Ron Dennis is not an easy person to get to know. Over the years I have been his friend and I have been his enemy. Back in the early 1990s we were quite close but then we fell out because he did not like the way I assessed the performance of his team. When McLaren returned to being successful the tensions between us eased. These things happen if you are an F1 journalist trying to tell the truth. You cannot please all the people all the time. And so relationships fluctuate. For me it has been a similar story with Max Mosley. When I support him, he likes it, when I attack him he does not – and he makes his feelings very clear, which is a good thing. Ron is the same. If he does not like something I write, he will come out and say it and we will discuss it.
Trying to find a balance between the two men in the last couple of years has been an experience. But nothing is ever as black and white as some would like it to be. There are many shades of grey.
As far as I am concerned Ron has been one of the most honest team principals I have encountered and this is why I have such trouble accepting things that have been claimed about him of late. In the late 1990s there was a graphic illustration of this. My friend and colleague Andrew Benson, now at the BBC but then at Autosport, had run a story saying that Damon Hill would leave Williams at the end of the season. It was in the summer and it was a very brave story to run. I had heard not one whisper and I rang Andrew to ask him if he was REALLY sure about the story. He said that he was absolutely certain that the story was true. One hundred percent. That got me thinking. Who would I trust 100% in F1 with a story of that magnitude? The following day I rang Andrew back and said: “I know your source”. He was very surprised. “How can you?” he said. And so I explained that there was only one man in F1 who I would trust that much and that was Ron. Andrew was shocked. Ron had been the source. Adrian Newey, who was on the verge of leaving Williams, had told Ron that Damon was not going to stay. Ron had decided that it would be good to get that out into the open and had told Andrew. Yes, his aim had been to destabilise Williams, but that was just gamesmanship.
So when Ron says something to me – and I listen very carefully to exactly what he says (which is important) – I believe it. Some people in F1 lie all the time and do not care when you go back to them later and say “But you lied…” They shrug and say that it was necessary at the time. Ron never wants t have to face such remarks. I believe that trust is the most important thing that exists in any relationship and I am distrustful of many in F1 because they lie as they need to. One of the things I have always tried to do is to build up relationships in which I convince people to tell the truth and then we negotiate about what should or should not be written. In that way, a journalist gets a much better rate of success and teams have to deal with far fewer stories based on media guesswork.
So what happened in Melbourne? Well, I am sure that McLaren did what they thought was right to protect Lewis’s position, given what was known about previous events, such as Belgium last year. The team is paranoid about the way it is treated by the FIA. Is it right to be that way? Who knows? Given what has happened to McLaren in the past it is clear that there is a certain wariness. The FIA says that it is always fair with McLaren, but there are times when things just don’t seem right. I have mentioned the Renault spying case at the end of 2007 as an example. I have mentioned Toyota’s recent rear wing illegality in Australia. The impression that these stories create is that some teams are not equal to others. I am not saying that this is the truth. It is just the impression one gets.
If Ron Dennis has to leave F1 to protect his beloved McLaren, I know that he will do it. He will do anything for McLaren. There are some who say that for Ron McLaren comes first and F1 comes second and that this is what has led him into trouble with the FIA.
Show me a team owner who is not the same way. They all argue from their own corner, just as Max Mosley used to do when he was the F1 boss of March.
Ron can be amazingly irritating. If there is an opportunity to say the wrong thing, then he will take it. But his heart is in the right place and we should not forget that.