McLaren boss Ron Dennis gave the annual Watkins lecture at Autosport International yesterday. He was interviewed at length by veteran commentator Murray Walker for around an hour.
One of the most interesting moments came when he discussed how he managed the rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in 2007, and how it compared to the the infamous Ayrton Senna–Alain Prost battle of 1988-1989. Here’s what he had to say.
Every single driver that has driven for McLaren – including the most controversial drivers – I have striven and pretty much succeeded in all cases that they have become my friends. I think that when you spend so much time with these people and you ask so much of each other if you don’t have friendship you don’t have the base.
Now, what balances off friendship is of course the competitiveness that these individuals have. So that’s constantly in conflict. So how do you be come a really good friend and handle the inevitable ‘I want the best, I want this, look after me, favour me’? That’s difficult.
So, coming back to your question, they have all become friends. Even the drivers who left under a cloud, those clouds tend to disappear over a period of time and friendship is re-kindled.
Asked “If Fernando [Alonso] comes walking down the corridor now you’re going to say, ‘hello Fernando, nice to see you again’?” Dennis replied:
Yes I would.
You understand why people do things and where they’re from and it’s important. Would I be able to eliminate in my mind the negativity that he caused to everyone, no, of course not. But I mean that’s… you’ve got to be the bigger person.
Latetr Walker asked him: “You had two particularly difficult driver relationships: Senna and Prost, and Hamilton and Alonso. You had four brilliant drivers on your hands, any of them could have won races, but how did you cope with their competitiveness?”
Dennis’s answer gave insight into how he tries to operate a system of equality at McLaren:
It’s obviously not easy. You’re dealing with extremely competitive individuals, very different personalities and, on both those occasions, very different cultural backgrounds. And, actually, very different educational backgrounds. The make-up of those particular men was very different.
With Ayrton he totaly lived for Formula 1 and its values. He did share, however, one thing with Alain in that they were both absolute heroes in their countries. They wre the pinnacle not only of their particular sport but also in their countries at that particular time they were the most prominent sporting personalities. They had phenomenal amounts written about them and very clearly, as was the case with Fernando and Lewis, what was written about them varied significantly in their respective countries. So they get built up, they get lots written about them, they get a lot of people talking to them and then they have to find, in their own mind, reasons for not succeeding.
It’s very important for a Grand Prix driver that they understand and, hopefully, believe in themself. And to understand themself they have to totally believe themself. Which means that it’s extremely difficult for them to come to terms with something not being the car or the team’s fault. So when they fail, as they inevitably will because it’s the nature of the sport, all drivers tend to look for some reason for that failure.
If you are as committed as McLaren is to equality you demonstrate equality on a constant basis. For example with Alain he was always very concerned that Ayrton would be favoured by Honda as regards to the engine. So the race engines would be lined up, engine numbers would be written on pieces of paper, put in a hat and they would draw for their engine choice. It was simplistic but the easiest way to ensure that there was no bias on engines.
Once you eliminate these things you end up with human problems. The human problems ultimately come down to “he did this” – just like school kids – “he did that, teacher, I did that, teacher.” And then you have to arbitrate.
And in the end I am tough and the harder you push on me the tougher I get. I make it abundantly clear how it’s going to be and if a driver – and it has happened, not between those four drivers – comes to a point where he can’t accept it then there is no place for him at McLaren.
ITV’s write-up of the lecture contains more of what Dennis had to say.