McLaren: Policy at a price?
AUGUST 1, 2012
Did you see Michael Phelps make his record-breaking swim in the Olympics? Having helped the USA win the 4 x 200 Freestyle Relay, Phelps posed for photographs by playfully biting the edge of his gold medal. A team effort it may have been but there was no question that this was his personal reward. No one was going to remove that medal from around his neck any more than they could erase his name from the history books. If he swam for Team McLaren, however, Phelps would eventually have to give the gong to the equivalent of the Head Coach.
That's an unfair exaggeration, but the mischievous thought occurred as I reflected on Lewis Hamilton's continuing negotiation with McLaren. Both sides have been saying for some time that they intend to work together for a seventh season and beyond; it is simply a matter of sorting out the detail.
It appears that discussion now covers who gets to keep the trophies. Anyone who has driven for McLaren will tell you Ron Dennis felt passionately about this; it is expressly written into each contract that the team retains all trophies.
For proof, just look at the hugely impressive glass and chrome edifice - the word 'cabinet' is as inadequate as saying the Olympics takes place in a 'sports ground' - running as far as the eye can see in the McLaren Technology Centre and containing rewards for more than 475 podium finishes.
Drivers, if they wished, could take home a replica. For most, an exact copy was perfectly adequate. But Lewis wants to keep the original; a point he makes with some passion and conviction.
"In a lot of other teams, the drivers get their original trophies," says Hamilton. "As a racing driver, what you work for and what you want to take home are two things; one is your crash helmet and the other is your trophy. For me, they are priceless. I don't care if they don't give me a car [to keep], but those two things are what you put your blood and sweat into, and the team keep those at the moment. So whatever contract I'm having next, that is going to be a push point."
It's perhaps just as well that Ron Dennis is no longer the Team Principal dealing with this 'push point'. The former team boss felt the opposite view just as strongly; a point graphically illustrated during an unforgettable scene at the end of the 1989 Italian Grand Prix.
Alain Prost was coming to the conclusion of his six years with McLaren, the atmosphere poisoned by Prost's belief that Honda were not exactly being even-handed when supplying engines to each side of the McLaren garage. His suspicion became an obsession when Ayrton Senna was two seconds faster in the other McLaren during qualifying at Monza, Prost having laid grounds for his paranoia by telling the team he was going to Ferrari in 1990.
But the absolute irony was to come in the race when Senna's leading McLaren was forced out by a massive engine failure with less than nine laps to go, thereby handing victory to Prost. You've never seen a more miserable winner on the podium, Senna's dominant performance (while it lasted) having multiplied Prost's mistrust.
The Italian crowd didn't care about that and greeted Prost as if he had been driving for Ferrari today rather than tomorrow. As the moment took hold, the mob began chanting "Copa! Copa!" as a way of asking Prost to give them the cup. Fat chance!
But then, unbelievably, Prost leaned over the rail and dropped the trophy into eager hands waiting below. Dennis, having received the winning team's cup, could not believe what he was seeing. Outraged beyond words, Dennis threw the constructor's trophy at Prost's feet. It was an extraordinary scene in what amounted to the public airing of a private dispute over the family silverware.
Discussing the moment many years later in Malcolm Folley's excellent book 'Senna versus Prost', Prost explained that it had not been done out of spite. "When you have won a race you are not angry," said Prost. "I could hear the crowd chanting 'Copa, copa, copa' and it feels like part of my new team. Imagine, I am a Ferrari driver at Monza with all the crowd in front of me. So I threw the cup to them - not on purpose to get at Ron, not because I was angry. I tell you, that is not true." Be that as it may, Dennis's reaction underlined team policy more explicitly than any words in a contract.
I can't claim to have many trophies but I do cherish the one received as a class-winning co-driver on Rally GB. It doesn't look much, but it's mine. And it is the real thing. More power to Lewis, I say. If that's what makes him happy, then McLaren should quietly keep a replica. Who's going to notice the difference when it's parked among 475 originals?
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.