Motor Racing: McLaren set to play three-car trick in Formula One

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IF IT works for Milan, then it might work for McLaren. That seemed to be the message from Ron Dennis, the boss of the former world champion Formula One team, as he sat in a press conference at the Kyalami circuit here yesterday on the eve of the season's first grand prix, flanked by Ayrton Senna, Michael Andretti and Mika Hakkinen.

Three drivers into two McLarens won't go, as Dennis quickly admitted. But, just as Milan's Fabio Capello juggles a squad of 22 international players into 11 shirts every weekend, so Dennis intends to turn an embarrassment of rich men into an advantage. Making it clear that he expects all three drivers to race during the course of this year, he refused to be more precise, other than to speculate on the 'strong possibility' of running three cars at some races.

Although, in olden days, factory teams such as Ferrari and Maserati regularly ran three and four cars (and once, for a lunatic moment in the mid-1970s, BRM even tried six), the current world championship regulations specify teams of two drivers and machines - unless the entry falls below 26, which is the maximum number permitted to start a grand prix. Since the March team withdrew their entry last Monday, the number is now 26, and Dennis said that he expects it to be reduced further.

'We have a very strategic approach to this year's championship,' he observed, 'and it has led to a very unusual situation between Ayrton and the team.' He meant the arrangement whereby Senna, who decided only last weekend to compete in Sunday's South African Grand Prix, is driving on a race-to-race basis.

Senna had postponed his decision over the winter in the hope of landing a drive with the Williams- Renault team, a move adroitly blocked by the new Williams team leader, Alain Prost. Last week at Silverstone, driving the McLaren- Ford MP4/8 for the first time, Senna clearly saw a vast improvement over last year's car, and perhaps something that would give him a decent shot at Prost.

'This car looks like it can go really fast,' Senna said. 'But nobody knows for sure. We don't know about its reliability, or its consistency through a race distance. We don't know how it will perform on street circuits, or with light wing settings. It's all new. But I think it might be good.'

Nevertheless, he specifically refused an opportunity to deny his continuing interest in the Williams seat, which might become relevant should Fisa, the governing body, suspend Prost over what it considers to be intemperate remarks about its conduct of Formula One in a recent magazine interview. Prost's hearing comes up next Thursday, 18 March.

'If I gave you an honest answer, you wouldn't believe it,' Senna said. 'And it wouldn't really help in any way what we are trying to achieve. It wouldn't be in any way positive or constructive. So I prefer to keep to myself and say, 'Wait and see'.'

Sitting mutely through all this, doubtless reflecting that no one will be waiting and seeing more anxiously than they, were Andretti, the 30-year-old son of the former world champion Mario Andretti, and Hakkinen, the 24- year-old Finn who was wrested by Dennis from the Lotus team when it appeared that Senna would either go to Williams or take a year off.

Andretti, the 1991 IndyCar champion, almost certainly did not bargain for this kind of uncertainty when he made the big decision to leave the American racing scene and risk his reputation by having a crack at Formula One.

On the eve of his grand prix debut, he admitted that he was finding the transition difficult. 'It's been quite an adjustment. I haven't had the time I would have liked. We had some teething problems that kept my track time down.' He commented favourably on the team's 'thinking gearbox', the latest of the electronic gizmos which have recently come under fire from those who feel that Formula One cars are getting too complex and expensive.

Dennis admitted that the gearbox had been used in the last two grands prix of 1992, but would not be drawn on its precise nature. It is believed, however, to involve some sort of pre-selection facility, and possibly a programme enabling it to determine for itself the optimum moment for changing gear, taking into account engine speed and the various loadings on the car.

'It helps a lot,' Andretti said. 'With the G-forces we're pulling now, it's hard to take your fingers off the wheel to shift gear. Where Formula One is at today, you almost need these tools to help you drive the car at all.'

Andretti added that, in his view, Formula One cars need to be slowed down. 'It's taking away from the racing. It's all fast corners, there's no braking area any more, so you can't really pass anybody and you can't come up close behind anybody through the fast corners because you're depending on aerodynamics so much.'

Hakkinen, this weekend's odd man out at McLaren, sat politely by, looking as though he would very much like the chance to find out for himself.

Battle for Mansell's mantle, page 38