Motor Racing: Resurgent McLaren proceed with caution

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"Two words we do not want to use are optimism and confidence," Ron Dennis said here on Saturday, and thereby hung a tale. Back in the grand old days when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost ran riot in the Marlboro-McLaren Hondas, optimism and confidence were the sole preserve of the Woking team.

Since 1993, the path to victory has ended in a dead end for McLaren. For most of this season, from the fiasco when Nigel Mansell could not fit into the car to the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring where even Pedro Diniz in the Forti overtook Mika Hakkinen early in the race, team faces have alternately matched the red and white colours of the cars.

But for the first time in 1995 McLaren looked like their old selves at the Japanese Grand Prix, working with all their traditional smoothness and consistency as Hakkinen narrowly missed out on a position on the front row of the grid before finishing a competitive second. There have been some glimmers of the old spark this year, but this was a convincing, repeatable performance.

Dennis's caution is understandable in the somewhat reduced circumstances in which this team have found themselves, but Suzuka gave a genuine indication that McLaren may be on their way back for 1996.

Since Michael Schumacher rose to real prominence last year, we have become used to a Benetton v Williams fight for championship honours, with fleeting intervention from Ferrari. With Schumacher bound for the Prancing Horse, the Italian team will surely raise their game, while Benetton, who secured their first constructors' championship in Suzuka, will have a different set of united colours as Berger and Jean Alesi transfer from Ferrari.

While both have the speed and experience to win, it remains to be seen how they cope with running two cars with equal focus, and whether the absence of Schumacher's contribution in any way blunts its potency.

McLaren is the closest to Benetton in pitwork and strategy, two areas in which Williams has been questionable for some time, and Dennis understands how to motivate his drivers.

The manner in which McLaren has plugged away at getting its car right is confirmation of its latent strength and depth of financial resource, although two years of failure has inevitably raised some probing questions on both scores. Williams, meanwhile, must stop turning in on itself in times of crisis, and needs instead to indulge in a little introspective morale rebuilding and critical self-analysis during the winter.

Hakkinen and David Coul-thard will have good people behind them at McLaren next year, and Mercedes-Benz has been making quiet but consistent (and often concealed) progress.

Under Mercedes' influence, the team is more open and less preening than it was in the halcyon days which secured 65 victories and three titles apiece for Senna and Prost. A dose of adversity and humility can often do people good. After Suzuka, the portents for McLaren - and a four-way fight for the 1996 World Championship - are looking up.