McLaren is not accustomed to being in. And I think that all of these situations may well have strengthened Ron's argument that he is the right person to bring the company back to the pre-eminence that it has always enjoyed, which is principally winning Grands Prix and World Championships.
The reaction amongst most McLaren fans has been positive. The feeling is that he can right the wrongs of 2013 and drive the team towards the kind of success it has enjoyed in previous years...
As Ron once said, 'there's no such thing as bad luck'. Bad luck is bad design, bad manufacturing, bad engineering, bad driving and bad management. It's a tangible value. And if you look at McLaren in 2013, Ron would never say that they were unlucky. They didn't succeed because they didn't do a good enough job.
The reason he has come back in is to change that ethos, drive the team forward at every level to return it to its winning ways. So that's winning as a driver, winning as a team and winning both World Championships.
How have you viewed Martin's management style?
Martin's got a much more, I would say, relaxed management style. On the one hand you have Ron and on the other hand you have Martin, and I think there have been differences. But the men are different men. It doesn't mean that one is better than the other – it means that they have different approaches to the same issues.
I think that 2012 was a significant point in the career of the company. Unreliability in part led to Lewis not winning the World Championship, when he could have won it. And in part that also was a contribution to Lewis leaving the team. So not winning the championship you could say directly led Lewis to leaving the team. From my perspective, I would rather have Lewis on the inside pissing out than on the outside pissing in.
Do you believe that Dennis and Whitmarsh can continue under one roof moving forward? There have been some well-documented tensions over the past few years...
There have been. There was a point two or three years ago, when Ron made a conscious move to oust Martin. That was faced down by the board and Ron was beaten on that. Now he has won that corporate board room battle, does he see Martin as the de facto Team Principal and ask, 'do I want to change him?'
The difference is that Martin is no longer going to be the team boss as well as the Team Principal. Christian Horner is the Team Principal at Red Bull, but he is not the boss. So there is a situation whereby Martin could continue as Team Principal, but he will no longer have the full autonomy of the team, as he has done.
Can you see Whitmarsh remaining as Team Principal?
It's an interesting position because I think it's an issue that the team should look at and weigh up unemotionally. Martin's got a huge amount of experience and ability, and to just dismiss that in a boardroom shuffle might be seen to be being cavalier. And as I said with Lewis, I would certainly rather have Martin on the inside pissing out than the outside pissing in. Whether Martin might feel that is up to Martin. But when you've got someone of that intelligence, experience and ability, you sit down as adults and either say look, 'here's a new package, we want you to be a part of this package,' or you say, 'there's no place for you.' But that's for the boardroom, and believe me this is a game of poker that you would like to win.
Ross Brawn has already been linked to the Team Principal role. Is this a realistic outcome?
I don't see the synergy. First of all, Ross has got obligations to Mercedes. To my knowledge, he can't step out of one thing and into another. So that would be an obstacle. But just historically, there was no love, at all, between the Team Principals of McLaren and Ferrari, all the way through from 1996 to the end of Michael's time at Ferrari in 2006. You couldn't have had two more 'at odds' competitors than those two. It was pretty unpleasant at times.
I would be surprised. People see the connection of Honda with Ross. But Ross, in my opinion, would only want to be in a position where he was fully autonomous. If he didn't have that autonomy, then why would he want to go into a position where he doesn't? I personally don't see it but you never know, you never know...
Looking at the 2014 campaign, can you see McLaren returning to the front of the grid?
It's completely and utterly essential that they do. They've lost a number of very good people, technically and in other areas. They need to find their way. Part of that is recruiting people. Who's available? Who would be prepared to move? Ultimately, what kind of team is going to come out of this change at McLaren?
Everybody knows that McLaren run a very specific style of management and operation. For some people, they don't want to work in that type of context. But, on the other hand, there are lots of very talented people in other teams who are actively looking for work. And an opportunity to work at McLaren would be a fantastic opportunity.