Coulthard breaks the grid lock

Dennis rejoins the pacesetters as his unshakeable faith during three years in the wilderness earns reward
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The Independent Online
When Ayrton Senna left McLaren at the end of 1993, bequeathing the Australian Grand Prix as a parting gift, there were tears in the pit road as one of the sport's greatest eras and most remarkable relationships came to an end.

Last Sunday there were more tears at McLaren. But this time they were tears of joy, and relief, after David Coulthard had put in a flawless performance to win the same event in Melbourne, ending the team's 50-race drought. What's more, Mika Hakkinen backed him with a solid third place, giving McLaren sufficient points to establish a useful lead in the Constructors' Championship for the first time since 1991. It was a tribute to perseverance.

Time was when a McLaren grand prix victory had the inevitability of dawn following dusk. In 1988 Senna and Alain Prost won 15 of the 16 world championship rounds in the red and white cars from Woking; and the one they didn't win was going their way until a backmarker, Jean-Louis Schlesser, tripped up Senna in one of Monza's silly chicanes.

But since Adelaide 1993, it has been a long, fruitless haul for Ron Dennis and his team, and they have been obliged to come to terms with a humbling decline in status. Few falls from power have been quite so embarrassing, or so enduring. No matter what McLaren did in the intervening years, none of the keys fitted the lock.

The relationship with Peugeot in 1994 was uncomfortable, and an unfortunate misunderstanding with Chrysler left a bad taste as the American company withdrew from Formula One in considerable dudgeon. In 1995 the new relationship with Mercedes-Benz, a company not unused to success in F1 after brilliant campaigns in 1914, the 1930s and again in 1954 and '55, got off to a sticky start when, having signed Nigel Mansell to partner Mika Hakkinen, there was the embarrassment of discovering that the chassis was too cramped for the former champion, who then departed from active service after only two races. Fast test times proved a false dawn last season, and then Dennis split with Marlboro, the sponsor of 23 seasons. What made matters worse was not just the dominance of Williams, but the rise of the upstart Benetton, and the victories from Ferrari which kept the Italians ahead of McLaren in the all-time victory stakes, just when it had seemed inevitable that the British team would overtake.

The sceptics, irritated by Dennis's apparent arrogance even in defeat, said that losing Honda in 1992, and then Senna to Williams for 1994, had exposed McLaren for what they had always been - a team as competent as any other, who had been rendered great by the most powerful engines and the best driver.

Besides being an emotional reward for the effort which McLaren have continuously invested despite their tribulations, Coulthard's win was vindication of Dennis's unwavering faith in his technical department, particularly in the beleaguered chief designer Neil Oatley, who, rightly or wrongly, has come in for considerable criticism these past three seasons.

Dennis has always stressed the team element of McLaren, and to his credit has never raked coals publicly. "This year's car," he said upon its unveiling in a "sneak preview" at the factory preceding the all-miming, Mercedes- earning performance by the Spice Girls at Alexandra Palace recently, "is really conceived by the same group as last year, who have tried harder, made a bigger personal effort. What's particularly pleasing for me is the level of team spirit within a very wide range of engineers who, in one way or another, are constantly criticised from the outside. The problem is when your design team is criticised, there is an inevitability that people can waste time trying to apportion blame."

He also said he hoped the car would perform as well as it looked, and in Melbourne the most handsome car in the pit lane did precisely that. In that disappointing 1993 season, when McLaren won "only" five races courtesy of Senna, Dennis said: "The first thing I feel upon waking the day after we have failed to win a Grand Prix, is pain." The past three seasons have surely been agony.

Immediately after Sunday's race Dennis could barely conceal his emotion and felt unable to express his personal feelings, preferring to wait until the elation had sunk in and a Monday morning had come and gone without pain. But nobody at McLaren is kidding themselves that Williams- Renault is anything but top dog still, despite its misfortunes in Melbourne. This 105th victory is precisely the stimulus that the team needed, however, and came not a moment too soon for the increasingly impatient bean counters at Mercedes-Benz.

If the gods are kind, another will fall to Hakkinen, the imperturbable Finn who survived his near-fatal accident in Adelaide two years ago and has soldiered on without a word of public criticism of McLaren's inability to capitalise on his talent. Not long before Melbourne he said with the wistfulness of a child awaiting a Christmas that never comes: "It will mean a lot to me to become the man who scores the comeback victory."

It says a lot for the team spirit within McLaren that Hakkinen was the first to congratulate Coulthard on achieving that goal. That is something else that's changed since the days of Senna and Prost.