As had been suggested, Ron Dennis has announced that he is to officially step down from his role of team principal at McLaren-Mercedes before the start of the 2009 Formula 1 campaign - passing on the mantle to the squad's current CEO Martin Whitmarsh.

Rumours first began to sweep the F1 paddock in 2007 that Dennis would soon relinquish his role, following a season marred by a tempestuous and ultimately destructive relationship with former double world champion Fernando Alonso, the infamous 'Spygate' saga that culminated in an unprecedented ?100 million fine and divorce from his wife of 22 years, Lisa.

The 61-year-old has held the most powerful position at the Woking-based outfit for almost three decades, since 1981, during which time his expertise has helped to lead the team to no fewer than ten drivers' crowns and seven constructors' titles.

Now, however, he has confirmed that he is to hand over the day-to-day running of the team to long-time 'number two' Whitmarsh as of 1 March, 28 days before the season curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, a race won last year by Dennis' young prot?g? Lewis Hamilton.

He had hinted at the time that he wanted to remain in charge at least until the Stevenage-born ace clinched the drivers' world championship, an achievement that the 24-year-old pulled off in only his second campaign in the top flight in 2008.

Dennis has previously insisted that retirement per se is not an option, but has expressed interest in focussing more time on other projects within the McLaren Group, of which he is chairman, CEO and 15 per cent owner.

"It's time for Martin to take over as team principal," he said at the launch of the new MP4-24 in Woking today. "This is a job he will embrace, and from now most race-day decisions will be his.

"This is the right time for this decision, but let me make one thing clear - this is very definitely not retirement. In fact it is the exact opposite. I intend to work even harder from now on, and it's because I intend to work even harder - on growing the McLaren Group - that I've decided to pass the role of team principal of McLaren-Mercedes to Martin.

"In any case, this announcement won't change a great deal because Martin and I already jointly take all the major decisions that affect this company. What today's decision means is that Martin will now become solely responsible for the performance of McLaren-Mercedes and will be entrusted to ensure the team remains a competitive force in Formula 1 motor racing.

"As for myself, I still intend to go to some, but not all, grands prix, because I remain a die-hard enthusiast. Motor racing is in my blood - and nothing will dilute my passion for either the sport or the success of this company.

"I will continue to expand and develop my role as McLaren Group chairman, and the first thing I must do is raise my own game, because everybody realises this is a tough period in which to work. We are a very diverse organisation and we have a number of other projects ongoing, including the development of our road car, and that is going to be a real challenge.

"I will still be full executive chairman, but it's time, and it's absolutely 100 per cent my decision. It's what I want to do."

Just over ten years Dennis' junior, Whitmarsh has worked for McLaren since he started out there as head of operations 20 years ago. He too was keen to insist that he had played no part in his soon-to-be predecessor's decision, and agreed that the time was right for change.

"It doesn't feel like a bombshell to me," he stated. "Ron has reached this point and I was keen for him to dictate a timeframe - but I certainly didn't push him. I've worked with Ron for 20 years and he and I have had many discussions about this over the past few weeks and months, but eventually it became clear that Ron's decision was final.

"Formula 1 is changing and evolving and so is this business. Everyone knows what an incredible career Ron has had to-date; his legacy is huge. As such, I remain hugely mindful of the responsibilities I assume as team principal - it's a daunting yet exciting prospect. Despite today's announcement, I hope we will still continue to work as closely together as before."

"Ron has contributed enormously to our partnership," added Mercedes-Benz Motorsport Vice-President Norbert Haug, "which starts its 15th season right now. On behalf of Mercedes-Benz I really want to say thank you to Ron for all his work and for all the success we've had, and hopefully will have, in the future.

"It is not about saying 'goodbye' to Ron today, though, because we fully support the decision which he has made so that he can concentrate on the leadership of the McLaren Group. At the same time, this announcement is great news for Martin - and certainly a very well-deserved promotion. Ron, Martin and I have been working together for 15 years in a very trustful and co-operative manner. This will not change in the future."

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