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Q & A with Martin Whitmarsh

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh called a press conference in China on Thursday to explain in detail the changes to the company's management structure, now that Ron Dennis has relinquished his duties from the Formula 1 team. AUTOSPORT was there to hear what he had to say.

Q. Is Ron Dennis's announcement related in anyway to the events of the Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix?

Martin Whitmarsh: Ron has said that it is his decision and it is not related to an F1 issue. He has decided that it is time to move to a new challenge, and that is what he has done.

Q. Did he not do that when he handed over the team principal role to you?

MW: The first phase of that was to relinquish his role as team principal, but he was still CEO and he was still my boss at that time. So it was a further step of what he announced in March.

Q. The room that Ron is in at the moment in Woking. Will he remain there, or will that be given to the new boss?

MW: I think the new boss is a non-executive chairman, and I haven't spoken to him yet about what his rooming requirements are. But we will find out in due course.

Q. So you can confirm this is totally unconnected to the upcoming World Motor Sport Council hearing?

MW: Well I can confirm what Ron has said, and Ron has said that this is a decision he has taken and it is not to do with F1. But he has decided to step away from F1 and concentrate on this new opportunity.

Q. McLaren has never clarified whether Ron spoke to Dave Ryan at any stage either before the first hearing in Australia or subsequently in Malaysia?

MW: What I will answer is that we are focused on a World Motor Sport Council hearing, and because of that it is inappropriate to say any more. We are corresponding with the FIA on all of those matters, and as you would imagine I cannot say anything about that at the moment. I think we are here to make the announcement I have just made, and address any questions that arise out of that.

We are here to go motor racing, and that is what we have got to focus on. What I cannot do is get into any speculation or debate about any of the events that have led us to be called to the WMSC on April 29.

Q. There is also a lot of speculation that Anthony Hamilton and to some extent Lewis were pressurising for change at the top of the F1 team, and wanted you to take over. Is that what happened?

MW: Again, I cannot comment on it. I think Lewis and Anthony, I have personally found them very supportive through what have been some difficult times. They have been with the team a long time and they are committed to being with the team for a long time in the future.

Q. So why can we not see Lewis today then?

MW: You are seeing Lewis during the course of this weekend. I didn't know you were scheduled to see him today.

Q. This is not a cosmetic change at McLaren then?

MW: It is a very substantial change. I think it is an evolution for McLaren. There are a number of shareholders, and they have all approved this change and we will see how substantial it is. I don't know Richard Lapthorne that well, I have met him a few times over the years. He is a well known figure in the city and I think he will be a very clear, strong task master and he, I am sure, will give me the benefit of his experience and his views on how we are doing and how we are not doing.

Q. Ron mentioned in his press release that Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone will not be too displeased with today's news. As the man now in charge, do you see your role as building a new relationship with the governing body?

MW: Well, I think anyone who has looked at the relationship between McLaren and the FIA over the last few years would have to conclude that it would be healthier for all of us to have a more positive, constructive relationship than perhaps we have had in the past.

Q. Do you think today's decision might have any influence on the outcome of the WMSC?

MW: I think you must answer that one for yourself. You can speculate on that as well as I could but it would be wrong to give you my view on it.

Q. Is Ron still a shareholder, either directly or indirectly?

MW: Yes, he is still a shareholder of the McLaren Group. But he will not have executive responsibility for any of the racing programmes.

Q. With all the things going on in the last few weeks, have any of the shareholders become nervous, or have you had to calm them down?

MW: I don't feel I have to calm them down. I have personally spoken to the shareholders and they have been incredibly supportive. We are very, very fortunate, and the changes that have been announced today have been approved by Dieter Zetsche, and I think the shareholders in the circumstances were very committed.

Q. How much are you going to miss Ron's input?

MW: To be honest, Ron is an immensely complex individual and I think nobody would doubt his passion for this sport and for this team, and there will be inevitably in any relationship, I will miss some things and won't miss other parts of it either. That is inevitable and I am sure he would say the same thing about me! We can both be sore bastards on occasions, and I think that is natural, but it is an opportunity now.
I have just spoken to the team and one of the things I am most proud about is that we had a challenging time in Malaysia, and the support I received from the team I am tremendously grateful (for). To not have Ron, to not have Davey there all of a sudden, historically core individuals in the team, and we have had to respond as a team very quickly. We dealt with it, and I would not have dealt with it without the tremendous depth that this team has got. I need, as anyone does in my situation, a lot of support from a lot of people. I will not pretend to be anyone who can do this job alone I need a good, loyal committed team who know what they are doing and fortunately I have that.

