Motor racing: McLaren spark a red alert

As Formula One season lines up on the grid, Williams' rivals are revving up harder than ever
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"I NEVER take anything for granted," Frank Williams said at the start of the 1997 season after his cars had won 12 races and the drivers' and constructors' world championships. "It's always possible that we may not win a race this year."

Of course Williams' team did win last season. His cars won eight races and Jacques Villeneuve succeeded Damon Hill as world champion. Williams is not suggesting that he won't be winning this year - in fact he and his technical director Patrick Head seem quietly very confident - but outsiders believe that the 1998 Formula One season, which starts in Melbourne next weekend, will see them face their toughest challenge for many years. For some it is a matter not so much of when McLaren take over, but just how soon they will redefine the status quo.

Ron Dennis knows well the position in which Frank Williams finds himself, the target atop the pedestal. After all, McLaren were the dominant marque of the late Eighties and early Nineties before Williams regained the momentum lost by the defection of engine supplier Honda to McLaren. Then Williams regained his impetus with a new deal with Renault which swept his racers back to the top.

Now times are changing again. Honda are long gone, and as Williams faces his first season without frontline engine support, following Regie Renault's decision to quit, so McLaren's sometimes difficult relationship with Mercedes-Benz goes from strength to strength in its fourth year. Many fancy that either Mika Hakkinen or David Coulthard will don the drivers' crown in a McLaren.

The world champion is having none of it. "We have had some good testing sessions so I am pretty confident with the new car," Villeneuve said. "Melbourne is a great track and somehow it suits me, because the first year I was on pole there and last year I had a big lead over the opposition in qualifying. I'm confident I'm going to be in there fighting to win another world championship."

His partner Heinz-Harald Frentzen is equally buoyant, after a tough first term with the team. "I've done my learning season with Williams and I've got my second chance," he said. "I know my chances, and I'm going for it." Head shares their enthusiasm. "I'm pretty sure that we will have a competitive car," he said. "We're happy with our performances in testing, and we'll find out how things will really work out next week. We've put a great deal of effort into the new car and are happy with it."

Those who believe that Williams might lose some of their magic this year point to three factors besides the growing threat posed by McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton. Even before 1997 ended there were two key points: the loss of Renault, and the defection of their chief designer Adrian Newey to McLaren. Renault's engine builder, Mecachrome, will supply both Williams and Benetton with "customer" engines this season, while Williams' long-term new deal with BMW develops. Major support from a manufacturer is deemed essential to keep up with the pace of development in F1, but last week Williams dismissed any concerns in his inimitably pragmatic manner.

"I'm not worried at all about it. We are paying Mecachrome a global fee which assumes development. Time will tell how much we are going to see. The amount of development in the contract is non-specific. The truth of the matter is that there clearly will not be the financial resources as I see it to develop the engine as fast as last year, which wasn't particularly fast. We've all seen the pace of development which Ilmor is capable of for Mercedes-Benz. But that said I believe we are starting out with a winning engine."

The departure to Prost- Peugeot of Renault's engine expert Bernard Dudot, the father of their championship-winning V10 engine, is not a cause for worry, either. "I'll tell you why. Bernard did a great job, no question, but there are a lot of young people there at Renault, as there are here at Williams. When Adrian moved on there were a load of them desperate to beat him, to prove they are better than he was. It's the nature of life."

The horsepower race won't be the only uncertainty. The biggest factor of all may well be tyres, for both McLaren and Benetton have managed to get themselves out of contracts with Goodyear after they suddenly announced their intention to quit F1 at the end of this season, and align with Bridgestone whose rubber impressed at times last year. Testing times so far this year suggest that it might be time for passengers on the good ship Goodyear to lower the lifeboats, though again Williams' poker face betrays little of the concerns he may be feeling. "It's just too early to say," he countered. "I know Goodyear have got to respond pretty quickly."

Within hours of arriving for their first test in Barcelona McLaren began setting the pace, chased by Benetton. But while Ferrari have stayed in Italy, avoiding face-to-face confrontation, Williams is confident that his cars were quick when they tested earlier in Spain. During recent tests in the south of France, Williams and McLaren were evenly matched.

