Motor-racing: Dennis ready to menace

David Tremayne says the once-mighty McLarens are fighting back to pole position
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The Independent Online
THERE are many who believe that McLaren's striking new car will sweep either Mika Hakkinen or David Coulthard to the world championship this year, but anyone expecting confident predictions that the future was orange - the new colour scheme - when the car was launched at the clinically clean Woking headquarters was being hopelessly optimistic. Everyone was looking equally strained.

It was a curious mirror to the manner in which things on the Formula One front have quietened down since the sport's political machinations hit the headlines last November thanks to Bernie Ecclestone's million- pound donation to New Labour.

Now Formula One is spooling up again as all the teams prepare to meet for serious testing in Barcelona this week. McLaren's startlingly attractive MP4/13 was the last of the new generation cars to come under the spotlight, after changes to the regulations had sent everybody scuttling back to the drawing boards to build narrower cars which can cope with the grooved, dry-weather tyres being demanded for the first time in 27 years.

McLaren's chief Ron Dennis is not deluding himself that the loss of Renault Sport or a change of colour scheme - from Rothmans blue and white to Winfield red and white - will do for Williams what a haircut did for Samson. Nor does he anticipate that Ferrari's initial troubles with their new car will keep a humbled Michael Schumacher down for very long. But the fact that the McLaren-Mercedes of Hakkinen and Coulthard showed the potential to win the final five races of 1997 (and actually won two of them) has elevated the team to at least similar status in the calculations of likely form, and McLaren have the added potential advantage of switching from Goodyear tyres, which Williams and Ferrari will continue to use, to Bridgestones which showed great promise last season.

There was a time when McLaren were automatically considered the pre-season favourites, even in the days when their new cars ran for the first time only days before the first race. Back in 1984 Alain Prost and Niki Lauda mopped up 12 of the 16 races; four years later Prost and Ayrton Senna lost only one of the 16, after the Brazilian clobbered a backmarker at an inopportune moment. But it's been a hard grind since Senna left at the end of 1993, and on the tough road back Dennis has seen more false horizons than a shipwrecked sailor.

While Hakkinen was guardedly optimistic at the launch, Coulthard said: "I feel confident of winning races again, but the question is whether I can win the title. The important thing is to gather points on a regular basis." Dennis was also downbeat and realistic. He spoke of 12,000 hours of wind-tunnel testing, and said: "I am very proud that the car passed its mandatory crash test at the first attempt, because we now have the most stringent set of structural requirements ever to be required for a racing car."

He was also clearly uncomfortable with being tagged pre-season favourites. "I think it's flattering, but it's not flattery that is actually going to do much as regards lightening our step. We have our feet absolutely on the ground. It's understandable that people look at the mixture we have put together. We don't now have young, immature drivers. We have youthful, experienced drivers, who know what it takes to win. They are in their prime. Couple that with the competence of the technical team, led by Adrian Newey, and of course the performance of the engine, which has been ever improving, and you've got to come to the conclusion that we will be competitive. But the worst thing we can do, though there's not an awful lot we can do to stop it, is to climb willingly on to some hypothetical pedestal. Even if you deserve to be there, inevitably you will be torn down.

"We've been there, we know what it feels like. It feels great when you are at the top, but the process of coming down is extremely painful. So we are intent on keeping our feet firmly on the ground, irrespective of our performance. We have no interest in trying to predict our competitiveness, other than to say that it is difficult to know how we could have tried harder."

Frank Williams remembers the pain of falling from grace, and thus remains as determined as ever to stay on top. Fiat have decreed that Ferrari's failure must cease. Benetton's new boss David Richards has triumphed in world rallying, and the team has known the exhilaration of ultimate success. And with the former champion Damon Hill spearheading his aspirations, that hungry entrepreneur Eddie Jordan is desperate to claw his way higher up the greasy pole. McLaren may well be exhibiting a deliberately downbeat air now, but if they fulfil their latent promise a vintage year might just be in prospect.