With immediate effect, Gérard Lopez has replaced Eric Boullier as Team Principal of Lotus, a statement from the team confirmed today. This comes amid rumours that Boullier is headed to McLaren to replace Martin Whitmarsh.
In the Lotus statement, Lopez confirmed that there are quite wide-ranging changes taking place at the team. This could perhaps partly explain the strange decision to not attend the first test at Jerez next week. Lopez said:
“Lotus F1 Team has never stood still and we head into what promises to be an exciting 2014 season with an innovative new car, new partners and a new management structure at Enstone.
“Great things have been achieved over the past years and we need to continue this momentum. With this in mind, we are proud to announce that we have concluded an agreement with YotaPhone and its shareholders. YotaPhone shareholders will become important partners to Genii and YotaPhone a sponsor to the Lotus F1 team this year.”
Considering the relative success that Lotus has had over the last few seasons, Lopez’s comments about Eric Boullier seem rather muted: “We thank Eric for all his hard work over the past four years and we are confident we can continue to fight as one of the top teams in Formula 1 over the seasons ahead.”
The new Lotus, the E22, will be unveiled ahead of the second pre-season test, which begins in Bahrain on 19 February.
McLaren announced yesterday that Ron Dennis will return to the role of McLaren Group CEO with immediate effect. This is in addition to his role as Chairman of the board of McLaren Group. As CEO, Dennis replaces Martin Whitmarsh, who held the position in addition to his role as team principal of the McLaren Formula One team. No announcement has been made regarding Whitmarsh’s post at the head of the racing outfit.
Ron Dennis has an enormously successful history with McLaren. He was team principal of the Formula One team from 1982 to 2009, presiding over 10 of the team’s 12 World Drivers’ Championships and 7 of 8 World Constructors’ Championships. Dennis was team principal when a formidable list of drivers won world championships: Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton all triumphed under the guidance of Ron Dennis.
But Dennis’s success has not come only on the track. He is largely responsible for McLaren being the large, successful company it is today. The companies in the McLaren Group include McLaren Mercedes, the Formula One team; McLaren Automotive, which manufactures McLaren’s high-performance road cars; McLaren Applied Technologies, which “develops groundbreaking solutions across sport, medicine, biomechanics and entertainment by applying McLaren ‘know-how'” (according to the McLaren website); McLaren GT3 Racing, which is responsible for the company’s sports car programme using the McLaren MP4-12C GT3; and Absolute Taste, which provides catering and hospitality services to, amongst other clients, the Formula One team and its guests as it travels around the world.
Dennis was Group CEO from 1982 to 2012, the incredible period of growth that transformed McLaren from a racing team to the powerhouse described above. After handing over the Formula One team to Martin Whitmarsh at the end of 2009, Dennis continued in the role of Group CEO until the end of 2012 before Whitmarsh was also handed that role. Dennis became Group Chairman but relinquished executive responsibility for the Group.
After just one year with Whitmarsh at the helm, Dennis is back. That must at least partly be the result of the Formula One team’s poor performance in the 2013 F1 season. For the first time since 1980, neither McLaren driver stood on the podium all season. Jenson Button and Sergio Perez finished 9th and 11th respectively in the Drivers’ Championship, and McLaren finished fifth in the Constructors’ Championship, the team’s worst result since 2004.
It’s clear that Dennis intends to make changes at McLaren, and quickly. He said after his appointment yesterday:
“My fellow shareholders have mandated me to write an exciting new chapter in the story of McLaren, beginning by improving our on-track and off-track performance. Over the coming weeks I intend to undertake a thorough and objective review of each of our businesses with the intention of optimising every aspect of our existing operations, whilst identifying new areas of growth that capitalise on our technologies, and where appropriate further investing in them.
“During February, I will articulate a new Group strategy and implement the organisational structure best suited to achieving it. I am excited by the prospect of returning to the role of Group Chief Executive Officer and working with my many colleagues and fellow shareholders to fulfil our objective – which is to win at whatever we do.”
There are at least two major announcements still to be made before the Formula One season gets underway. Firstly, the team has yet to name a title sponsor after Vodafone terminated their McLaren partnership at the end of 2013. And secondly, the position of McLaren Mercedes team principal has yet to be confirmed for this season – after the disaster that was 2013, Martin Whitmarsh may well fear for his job.
For the past six seasons, the Vodafone name and logo have appeared on the side of McLaren’s Formula One cars and in the team’s name – Vodafone McLaren Mercedes. But from the end of 2013, that will no longer be the case; Vodafone is pulling the plug on its Formula One sponsorship.
The move comes as part of Vodafone’s plan to “transform its local and global sponsorship strategy”. In short, Vodafone has enjoyed a successful partnership with McLaren, but now it is time to move on. This was confirmed by a statement from Vodafone Group Chief Commercial Officer Morten Lundal:
“We have been very happy with our engagement with McLaren. Our relationship has been a key ingredient in bringing the Vodafone brand to where it is today. However, our brand is evolving, and we’ve concluded we will have less of a need for this kind of exposure in future. We now look forward to further success and brand engagement with McLaren in 2013.”
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said, “We’re immensely proud that, having been set a number of ambitious challenges by Vodafone back in 2007, together we’ve met or exceeded each and every one… Our focus is on continuing to drive results for all our partners throughout the 2013 season and we look forward to making a major title partnership announcement towards the end of the year.”
Significantly for McLaren, it also comes shortly after the signing of Mexican driver Sergio Perez, who has been supported through his career by billionaire Carlos Slim’s Mexican telecommunications company, Telmex. Perez’s former team, Sauber, continues to display Telmex sponsorship on their 2013 car, and Sauber has a Mexican driver in the form of Esteban Gutierrez for this season. But McLaren, as a higher profile and more competitive team, would provide better return on investment for Telmex, making a switch all the more possible.
McLaren seem to be in the middle of re-aligning their commercial and sporting partnerships. The exit of Vodafone is now confirmed, but what is not yet firmly established is the possibility of a change of engine supplier from Mercedes to Honda. Rumours have surfaced recently that Honda is considering a return to Formula One with the new turbo engine formula that comes into effect in 2014.
While McLaren and Mercedes have enjoyed an extremely successful partnership over the last two decades, Mercedes are now focusing on their own works team, and McLaren will not want to be second on their engine supplier’s priority list. If Honda does make a return to F1, McLaren could easily secure their full commitment. For Formula One fans, the return of the McLaren-Honda combination would be significant and quite emotional – all three of Ayrton Senna’s World Championships came in McLaren cars powered by Honda engines.
For the moment, however, McLaren have a much more immediate priority – the 2013 Formula One season. The first practice session for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix is now a matter of hours away. McLaren will want to start the season with a strong result on Sunday to get their championship campaign underway. It’s been five years since McLaren last won a World Championship, and the team will be anxious not to let it slip away again this season. For Vodafone, as this is their final year of involvement in F1, success for McLaren in 2013 would be the perfect result on which to bow out of the sport.