Rivals on the track, Williams and McLaren were united in their steadfast opposition to the new-for-'97 Concorde Agreement, the document by which Formula One is ruled. Together with Ken Tyrrell, Williams and Dennis refused to sign because of their concern over the long-term plans of the powerbrokers Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone of the FIA, and the manner in which they planned to divide the spoils of war among the teams. The three dissidents held out throughout the 1997 season, but Williams now believes that a fresh Concorde Agreement will be signed by all parties shortly.

"I really think there is a good chance that it will all be settled before we go racing this year," he said. "I know we said that last year, but I really believe that this year. Everyone is keen to sign and it needs to be signed. It's not perfect but it is pretty good. All that's holding it up are a few dots and crosses. We intend to sign it before we go to Melbourne."

Williams and Dennis draw quiet satisfaction from revisions along lines they proposed. Asked just how significantly the new agreement has addressed his complaints, Williams said: "It goes a long way." When the gloves come off in Melbourne at the weekend, both can concentrate fully on the racing. "I think we'll be all right," Williams said. By which understatement this quiet spoken racer means that his cars will still be at the sharp end.

Wannabes of Formula One: Four perceived threats to Williams by David Tremayne


Drivers: Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine

Engines: Ferrari V10

Tyres: Goodyear

Wins in 1997: 5

1997: 2nd

A HUMBLED Schumacher began the season by announcing that Ferrari "must win the World Championship". Signs since of a Maranello backtrack following the remarkable pace of Bridgestone-shod McLarens and Benettons. New Ferrari F300 is product of the technical director Ross Brawn and the chief designer Rory Byrne, both formerly with Schumacher at Benetton. Troubled early testing prompted Ferrari to shun face-to-face confrontation in Barcelona and concentrate on running at the home tracks Fiorano and Mugello. Schumacher likely to be serious championship threat but, like Villeneuve, must avoid focusing too much on their rivalry in case Hakkinen and Coulthard outfox them both.


Drivers: Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard

Engines: Mercedes-Benz V10

Tyres: Bridgestone

Wins in 1997: 3

1997: 4th

AFTER winning in Melbourne last year courtesy of Coulthard, McLaren-Mercedes were in contention for victory at the last five races of 1997. Hakkinen and Coulthard added one apiece from them and underlined how much progress the Woking team made. The engine builder Ilmor continuously updated their V10, now reckoned to be the most powerful in the formula. Their team boss Ron Dennis rightly described his drivers recently as experienced grand prix winners hungry for more. Both have set testing pace in Barcelona despite late arrival of car created by team led by the former Williams chief designer Adrian Newey. MP4/13 breaks new ground aerodynamically. Bridgestone tyres expected to pose a big threat.


Drivers: Giancarlo Fisichella, Alexander Wurz

Engines: Mecachrome Renault V10

Tyres: Bridgestone

Wins in 1997: 1

1997: 3rd

MIGHT as well have big "Under New Management" stickers plastered all over the cars. The Prodrive rally championship-winning team owner Dave Richards moved in towards the middle of 1997 to oust the colourful Flavio Briatore as managing director, on the promise of a shareholding if the team succeed. One of Britain's new-breed managers, Richards is already making a difference on the human side, and has faith in the inexperienced chargersFisichella (formerly with Jordan) and the new Austrian hope Wurz (one blue, one red driving boot). Team bullish, especially after Richards's shrewd move from Goodyear to Bridgestone. Much to prove in post-Schumacher years, and likely to pose a strong threat at times.


Drivers: Olivier Panis, Jarno Trulli

Engines: Peugeot V10

Tyres: Bridgestone

Wins in 1997: 0

1997: 6th

NOT the immediate choice as leading rivals, but Frank Williams believes Alain Prost's team will get their act together to pose a serious threat in 1998. He should know, after running the Frenchman in his final championship- winning season in 1993. With a heavily Gallic flavour, Prost ditches Mugen-Honda engines in favour of Peugeot's potent V10 in his new cars. On the driving front, the 1996 Monaco victor Panis is now fully recovered from his serious accident in Canada last season and is partnered by Trulli, who was his stand-in last year during his recuperation period. Expect them to push one another along very strongly, but put a question mark over reliability after persistent gearbox problems in testing.