'Lewis Hamilton is a phenomenon'

Published : Feb 07, 2009 00:00 IST

Martin Whitmarsh, the new principal of the Formula One team, McLaren-Mercedes, talks about succeeding Ron Dennis and world champion Lewis Hamilton’s tilt at Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles. By Donald McRae.

Martin Whitmarsh, wearing a sober black suit against a gleaming white backdrop, looks ready to take on one of the most demanding jobs in British sport. As lean and angular in appearance as he is expansive and amiable in character, the new team principal of McLaren-Mercedes is responsible for supplying Lewis Hamilton with a car that must be fast and reliable enough to help him retain his Formula One world championship.

In the face of ferocious competition from Ferrari, still burning with disappointment after losing the 2008 title on the very last corner of the very last race, Whitmarsh rocks coolly in his chair in McLaren’s beautiful racing kingdom in Woking, Surrey. His serenity is underpinned by the knowledge that his role will begin officially on March 1, when Ron Dennis finally steps aside as team leader, and by the confidence he draws from the best driver in the world.

“Lewis Hamilton is a phenomenon,” Whitmarsh says. “I’ve had the pleasure of watching him more closely than anyone through his junior career and I’ve long known he is extraordinarily gifted. And anyone who has watched a little Formula One these last two seasons knows he’s capable of incredible things. So can he win again this year? Of course — if we do a good job behind him. Lewis has retained his focus and so the pressure is all on us.

“If Lewis had not won the championship last year I think it would have been tougher for us as a team, rather than him. I think this building would have been a very dark place for many of us over the winter. Don’t get me wrong. It would have been psychologically testing for Lewis if he hadn’t won. He would’ve had that inevitable thought: ‘Is this ever going to happen?’ But he’s at such an early stage of his career he would have recovered far more quickly than me or Ron.”

Whitmarsh, 50, smiles politely at the suggestion that, under Dennis, he has been a patient and stoical man. “I’ve had to be patient because I’ve been here a very long time. I joined the company in 1989 and my relationship with Ron has had its ups and downs. But Ron has also been extraordinarily generous to me. I don’t readily admit this to myself — let alone others. But Ron has shaped and formed me over the years. I also believe, immodestly, that I can turn his mind on to things like no one else.”

Whitmarsh tells a lovely story about his first few months at McLaren, which also illustrates the way his subtle influence has changed the company over the past 20 years. After he earned, in his words, “an unexceptional engineering degree” at what is now the University of Portsmouth in 1980, he made a dazzling rise up the ranks of British Aerospace to become a director while still in his twenties.

“I’ve been very lucky in my career,” he says in his understated way, “and there was a strong element of being in the right place at the right time. I then had a few calls from head-hunters and one was from McLaren. I only came out of an interest in the actual racing cars. And my instinct as soon as I met Ron was that we’d never be able to work together. I thought it would be impossible for him to delegate and so I declined to join McLaren.

“Ron, however, is a consummate salesman. He won’t let up until the deal is done. So I eventually took the job and at my first Grand Prix I was flabbergasted to see Ron holding the lollipop stick during pit stops. I said: ‘Ron, what are you doing?’ He said: ‘It’s an important job and if someone is going to make a mistake then it’s best the buck stops with me.’ I disagreed because, firstly, I didn’t feel it was the best position for him to get an overall view of the race. Secondly, and more symbolically, I thought it sent out the wrong message from him as team principal. So, after a few more races, he gave it up.”

Whitmarsh laughs when asked if Dennis needed much persuading. “We’d had a heated discussion not too long before that in which I’d said: ‘Ron, you can’t delegate. I don’t think I can stay.’ Ron promised me he could delegate and, ironically, the lollipop issue was the first test of that. I’d just appointed Dave Ryan, who is still our team manager, and I insisted Ron hand his lollipop over to Davey. Rather sheepishly Ron did so — and that’s the last we saw of him as a lollipop man.”

Whitmarsh is candid when asked how difficult it will be for Dennis outside the pit lane — despite the old bruiser suggesting he will now work “harder than ever” in McLaren’s various other businesses while remaining chairman of the overall group. “Amazingly difficult,” Whitmarsh says. “I’m the person who has been closest professionally to Ron in his whole career and so I know he’ll say it won’t be hard — but it will be incredibly difficult. If it wasn’t I’d be worried because that wouldn’t be the Ron Dennis I know. He’s always poured everything into winning the next race.”

The most recent McLaren world championship, won almost three months ago by Hamilton, meant the most to both Dennis and Whitmarsh. “We’ve been fortunate to have won a few but last season was special — partly because we came out of a horrendous 2007, but mainly because of our relationship with Lewis. I was at that dinner when, as a 10-year-old, he introduced himself to Ron. I don’t remember that incident myself but I soon became very aware of him.

“He always had this look in his eye and that bone-crunching handshake. He was obviously told that was the thing to do because he does it to this day. But it was quite surreal when he did it as a little boy. He’d be looking up at you while almost crushing your hand at the same time. You’d think: ‘Ow! This kid has a very painful handshake!’ That purposeful determination was always there with Lewis — but the strange thing is that he’s gentle and sensitive as well.

“He has a depth of humanity which also means there is a vulnerability to him. He is affected by things happening around him. Some great racing drivers have an absolutely cold focus on what it takes to win. They see life purely through a visor. Sometimes you wish Lewis was like that, but in a broader sense, and in the longer term, he can also deal with issues and problems in a more philosophical way. His perspective is much deeper than most racing drivers’.

“It’s interesting that my wife, Debbie, who has known him for years, always says: ‘Lewis, don’t change! Stay exactly as you are!’ Debbie is very passionate about Lewis and she actually found him his first flat in Woking when he began racing for us. But of course Lewis has changed, as we all do, because of the immense pressure and expectation.

“That’s why 2009 is going to be such an intriguing year for all of us — and perhaps Lewis most of all. He was a boy who, at the age of eight, started to dream of becoming world champion. He probably got out of bed every morning having dreamed that same dream.

“You shouldn’t underestimate the change that happens when you achieve a dream at a very young age. There have been fascinating studies of world-class athletes who dream of winning an Olympic title or a world championship and when they succeed they suddenly realise it’s not quite as fulfilling as they imagined. They ask themselves the question: ‘Where do I go from here?’ I think Lewis has already answered that question.”

Whitmarsh smiles contentedly, as if he already knows the answer to an even more loaded question. Can Hamilton, who has just turned 24, eventually match Michael Schumacher’s record seven world championships? “Oh yes, he clearly has the potential do that. He won’t talk about it because he’s too modest, and what Michael did is extraordinary. But with great champions you don’t want to match it — you want to beat it. The key thing about Lewis is that he’s still very young and he hasn’t reached the peak of his powers as a racing driver. That must be very worrying for his competitors.”

The reverse is obviously true for Whitmarsh. McLaren’s new supremo carries the look of a man intent on hunting down victory both this season and over the next few years as he and Hamilton quietly pursue one of the truly great sporting records. “Lewis will rightly tell you that the only current objective is to win again this year to show that he is a worthy champion. We’ll see what happens after that. But I think he can do whatever he wants because the immense pressure he was under last year has been released. We should be in for quite a journey.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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