Ron at times has great wisdom and at other times we have different views, so that is inevitable.

Q. Do you feel the team has been weakened at a time you need experience the most?

Yes I think it has. Dave was... I think I said last week there are some of us who sometimes can be figureheads, Ron and me to a lesser extent, but the people who really made it happen sadly aren't us. And Dave in particular has passed my mind. Steve was a great administrator, so to have lost him... and Tyler was very experienced. So if I sat here and said we are not weakened at all by that it wouldn't be true. But we do have, like in all these situations, fresh heroes develop and arrive, and they have been waiting in the wings. We are starting to see that, the support I got last week was tremendous, and we are not out there looking to recruit externally. I think there is enough depth and capability in the team. We have got to be different anyway I think, we have got to learn, we haven't done everything right clearly in all sorts of different areas before and therefore I have got to try and do a better job, the team has got to try and do a better job, it's an opportunity for people to see if they can excel in these situations.

Q. Who do you report to now?

The board or Richard Lapthorne, who is the chairman. I will be CEO of the racing business and I am a board member of the group and I am the only executive director on that board now, and as such I report to the board or directly to the chairman.

Q. Is it fair to say that Ron won't play any further role in FOTA?

Yes it is fair. He won't be involved in FOTA at all.

Q. Will Ron be at a race this year, next year or any year?

Yes. I'm sure he will be, just as Mansour (Ojjeh) and others are there. But I think we had already gone one stage towards his lesser involvement and now he does have to stand back and I'm sure he will.

Q. Presumably you are not resigning now, maybe you could just give an explanation about this?

At the moment, as has been pointed out, this team has gone through some interesting and challenging times. I did offer my resignation after the weekend, that was graciously declined.

Q. To Ron?

I offered it to the shareholders, and that was declined. The reality is that in the future it will be the new chairman's decision, which is normal in any business. So if the view is that I am doing a reasonable job then hopefully I will keep it, and if I am not, I won't. And that's how it should be.

Q. Can you tell us what Lewis's view was when you told him?

I've known Lewis for a long time and he is incredibly supportive, and he had told me of that. There is also a mix of emotions, I think he had some sadness about it as well because he has a long-standing relationship with Ron so it's a mixture of things. And it is the same with all of us. We've got some sadness at the situation, but at the same time it's an opportunity for some of us to either step up to the plate and get the job done or fail. If we are honest about it, there has got to be a tinge of excitement in that as well.

Q. Because of the relationship, has he spoken to Ron this afternoon?

No. I told the team 20 minutes ago and I told the drivers just shortly before that, so he hasn't had the chance yet to speak to Ron. I'm sure he will at some stage, but whether it will be this afternoon I don't know.

Q. What does this mean for the team, for the case with the FIA and what does this mean for Lewis's future with McLaren?

Well for the team there is a fresh challenge ahead of us and that's for me and for all of us because there is clearly a change within the emphasis of the team, as I've said before, this isn't something which I can link to the situation with the FIA at the moment. And for Lewis, I think he has certainly expressed his support for this team consistently, and he has very kindly expressed his support for me. I think and I hope that I have a good relationship with Lewis and I think he is committed just as we are to restoring the good fortunes and competitiveness of this team in the future.

Q. But it is your hope, and McLaren's hope and presumably Ron Dennis's hope that by him stepping away from the Formula 1 side, and considering his past, adverse relationship with Max Mosley, that they will somehow be easier on you at the World Motor Sport Council?

Well again I think Ron has made his decision. He has made his decision that he feels it is the right time to step away and it is the right time to concentrate on the automotive business. I can't speculate on the motivation beyond that.

Q. Did you hear the radio instruction from the engineers to Lewis to let Trulli past, and if you did, then can you explain your wording to me (BBC) when you said that Trulli overtook Hamilton, which he would not ordinarily do?

Well yes I did, and the reality is he did overtake under a safety car. Which is... I looked, because it was drawn to my attention over the last few days I didn't see anything extraordinary in those comments, but as I've said earlier we've got a World Motor Sport Council hearing ahead of us and that's the time when we will discuss all of those issues.

Q. And you are happy that quote doesn't imply anything untoward?

It didn't to me anyway.

Q. It looks like Ron's decision is related to what's happened and his role in it... Is there any way in which you would consider reviewing your decision with Dave Ryan in light of what has now happened? It now looks like Ryan was doing Ron's bidding...

