by Graham Keilloh  |    |   0  |  30 November -0001

McLaren's unfinished business

Finally the white smoke emitted from the chimney. Well, not quite. But the prevarication had been much commented on.

The matter being McLaren and its drivers for next season, which at last has been confirmed. As is often so with F1 ‘announcements’, even a highly momentous one such as this, that Fernando Alonso is Woking-bound was well known for weeks. But the other part, that Jenson Button is to be retained in the other race seat at the expense of Kevin Magnussen, was until hours before it became official a genuine surprise. Magnussen instead has to be content with being kept in cold storage as a reserve and tester, at least for a season.

On the latter part it was clear what the bulk of the fans and media, at least in English-speaking circles, preferred. Again for the weeks in advance many media figures expressed exasperation that Button looked like being ditched while various website polls and social media gauges had the Englishman winning hands-down in the consideration.

For all that the apparent delay in confirming was framed by many as mere indecision on McLaren’s part, it wasn’t nearly as simple as that. Team boss Ron Dennis admitted as much at the announcement, though even therein there was likely a little spin in his claims that it was down to the possibility of three-car teams and not wanting to destabilise the squad in the year’s latter part. Instead it probably more reflected that Dennis’s position in the team was a moving target as his attempts to attract sponsors and investment to fund his buying of a controlling stake continue (word was that Dennis, and racing director Eric Boullier, preferred Magnussen but other senior figures in the team backed Button). The grapevine has him been given a month’s extension in this task.

But still, the lack of decision was good news for Button, relatively at least. As mid-season rumour was that he was out of McLaren definitely, even if Alonso didn’t arrive. Even by the year’s end when it became clear that with Alonso indeed on his way in and that one race drive remained – and with Button apparently driving as well as ever, certainly well ahead of Magnussen – the assumption remained that Button was the one out. Both Jenson and Kevin at this point screamed in their demeanours of knowing their fates – Jenson reflective and demob happy; Kevin having the assurance of one who knew he was staying where he was.

Dennis however commented on the day of the driver confirmation that it was a conversation after the Abu Dhabi race that convinced him finally that Jenson had the hunger to remain and to, as he put it, ‘kick Fernando’s butt’. 

Even ignoring all of this though the Button-Magnussen decision wasn’t close to being the no brainer that plenty were suggesting. Indeed it was a classic here-and-now versus future potential conundrum. The one that stumps those in all walks of life and not just F1. For this reason I had more sympathy for the Woking team than many did. Both drivers could make a compelling case for being retained; whoever they chose would result in regret for the one that missed out. No wonder Dennis described his decision as ‘painful’. I’m glad it wasn’t my decision.

Ordinarily too it is the future potential that is preferred, but in McLaren’s case again it wasn’t that simple. In the peculiar situation Button offered many benefits: experience of Honda, links to Japan including a Japanese other half, greater ability to develop a brand new power unit, greater marketability etc etc. There’s also the fact that he trounced his young team mate on points this year, with the gap especially stark in the late races, and even pipped him in the qualifying match-up. 

And in the here and now if you were to hand pick someone to drive alongside one such as Alonso then Jenson likely is the one you’d pick. I recall one team principal talking of there being two types of racing driver – those that like to win and those that have to win, and that the ideal is to have one of each rather than two of either. And Button probably remains the best out there among the ‘like to win’ category. Furthermore, such is his personality there will be no boat-rocking on the inevitable days that he is beaten. He won’t be far off his haughty stable mate over the piece and will rack up a gluttonous load of points into the bargain. Just as he did alongside Lewis Hamilton at McLaren for three seasons.

The oft-repeated fact that Jenson out-scored Lewis over that time while true has a little bit of the lies, damned lies and statistics about it, given it owed a lot of Lewis’s annus horribilis in 2011 as well as his wretched luck in 2012. But still that Jenson was close enough to take advantage (and he never was far away, as mentioned) reflects well on him. No wonder Ferrari tested the temperature of the water in 2011 on the possibility of him partnering Nando at the Scuderia. 

But still Magnussen in 2014 had much of the rough diamond about him. There was clearly a lot for him to learn, particularly in managing the tyres as well as keeping on the right side of the stewards, but there was raw pace on show plenty of times and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that with polishing there is a very good F1 driver in there. Certainly there was enough on show in his debut season for him not to be given up on.

But while all have put a brave face on matters it cannot be denied that this is a clear demotion for Kevin. Perhaps even a snub. The vast majority of top level sports careers exist on fast forward; F1 careers as much as most. Even an extended glittering one will be over within the space of time many of us spend in education before we’ve so much as got our first proper job. But even with this Magnussen’s journey has been astonishingly breakneck. Back in March in Melbourne he had firm next-big-thing status. But before long doubts started to swirl. By the second half of the season some spoke of him as a busted flush. Now, but nine months on from his Albert Park star is born moment, he’s out. 

And while I’ve seen more than one draw a parallel between what the Dane faces in 2015 with Alonso having a year as a tester in 2002, a crucial difference between then and now is that then there was unlimited testing. Indeed back in the early-to-mid noughties a full-time testing role in a top team was in fact preferred to many race drives further down the grid. Certainly it was preferred to a junior formula seat. In addition to the Spaniard Vettel, Massa and Kubica all exploited this path. No one would choose it now. The role is big on simulators (which aren’t quite the same), straight line tests, PR work and otherwise thumb-twiddling. I recall having a conversation with one ‘third’ driver, and one at a very competitive team, and he barely could conceal his sheer frustration that he simply had very little to do. In times past too McLaren might have been able to parachute Kevin into a friendly team further down the grid on loan. But now with only nine teams operating and pay drivers prevalent there was nowhere for Kevin to go. 

