Ron Dennis on how the Hamilton-Alonso row compared to Senna and Prost

2009 F1 season

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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 SennaAlain 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.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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38 comments on “Ron Dennis on how the Hamilton-Alonso row compared to Senna and Prost”

  1. Terry Fabulous
    10th January 2009, 23:51

    Bravo Ron!
    The man (whom I don’t really like that much) should be lauded for striving to get the best two drivers in his cars at all times.

    This is the man who put Lauda next to Prost, Coulhard next to Hakkinen, Raikkonen next to Montoya. I would far rather this attitude then Michael and Co Driver (Yes YOU Jean Todt, I know you read F1Fanatic!)

    1. So why is he retaining Magnussen as opposed to Button if that’s the case?

  2. yes Terry.

    But guess who won 7 championships…

  3. Always nice to get these behind the scenes looks. Although he doesn’t realy say anything new though.

  4. he did win 7 titles, but his teammate with the best record is Nelson Piquet, and h was past his best when they were together!
    Senna, for example beat Prost in the SAME car!
    Schu always (IMH) had 2nd rate team mates!

    1. schu also had the second fastest car within the f1 teams.

  5. Who do you think the parting comment is about? Mansell? Montoya?

    1. It’s probably directed more at Montoya – I don’t think he fit with the McLaren ethos very well.

  6. possibly both

  7. Rod it could be Coulthard aswell, it just took McLaren a long time to realise he wasn’t up to the job.

  8. Well spoken by Mr.Dennis. You have to respect someone that has the courage to bring the best drivers together in the same team at the same time.
    It is a pity what happened with Alonso : I think a great part of the problem was that Fernando was badly influenced by his entourage (I am not very impressed by them )and the Spanish press, specially the shaved head guy that presents the races on TV.The Spanish press and TV where out there to stir trouble and create conflict, from the beginning, in the belief that they would get more readers and viewers to pay attention.It would infuriate me to see the bald TV guy trying to make Fernando say something nasty, and Fernando would fall for the trap! Please Fernando stay away fron those people for the rest of your career, the only thing they know about is old maid vicious gossip. There is a level of gentleman interaction between people that the tabloid press is not aware of.
    If it was only between Fernado and Ron, it might have been sorted out correctly. McLaren is a historical team and Alonso had the opportunity of being part of history – it is so unfortunate what happened.

  9. Rod, since Project 4 took over there haven’t been that many drivers.

    The 3 into 2 situation with Montoya could have been handled better, but it needed Kimi to declare his Ferrari option.

    Mansell was a strange one; parking a healthy car (as per Spain ’95) does nothing for reputations (Damon parked in Japan 99 and Marco Andretti parked 2 or 3 times in 2007) and I can only believe the opinion that Mercedes Benz and Marlboro were more keen to see Mansell in the car than Ron was – politics choosing drivers is not a good idea (cf. some of Helmut Marco’s Red Bull selections).

  10. I think its a shame that alonso didn’t stay on, as we saw between senna and prost it brought the very best of the two drivers, i would have loved to see hamilton and alonso really push each other over say three years, it would have been spectacular.

  11. i think Alonso would have been ’08 champ had he stayed at Macca!
    he makes less errors than Hamo and no1 else stepped up error free for the season in a top car!

    1. I agree. Fernando Alonso would have been without doubt in the running for last years championship had he stayed at McLaren, but by the end of 2007 the damage inflicted on the ‘relationship’ was just too great.
      Personally, I think the failure of the McLaren/Alonso relationship hurt McLaren far greater than most would realise. Had they not have been excluded from the 2007 constructors championship, they may well have won it, due to the performances overall of both Alonso and Hamilton.
      Now I am getting into choppy waters, as obviously McLaren had in their possession stolen Ferrari papers, but the drivers were doing the business on the circuit.
      For all of the posturing and accusations in 2007, Alonso came within a point of Kimi Raikkonen at the Brazilian Grands Prix, everybit as close as Hamilton did.
      At the beginning of the 2008 season, around the Bahrain race, Hamilton started to show signs of the pressure getting to him. The pressure of being the bookies tip to win the title, just as Alonso had been in 2007.
      I am going to be mighty interested to see how Hamilton reacts in 2009, as the defending champion, in Kimi’s shoes.
      It is often easy to criticise Ron Dennis. The episodes with Montoya and Alonso are just to recent examples. However, the way he runs McLaren is so radically different from the likes of Ferrari, inwhich he is not afraid to take serious risks in choosing high profile drivers.
      I can remember the flak he took in 2002 for choosing Kimi Raikkonen as Hakkinen’s replacement, and how everybody thought that Raikkonen was too inexperienced for the role. They were wrong, Dennis was right.

  12. I don’t think the comment was aimed at DC. I tend to agree Montoya was probably the intended recipient of it, but who knows for sure?

  13. It wouldn’t surprise me if Michael Andretti in 1993 was another person to whom the comment applied, even Ron wasn’t thinking about him at the time he made that comment.

