Alonso steers Hamilton on learning curve

McClaren's new recruits - one the world champion, one a rookie - are fuelling fresh ambition, the principal Ron Dennis tells David Tremayne
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The Independent Online

Ron Dennis is habitually wary of what he calls "the winter world championship", the game of talking things up during the off-season. But yesterday he did not trouble to disguise his enthusiasm for the forthcoming season, nor the robust state of his McLaren team's health.

"When I said that we would be debt-free by 10 February next year I was wrong," he confessed. "We will be entirely free of any debt by 28 January. We have never been as commercially healthy in our entire history. I am fiercely proud of our commercial performance."

This will be good news for Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, each of whom is staking his career on the turn of the McLaren dice in 2007. The Spaniard, the youngest-ever double world champion, switched from the Renault team which nurtured him in the early days of a career that, Dennis believes, has all the potential to make him one of the sport's all-time greats.

Dennis said he is still surprised at how Alonso's switch came about. "It was after the 2005 Brazilian GP, in which he clinched his first title. Our drivers, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen, had just finished first and second and Fernando was third. We came face to face for a minute and I think I said congratulations or something like that. He said, 'The thing about you is that you develop your cars'. To which I replied, 'You should be part of it'. When he said he would like to be, I was stunned. A week later we had a meeting in Japan and three weeks later the contract was signed."

Dennis admits that signing Alonso made it less of a risk to take on Hamilton, still only 21, to replace the Ferrari-bound Raikkonen. The rookie, from Tewin in Hertfordshire, never gives up, is totally committed and, crucially, listens - all attributes that Dennis prizes highly. He is also supremely fit and hungry to keep learning. Dennis has no doubt that partnering him with Alonso will enable Hamilton to learn very quickly.

"There's a My Fair Lady aspect to the story," he admits, having backed Hamilton's career since he was in his early teens, "and obviously we want it to have a positive outcome. And I think it will."

Dennis was also loyal to Raikkonen, whose partying antics taxed their relationship heavily at times. "I would never say anything negative about him. He has all the potential to be world champion and his era with us was positive, even if it was a little bit difficult at the end. We should have won two world championships together, and it was our fault that we didn't, not his."

Nevertheless, the arrival of two drivers who share the sort of work ethic that made Michael Schumacher a world champion has imbued McLaren with fresh optimism, especially as The arch-rivals Ferrari and Renault will have to adjust to the taxing loss of their champions. "A whole range of things makes us feel good," Dennis said. "I am very confident that we will be extremely well financed for the next five to 10 years," - Vodafone have switched their sponsorship from Ferrari - "and we have a great driver line-up. The ingredients are good, but we don't know what the opposition are up to.

"I don't want to make any predictions about 2007, but we have already achieved many of our goals. Our chassis was the first to pass its crash tests, yesterday, and we will have two of our new cars when we launch in Valencia mid-January. We have never had the comfort that we now have with our programme."

* Michael Schumacher has been granted honorary citizenship in Ferrari's home town of Maranello. The seven-times Formula One champion spent 11 years racing for Ferrari before retiring in October.

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