Ron Dennis was awarded a knighthood in the 2023 New Year’s Honours List, but his former team McLaren’s deafening silence was notable…
It is said that people pass away twice in this world. The first, of course, occurs when you depart physically. The second, most of us would dearly hope, comes some time later when somebody speaks your name for the very final time.
As far as Ron Dennis’s relationship with McLaren is concerned, it appears that second signpost came at once upon his ugly departure from the team in late 2016.
Ron Dennis to be knighted
Dennis’s knighthood, announced in the New Year’s Honours List on Friday night, comes seven years after he and McLaren parted ways in what was a highly regrettable, unbefitting end to one of the great F1 success stories.
From that moment Dennis has been out of sight, out of mind with little attempt made by McLaren, under the new regime led by Zak Brown, to honour – heaven forbid preserve – Ron’s legacy.
McLaren’s silence in the hours since Dennis’s knighthood was announced, making no acknowledgement of his honour on social media, was deafening. Disappointing, but not surprising.
How to mark a brand-new era in a team’s history without being disrespectful towards what came before?
It is a notoriously tricky balance – recall, for instance, how the great football manager Bill Shankly was cruelly marginalised by Liverpool and, unthinkably, soon found himself more welcome at local rivals Everton, following his resignation in 1984 – and one Brown has not always managed to strike successfully.
One of his very first acts as executive director in 2017, after all, was to drop the ‘MP4’ prefix from the team’s car names, which had been in place since 1981 when Dennis merged McLaren with his Project Four Racing F2 team.
Embracing the ‘MCL’ codename in its place was a small but significantly symbolic tweak, marking a clean break from the Dennis era.
As was McLaren’s move to incorporate bright, bold and vibrant colours – the papaya look seen today only ever appeared briefly in testing, in between major sponsorship deals, during Dennis’s tenure – in the car’s livery.
In between those changes and Dennis selling his remaining shares that summer, it would come as no great surprise if Brown took the time to change the locks at MTC in the dead of night, ensuring there was no way back in for the Ghost of McLaren past.
The difference compared to Dorilton, who still race as Williams almost as a mark of respect despite the family of Sir Frank having no direct involvement with the team since it was sold in 2020, is stark – a reminder that the pace of change need not be quite so brutal.
An F1 insider commented recently that Dennis, enveloped in his philanthropic activities these days, “doesn’t want to know about Formula 1 [or] about anything going on at McLaren.”
Compare and contrast the McLarens of 2016 and 2023 – not just today’s brighter, busier livery but the avalanche of sponsor logos, a reflection of Brown’s specialist subject – and it is not difficult to imagine Dennis no longer recognising the team he once constructed in his own image.
At times like this, it feels a shame that F1 does not have its own Hall of Fame-style initiative to pay permanent tribute to the impact of the sport’s most influential figures, with the legacies of inductees insulated from the schemes of successors keen to make their own mark.
F1’s governing body, the FIA, established its own Hall of Fame in 2017 but limited its intake to World Champions across grand prix, endurance racing and rallying and has not welcomed any new inductees at all since 2019.
Surely there is a place for figures of the stature of Dennis – not only among the most successful F1 team principals but also the man who gave John Barnard the licence to create the first all-carbon fibre chassis and later discovered Lewis Hamilton, arguably the most famous racing driver in history – to be properly recognised by the sport itself.
He was not perfect – and frankly proved to be a nuisance following his ill-advised return to the frontline in 2014, making a series of unhelpful interjections about Hamilton and, most notably, in the immediate aftermath of Fernando Alonso’s 2015 testing accident – but F1 cannot just allow people like Dennis to be so easily discarded and forgotten and their wisdom wasted.
The news of his knighthood comes after a 2023 season in which McLaren rose again, recovering from a slow start to the year to emerge as the most consistent challenger to the dominant Red Bull team.
With nine podium finishes – as well as a sprint win in Qatar – from mid-season, expectations are growing that McLaren will return to regular victory contention in 2024, having been restricted to just a single triumph over the last 12 years.
Yet no matter how much the team try to bury him and erase all traces of his fingerprints from the place, Dennis remains the most important individual in the modern history of McLaren.
This honour, after years in the wilderness, is a fitting footnote to his F1 career.
Arise, Sir Ron.
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