  14. “If you are as committed as McLaren is to equality”

    Equalty?, Lmao. Hamilton is the #1 driver and Heiki his helper. With ferrari there are 2 eaqual drivers, they get each a chance. With McLaren, where they say the are threathing them equal, they have 1 driver and 1 helper.

  15. Keith – McLaren & Ethos :-? :ROFL:

    I had immense respect for Ron and McLaren till 2005, Given the way the team wrapped up 2006 campaign in winter of 2005 on back of signing FA, tells a lot about the team in general and Ron in Particular. Imagine a front running team turns up for first race of season with incorrectly mapped engine (and then they force the driver to use it next race as well) I can understand a minardi not able to give driver a car for Free Practice, but only track time their driver could get was Qualifier onwards doesn’t tell great about Ethos of the team :)

    Ron comparing Prost-Senna and LH-Alonso is like comparing apples to oranges, in latter case given that one driver was his “Pet project” clearly is case of conflicting interests. I guess best response Ron Should have had above is No comments next question

    1. one driver was his “Pet project” clearly is case of conflicting interests

      Very much true, and thats why Hamilton had an easy 2007 season. Just copy the data and setup from Alonso and go with it.
      Sit back and relax on friday, let Alonso do the hard work.

    2. Remember Hamilton had never raced at quite a few of those tracks until 2007.

      As for using Alonso’s setup data, so what? It’s not illegal or anything. It’s rather flawed to say that Hamilton did a poor job because he used Alonso’s setups…and then beat him with them.

      I think this idea that he ‘nicked Alonso’s setups’ owes more to computer games than reality. In the real world setup decisions often come down to personal handling preference rather than the hunt for a ‘perfect setup’.

  16. Could it be that hekki is just not up to it as driver, what do you want ballast on hamilton’s car to let Hekki catch up !!!!!

  17. Hamilton is better than Heikki but when u say equalty u have to give both of them the same chances and not giving Hamilton every qualifying the better fuel strategy.
    Or u dont take that word in ur mouth :)

  18. I doubt it was aimed at Montoya, I thought he left in a hissy fit, not fired.

  19. i ve said before, we (the paying public) have missed out on seeing the best driver at his peak in the best car. hence the bitterness shown by alonso towards mclaren, he had it and it was taken away.

  20. Remember Hamilton had never raced at quite a few of those tracks until 2007.

    Hmmm media always relies on the fact that public memory is very short,but I clearly recollect, the British Press jumping up and down, on thousands of hours Young Hamilton had spent on state of the art McLaren Simulator even before stepping foot on track at Melbourne’07. And how that he was the most well prepared driver ever to join F1 grid.

    And not to mention how Grooming in house talent would be the way forward getting drivers with acquired habits doesn’t work well, how the likes of JPM and Kimi were not hard working when it came to adapting “McLaren” way etcetra etcetra…

    Keith – Its a pretty raw topic to make it to any forum now,

    Ron Dennis talking about a) Driver Equality and b) his people management capability to handle fragile egoed Fast racers will not be believed even by wooly eyed kitten :)

    1. ‘World champion didn’t like being beaten by new kid’ still makes more sense to me than ‘team hires multiple champion on eight figure salary then openly gives preference to junior team mate’.

  21. I don’t think it was as cut and dried as that Keith. No one expected Lewis to be as good as he was in 2007.
    Not Lewis himself, not Ron and certainly not Nando.

    I think Ron hired them both on the inital understanding that Nando was the champ, and that Lewis was the understudy. But when Lewis proved to be a match for Nando, then whose to say that Ron’s plans and ideas didn’t change? Why wouldn’t you want to have the kudos of the first ever rookie to win the WDC be your rookie? Goals change, dreams change, people change. Perhaps Ron didn’t end up finishing 2007 with the same plan he started with, is all I’m saying.

    Only the three of them will ever know what really went on in 2007, and I think the behaviour of all three during that season left a lot to be desired. But I do know one thing, a good manager is able to manage any and all types of temperaments. A good manager is able to adjudicate squabbles and disagreements fairly, and consistently. A good manager is able to balance the needs of the business with the wants of the staff.

    Since all of that didn’t happen, then I think we know who shoulders most of the blame for the disaster that was 2007. Nando had a 3 year contract with the team, and as the best driver on the grid should have been with the best team, and in all probability would have won the WDC in 2008 – indeed if not for the stupid pitlane closure in Montreal would have won it in 2007. It rankles many a fan that he had to go back to Renault driving inferior machinery for most of last season – despite the great drives he gave us in that car.

    I know this is all shoulda, coulda, woulda, but having been a McLaren fan since 1998 and a die-hard Alonso fan since 2005, 2007 really tested the strength of my allegiance to Macca and it has been damaged irreperably.

    1. I think Ron hired them both on the inital understanding that Nando was the champ, and that Lewis was the understudy. But when Lewis proved to be a match for Nando, then whose to say that Ron’s plans and ideas didn’t change? Why wouldn’t you want to have the kudos of the first ever rookie to win the WDC be your rookie? Goals change, dreams change, people change. Perhaps Ron didn’t end up finishing 2007 with the same plan he started with, is all I’m saying.

