I think it is fair to say that Ron Dennis is Old School Formula 1. That’s good for McLaren perhaps, because he aims to bring the team back to focus on what is important and to win. All teams have highs and lows, although McLaren has been remarkably solid in this respect. But don’t forget that in the mid 1990s McLaren had a similar slump when Ron was in charge, so Martin Whitmarsh’s primary failure was probably that he was not a shareholder… We’ll never know if Martin would have led the team out of the slump, as Ron did in 1998 and 1999.
But in some ways the return of the Old School may not be so good. Old School F1 people have histories, pains from old wounds, grudges and, to a lesser or greater extent, are less willing to look at new ideas. And new ideas is what keep the sport alive and fascinating. To be fair, Ron has been the source of many new ideas in F1 over the years and so we can hope that this will continue, but I’m not sure that the view that “if you can’t afford to be in Formula 1, don’t be in Formula 1. There’s lots of other categories you can go motor racing in” is the right one. A sport is only a sport if there are sufficient competitors. You need the challengers and to have them, you need them to be able to see a way forward. Light at the end of the tunnel. Grand Prix racing might have been spectacular on the 1930s when the only real competitors were the two Nazi-backed German automobile companies, but it sure as hell was not healthy… F1 was at its healthiest as far as I am concerned when a bunch of British garagistes were snapping at the heels of Ferrari and each season featured exciting innovations that fans could actually see.
Ron’s absolutely right that people in F1 will spend what they have to spend, and he may be sceptical about budget-capping, or at least the policing of it, but that does not mean he is a forensic accountant who knows how these things can be controlled.
What he does understand, I am sure, is that a team is damaged if it deemed to have cheated. And that is the key to cost-capping. This is no longer a competition of corner-cutting garagistes playing at being pirates. It is a big corporate game and the players have a lot more to lose. The empire builders have been replaced by the colonial administrators. And, as such, they cannot afford to run fast and loose with the rules. They have to do it by the book. Of course it depends who is reading the book and I have to admit that as much as I respect and like Ron I wonder if it is a great idea to have McLaren headed by someone who was a very bitter enemy of the man who now runs the FIA. We’ve seen that before (with a different enemy) and it ended badly for McLaren… You don’t mess with Tammany Hall, unless you can break them and start something better. You play along with what they want.
A Formula 1 cost cap may be pie in the sky, as Ron suggests, but it may not be. It depends on the rules drawn up. What is worth remembering is that F1 has a lot to gain if it can exhibit success based on efficiency. The Old School view may be that F1 should guzzle and dazzle, but newer heads see a wiser path being in pursuit of relevance and the bang you get for your buck. Every industry likes efficiency rather than wastefulness. It is only logical that F1 should as well. That is what impresses sponsors. McLaren knows this as in recent days it has announced a nice little earner it has signed with Heathrow Airport to use the teams technologies to run a more efficient airport. F1 will sell itself best, if it lean, green and widely seen.
The cause for change is weaker now that there is no FOTA, and unless there is change in the attitude of the Formula One group (yeah, right!) the only hope for change comes from the FIA, so the logical thing from a strategic point of view would be an alliance between the teams and the federation, to push the Formula One group into a corner and get it to share the money that the sport generates more sensibly.
Still, it is great to have Ron back and I truly hope that he will lead McLaren back to the front, just as I hope that Ferrari will do better, that Williams will make a comeback and that Enstone will pull itself up again. The problem in this game is that not all the dreams can come true. Some must win and some must lose. And I’d rather see the best winning rather than watching the richest taking home all the trophies.