Motor racing: Protests cannot dent McLarens' superiority

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It took Mika Hakkinen only three laps yesterday morning to underscore Ron Dennis's contention that the controversial brake bias system used on his McLaren cars is but a part of their present performance advantage.

Though they were forced to run without the system, following protests which had again thrown the sport into further confusion on Thursday night, Hakkinen and David Coulthard dominated the first session of free practice with an insouciant ease that left the rest trailing more than a second and a half behind.

Ferrari carried out their threat to protest about McLaren's brake system which allows their drivers to apply different retardational pressure to either rear wheel in corners, enhancing cornering efficiency and grip. The key issue is whether this contravenes regulations which proscribe four-wheel steering.

Jean Todt, Ferrari's sporting director, had expressed his concern over the system in Melbourne three weeks ago, during the Australian Grand Prix which McLaren dominated. With Tyrrell he lodged an official protest against McLaren as well as the Williams and Jordan teams which have similar systems. At the same time Arrows protested against McLaren and Williams, and Sauber and Minardi protested against Jordan.

Todt reiterated his misgivings yesterday: "We think the McLaren system has a four-wheel steering function. We want to clarify what is legal according to the technical regulations and what is not."

This is seen not so much as a protest primarily against McLaren, though there are already bad feelings between the team following Ron Dennis' thinly veiled attack on the Italian team in Australia, but against the world governing body FIA and the manner in which it determines the legality of ideas presented by individual teams.

Yesterday Dennis continued to defend his system, although it had been removed on the advice of the FIA pending a meeting between the teams and the FIA stewards later yesterday evening. "Throughout the winter we have been in constant dialogue with the FIA regarding our technical ideas, and we are confident that everything we have incorporated on our new car is fully legal.

"The protest is time-consuming and a bit annoying, but clearly Ferrari is not satisfied with the interpretation of the rules and there is a process by which they can challenge that process. I find it strange that they would want to do that, since we have complied with the system in question via endless communication.

"We will pursue the matter to the Court of Appeal if necessary. The rule book is two inches thick and we face fresh constraints every year. So if we find something within them that gives us an advantage, who on earth should anyone be surprised that we don't want to divulge any details on how it works to anybody else?

"Those teams who want to know will find out if they challenge the system, but I do not believe that the FIA thinks the Court of Appeal is the best system by which to establish the legality of a car. The system for that already exists, and we followed it to the letter."

Ferrari, for one, clearly do not share that view.

When practice resumed yesterday Coulthard and Hakkinen traded places but retained their comfortable supremacy.

It remains to be seen whether the McLarens were grandstanding in outright qualifying set-up to prove a point, but few doubt their superiority will continue in official qualifying today.