      I´m in much agreement with pink peril and i extract the same conclusion, the manager that didn´t know to manage the situation was the final responsible. All the rest for me seems a very cynic situation, nor the situation senna/prost doesn´t look very similar to me and the equality he predicates doesn´t seem to apply to the situations seen on his team every year, and i´m not looking to 2007 at all

  22. So funny to see people say that Hamilton “beat” Alonso. They finnished with the same number of points! And Hamilton was so obviously favored that it takes a fan not to see it. I’d mention the copied setups (no Keith, it is not forbiden, but it is part of a driver’s set of skills that LH did not possess and Alonso did – and had to share). I’d also mention Turkey, when Mclaren appealed against its own driver (Alonso) to favor the other (Hamilton). Or worse, China, when Ron actually said that “we (supposedly Hamilton and Mclaren) were racing Alonso, not Kimi”. But it is the lack of pace of Alonso’s car after Turkey (when, it must be said, the Spaniard threatened to sing to the FIA) that makes it clear that he was being scr****d by his team. Anyway, Mclaren bet on the wrong horse and lost. Punishment from the gods for being so disingenuous about equal treatment. They dropped the farse this year and won the championship.

  23. @Pink Peril – Well said there, Macca was my 2nd favorite team after Williams. but kind of unprofessionalism they showed in wrapping up 2006 campaign without even giving the KR and JPM enough chance to fight left me with bitter taste.

    The contrast of Dennis’s Body language on FA and LH’s victories in 2007 season trashed whatever sense of fairplay Mr Dennis claims.

    As I mentioned before he failed as a manager when he was not able to handle egos of both LH and FA, as such is certainly not Eligible to talk about Handling superstars and superdrivers 1st place

    Keith – The story is not about FA and LH, and what FA can handle and can’t.Its about Ron Dennis giving “I know all” talk about Prost/Senna vs FA/LH row

    1. is certainly not Eligible to talk about Handling superstars and superdrivers 1st place

      Really? The man who won championships with Lauda, Prost, Senna, Hakkinen and Hamilton is not entitled to share his thoughts on managing superstars? I beg to differ. Has any other team manager taken as many different drivers to world championships over a comparable period of time? Probably only Enzo Ferrari I would suspect. And his management style was never short of critics either.

  24. Let’s be honest, Ron Dennis has had more success than many of us can even dream of. Okay, maybe he didn’t handle 2007 as well as he should have or could have, but that doesn’t make him a bad manager.

  25. I have a feeling that the Alonso/Hamilton situation was largely caused by Ron thinking he was getting two different drivers to the ones he got. To be fair, this was largely because at the time of signing, neither driver had demonstrated the traits that would cause so much difficulty in 2007 (Alonso’s habit of cracking when a team-mate beats him, Hamilton’s quick adaptation to F1 and both their tendencies to speak first and think later when microphones are around). Added to the Ferrari/McLaren mess, which Ron couldn’t possibly have predicted prior to 2007 and contributed to the poisoning of the Alonso/Dennis-and-McLaren relationship, and you have a picture of a pairing where the biggest problem was the lack of a crystal ball. I don’t think any team principal would have made a particularly good job of managing that particular scenario.

    Senna/Prost was quite different. I thought Ron made a good job of that one, but that the drivers themselves could have helped him a bit by not trying to tear each other to bits at every opportunity. On that occasion, the information was there, so Ron could plan, but the problem was that the two drivers needed each other to do their best but couldn’t stand being teamed up after the first few months…

  26. Looks like discussions about Alonso vs Hamilton, Ferrari vs McLaren are much more calm and rational during the off season – maybe the Influence-PR types are off duty as well. Whatever the reason, i wish this kind of sober calm discussion could be maintained throughout the year.

  27. Really? The man who won championships with Lauda, Prost, Senna, Hakkinen and Hamilton is not entitled to share his thoughts on managing superstars?

    Probably yes he should share them, so others can understand – How Not to Handle Drivers. Well Of course there is Berger/Toast Combo, who can jump to grab throats of their drivers, they can share more insights of how management should handle drivers as well :)

  28. I’ve always admired Ron. Seldom do you find someone so passionate focused and determined who is constantly under so much unrelenting pressure. However, Coulthard seemed to indicate in an interview in 2008 that there may not have been equality between him and Hakkinen, so I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder.

    I think Ron should be honest enough to at least acknowledge that one sometimes prefers certain personalities and therefore this can be misunderstood. We are all human after all…

  29. “Perhaps Ron didn’t end up finishing 2007 with the same plan he started with, is all I’m saying.”

    Just like I’m sure that Ferrari didn’t end up finishing 2008 with the same plan they started with – In this sport it has always been the case that you have to pick a point in the second half of the season where you decide which of your drivers has the best chance of winning the title. During most of the second half of 2007 Hamilton was ahead of Alonso on points.

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