Pre-season test form suggested that the McLarens would be the pace-setters, and Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard duly obliged with the fastest qualifying times. Only Schumacher could keep them in sight as the world champion, Jacques Villeneuve, and his Williams partner Heinz-Harald Frentzen struggled and were separated by Johnny Herbert's Sauber-Petronas. Against all expected form, the narrower cars on their grooved tyres proved little slower than their 1997 counterparts. The new regulations had been expected to slow lap times by up to six seconds, but as proof of the fertility of the technical minds in Formula One, Hakkinen's pole position lap was less than seven tenths of a second slower than Villeneuve's last year.
That technical fertility was at the heart of the argument between McLaren and Ferrari which dominated the practice days, the Italian team taking umbrage at McLaren's braking system, which favours one side of the car over the other to enhance its cornering performance. Ferrari, and Tom Walkinshaw and John Barnard of Arrows, solicited support for protest throughout Friday, angrily decrying the system. But by Saturday evening what had seemed an inevitable challenge had subsided.
"The system has been operative on our car since the middle of last year," Dennis said. "The important thing to understand is that there is a very clear process laid down by the FIA to verify the legality of any element of design. It requires you to put in writing an explanation of any system and how it achieves a specific objective, and that is then carefully scrutinised by the technical delegate. When he is satisfied you get a sign-off. Our system was ultimately defined extremely accurately and we have in several instances had sign-off on the concept. As with anything else in a racing car it is not the sole key. It is the sum of the total that gives you the performance. It contributes, yes. Is it a panacea? No."
He shrugged off the threats, adding: "Any protest would have to be made in the normal way to the stewards who, I am sure, would call on their technical delegate. I can't see him having a different view to the one he has expressed in writing to us. It would be a pretty futile exercise.
"None of this has surprised us. It is clear that one team" - and his inference was Ferrari - "were the last out of the starting gate. Realisation has been followed by pure embarrassment, which has in turn been handled in an aggressive way. We know that up to four other teams are using a similar system."
Despite their speed it was an unsettling weekend for McLaren, who threw a photographer out of their garage on Friday when he was discovered taking spy shots of the cars. "I am never surprised by anything in Formula One," Dennis said. "I think that different teams have different styles. Some teams have no style. On interrogation the photographer admitted to being the brother-in-law of one of the leading team's aerodynamicist."
He cited other examples of industrial espionage and indicated that he intends to take the matter up with the FIA. "I think that, along with all grand prix teams, we are fiercely competitive. When any team have any sort of advantage you should make strenuous efforts to understand why. But in the past there has been a code of conduct. There are some teams now, specifically one, who do not seem to have any code of conduct. So we have to take a more aggressive stance on their sort of behaviour. I think the most appropriate thing is to discuss it with the governing body to help us achieve what we think is a fair and balanced mechanism to protect our intellectual property. I don't think this is a sport where you reach for the law book for litigation at every opportunity.
"I can assure any team who wish to challenge the validity of my statements, or feel sufficiently inclined to take any sort of steps to prove that what I have said is wrong, that they will be extremely embarrassed when we make material available."
McLaren's rivals were left with several things to ponder, both in the short-term and the longer term. Tyre performance would obviously be a crucial matter in the race, with McLaren's Bridgestones thought to be better suited to a single refuelling stop policy than the Goodyears on the Ferraris, Williamses and Saubers. But the prospect of a McLaren resurgence is already also exciting debate about the driver market for 1999. Schumacher is believed to have a performance clause in his Ferrari contract that allows him to escape before it expires at the end of 1999, and any fresh period of McLaren domination might entice him to consider renewing his once-strong links with Mercedes-Benz.
At the same time, rumours that Honda's intended return to Formula One might embrace an alliance with the British American Racing team who recently purchased Tyrrell, and for whom Reynard are designing a car for 1999, might prove sufficient incentive for Villeneuve to switch camps from Williams to link up with the team now owned by his manager, Craig Pollock.
On the track the new-look F1 machines may have proved their critics wrong by combining speed with the visual appeal of twitchy handling that taxes the drivers. But as usual the politics of the sport have eclipsed all else.Reuse content