Dennis ready for life after his divorce

David Treymane discovers McLaren in positive mood at the end of the Marlboro era
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The split between McLaren and Marlboro is motorsport's equivalent of the Royal divorce, except that the harmony of the relationship made it the most successful in history. The break is as much an indication of the McLaren managing director Ron Dennis's refusal to devalue his team as it is an endorsement of the adage that the Englishman fights best with his back against the wall.

The two parties have been arguing about money for months, and in Hungary recently Dennis conceded that since they were not in agreement, "we must be in disagreement". The dearth of victories since 1993 prompted Marlboro to offer Dennis 50 per cent of his usual stipend for 1997, with more available only on a performance basis. It was Marlboro who massaged Dennis's marriage to McLaren in 1980, but this was too much for a proud man to bear.

The decision by Dennis to turn down Marlboro in favour of West, the German cigarette brand, is the end of an era. Philip Morris brought Marlboro into Formula One with the now-defunct BRM team in 1972, having dabbled with sponsorship of the Swiss driver Jo Siffert, and switched to McLaren for 1974, the season Emerson Fittipaldi won them the World Championship. Drivers' titles followed for James Hunt (1976), Niki Lauda (1984), Alain Prost (1985, 86 and 89) and Ayrton Senna (1988, 90 and 91), together with constructors' championships in 1974, 84, 85, 88, 89, 90 and 91. No fewer than 96 of McLaren's 104 grand prix victories were achieved in Marlboro livery.

Yet as long ago as 1992 insiders at Marlboro indicated that if it came to a choice between Ferrari and McLaren, Ferrari would be their choice. The Italian marque has a charisma McLaren's roadcar and land-speed record projects have been unable to match, even if the desire to emulate Enzo Ferrari did earn Dennis the sobriquet "Ronzo". Nor has McLaren's recent track record come near matching its better years, let alone that 1988 season in which only a misunderstanding between Senna and a backmarker at Monza denied the red and white Woking steamroller a clean sweep of the 16 races.

Dennis has refused to speak of anything so banal as the "colourisation" of his cars next season, but there have been suggestions of a silver livery, reflecting West's Lights brand and pleasing Mercedes, whose reputation was founded on the successes of the legendary "Silver Arrows". Now it seems there may be just a red colour scheme, adorned with West's gold mannequin.

There is a possibility of Damon Hill rejoining his former Williams partner David Coulthard at McLaren in 1997, and though in Belgium Mercedes's motorsport manager, Norbert Haug, reiterated that Mercedes would not increase its investment to facilitate such a move, Hill's managers are due today to announce developments at Williams that have been described as "not great news" by those close to him. This suggests that Williams have indeed opted to replace him with the German driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Insiders at McLaren, however, suggest that Dennis's opinion of Hill's ability is likely to preclude him from joining them.