MW: Whilst I don't want to get into it, in fairness to Ron, Ron was not, to the best of my knowledge, involved in anything that happened in Australia or in the lead up to Malaysia. So therefore I don't believe there's a link.

Q. Could it be said that your first few weeks have been devilled by the fact that you weren't totally in charge, and now you are?

MW: I think it would be a convenient thing to say that, but it was bedevilled by a number of things, one of which is that I don't think I did a good enough job, and I think it would be too easy for me to excuse that on anything else. I think it's been a challenging few weeks. Not having a competitive enough car, and the problems that came out of Australia, have been a challenge. It would be inappropriate for me to blame that on any other circumstances.

Q. Has there been any contact from the FIA regarding Lewis not being available to the media, is that a possible breach of the regulations?

MW: There's not been a formal communication, if that's what you mean. Lewis will be available to the media and that was never in doubt. It's a question of the extent to which he will be available, and I think all we're asking is please understand that Lewis is here to go motor racing. He can't be available every day, all day. But he will be made available at times during this weekend.

Q. We don't expect him to be available all the time, but normally on a Thursday he would be...

MW: It's a balance isn't it? We want Lewis, who has also had a pretty tough time, to have a clear head and to be focused. We want Lewis to talk about going motor racing. We don't want Lewis to have to dodge or answer questions on issues that relate to the World Motor Sport Council because it would be prejudicial and it's inappropriate. He can't get drawn into those things. There is a balance, and we will try, with you guys, to find the right balance. There was never any intention that he would not speak to any media during the course of this weekend.

Q. It seems sad that the bond between Ron and Lewis isn't what it was, and that a relationship that saw Ron nurture Lewis's career has ended in a bad way like this.

MW: I haven't asked Lewis what his relationship is with Ron, but I don't think it's quite as you're characterising it. I told Lewis half an hour ago what was happening. I think he naturally has a certain amount of affection for Ron. We all do. I didn't detect any different human reactions other than what I would have expected from someone who has known Ron as long as Lewis has known Ron.

Q. Will the McLaren culture change now with you fully in charge?

MW: Almost certainly for the worse, I should say... I think one of the issues is that I've been involved with this team for 20 years. It's very easy from the outside to believe that I'm a clone of Ron Dennis. I don't think I am. Maybe I'd worry if I was. I have tremendous respect for many of the things that Ron has done and achieved. I hope we all do, if you actually stand back and look at what he's achieved over the last 40 years. They are truly fantastic things. But I think people... and some people in the room know me better than others... I have my own personality and work in my own way. I hope I am as committed to winning as Ron, and I try as hard as I can to do the best job I can.

But just as he's got weaknesses, so have I. Some of you know them, some of you will find them. But we'll try and work with you guys, you've got a job to do, we've got a job to do, we've got to go motor racing. I don't think I bear grudges as much as Ron does, which is probably just as well in the circumstances, and that's life, because you've got a job to do and I've got a job to do. I'm going to make mistakes. No one likes admitting to mistakes, but you have to do that, because if you don't do that you're kidding yourself, and you guys have got enough savvy to realise when I make a mistake. And you've got to accept it.

We're making decisions in a sometimes difficult environment and a time-pressed situation, and we don't always get it right. I hope that I'm reasonably approachable and I hope that I'm considered to be straightforward and try to do the best I can. But I'm not perfect, and everyone has realised that by now.

Q. There is a lot of sympathy in the paddock for Dave Ryan. Is his situation now under review?

MW: Dave's employment has been terminated now, so he has left the team. There's not many people who are sadder about that than myself. I know Davey very well. I know his family very well, and it was a very sad weekend and a very difficult decision for me. It is incredibly sad. As a racing team, I'd love to have Davey back. But we also have to demonstrate... I think part of this process is demonstrating to the FIA that we accept the seriousness of what has occurred, and we are working hard to change the culture of the business. There's a balance, unfortunately, and I don't know how we can show respect for that process and contemplate doing something with Davey at the moment. I consider myself, even though ultimately it was my decision, a friend of Davey, and I am very, very sad about it. He has left an enormous hole in this team. But the situation is that in the circumstances as they were analysed, I had no choice.

Q. Who was responsible for wanting Richard Lapthorne in that role at McLaren Automotive?

MW: Richard Lapthorne has been appointed by the shareholders, including Ron. He has been approved by Daimler, approved by Bahrain, and approved by Mansour (Ojjeh).

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