His subsequent tweet with a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger (‘I’ll be back’ the inference), stating ‘Never Give Up On The Dream’, was ostensibly defiant but came with a hint of sadness too.

And despite the emolliating of those such as Dennis getting back in might not be easy. Winning an F1 race seat is difficult at the best of times; doing it as one previously discarded is even more so. Perhaps too come next year it will be harder still, as with another McLaren protégée Stoffel Vandoorne getting another crack at GP2, and looking well-placed to be champion, McLaren might find itself with a three into one doesn’t go situation. That’s without even considering the other candidates from elsewhere that might emerge.

But while it’s rare there have been examples, even recent ones, of a ditched driver working their way back in. Romain Grosjean springs to mind most readily. This hope is what Kevin must cling to.

But with the surprise in the driver announcement attention was rather taken away from what ordinarily would have been rather a seismic event. Something that only a Dodo flying past the McLaren Technology Centre would for most of the seven years between times have elicited more surprise than. Yes, even after their notorious 2007 year together Fernando Alonso and McLaren – and more to the point Fernando Alonso and Ron Dennis – are back as an item.

At the announcement Fernando spoke of unfinished business at Woking: ‘It was not the best feeling in 2007.’ he said. ‘But in all the years since, inside I only had one thing remaining in Formula 1 to do. I was happy with everything I have done apart from 2007. I didn't achieve or deliver the best of myself. Now I arrive to finish the job that I started in 2007. This was the first and the main priority to come back.’

And it shouldn’t be a shock. For all that Alonso talked to the good talk while at Ferrari (and I’m not suggesting for a moment that it was disingenuous) back in his formative days it was not Maranello but McLaren that he dreamt of. As an illustration apparently after winning kart races he would step out and ask his awaiting Dad in part-jest ‘Has Ron Dennis called yet?’ Perhaps his repeated reminders on Twitter lately to ‘remember why you started’ were trying to tell us something too. A picture posted on the eve of the confirmation, of one of his first karts painted in McLaren’s Marlboro colours, wasn’t entirely subtle.

Of course there will be those rubbing hands at this, assuming that it will all implode like it did last time. The two combustible personalities will spark each other off, almost inevitably. And after all, were not Dennis and Alonso similarly beaming eight years ago when they hooked up then?

But one sense emerging from Woking at the same time, particularly from Dennis, was that the narrative that has been prevalent of McLaren, Alonso, 2007 and all that might be at the very least simplistic.

For this I’m glad, as I’ve always been slightly suspicious of the common thread presented of that season. The one of goodies and baddies seemed a bit too straightforward for me. Reality rarely is so one-way – as Oscar Wilde noted ‘the truth is rarely pure and never simple’. And even now we’ve never really heard Alonso’s side of things, not beyond vague references anyway, and as we are often reminded there are two sides to every story. 

‘By and large those challenges that you have between drivers…we’ve always managed to be able to diffuse. But this one got away from me’ Dennis said on the same subject, ‘and I look back on my contribution to that with exactly the same emotion that Fernando expressed, which is you regret the mistakes you make in your life and sometimes you can’t change what’s happened.

‘So could I have engineered a way out of it? I could probably have done things better…’

Intriguingly too Dennis added: "If you go on the 'who struck the first blow' route, actually I would say that Lewis (Hamilton, Alonso’s then team-mate) had his role to play in starting this process which escalated."

You could of course say Dennis would say that, given of the three Lewis is the only one not now in McLaren’s employ. But still, stating that it was a situation that all involved didn’t cover themselves in glory, and could have handled better, just somehow felt a bit more plausible to me. We probably even now don’t have a full sense of what went on in Woking that year, but I felt that last Thursday we got slightly closer.

Perhaps too it’s all not such a Damascene conversion, as even within the raucous latter part of 2007 there were some signs of a thawing in the Dennis-Alonso cold war. We all know Dennis’s quote from around about then of Alonso that ‘competitive animals know no limits’. According to James Allen – one of the few in the room when this was said – contrary to common assumption Dennis’s tone in saying it was one of admiration rather than disgust. Reportedly too Alonso while on the way out of the McLaren exit door turned and expressed regret that things had not worked out much better, and that he’d not handled things differently.

‘We share this obsession with winning’ said Dennis at the announcement. ‘Fernando never gives up and I never give up.’ It gives rise to the possibility that last time rather than being too disparate, Dennis and Alonso were in fact too similar.

And Dennis noted that if nothing else time is a great healer: ‘In Formula 1 seven weeks is a lifetime – seven years is a huge amount of time’ he said. Alonso too took a similar line: ‘Now, some years later, you are more mature, you learn things, you understand things you didn't know at 25 years old.’

Dennis went on defiantly too: ‘I know the media will be looking for any kind of fracture in any part of the team's relationship, and especially Fernando and I. But I can tell you you'll be wasting your time. It isn't an issue.’

Perhaps those predicting doom are right? That it’ll all implode again, with the resultant rubble providing a permanent memorial to the folly of all involved. But at Woking last week things somehow felt a bit different this time.

Moreover now possibly for the first time since 2012 there is an unmistakable sense of a McLaren team with a pulse. And on paper the pieces, all of whom are proven quantities, look formidable: McLaren, Honda, Dennis, Boullier, Alonso, Button, Peter Prodromou. There might even be a title sponsor, perhaps Movistar, about to be confirmed too if rumours are to be believed. Now all must begin the task of assembling the pieces successfully, though in F1 it usually is a task easier said than done. It also tends not to be the work of a moment. We remain very much at the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.

In truth too, come Melbourne next March even if things go swimmingly the outfit is unlikely to look entirely like Mercedes. But for Dennis and the rest the reality might be more encouraging. As it appears to have given itself its best chance in a while of, finally, beginning to look like McLaren.

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