Dennis left to ponder bad day at office

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The Independent Online

Baggage carousel No 6 at Heathrow's Terminal 4 was a place for interesting studies in body language yesterday lunchtime, as Qantas flight QF109 landed from Melbourne, Australia, and disgorged a number of bemused Formula One team principals.

The McLaren chief executive, Ron Dennis, seemed as monosyllabic and preoccupied as one would expect of a man whose multi-million dollar racer had underperformed woefully. The pain that he always claims to feel the day after a race that his cars have not won had already come early: on lap 10 of the Australian Grand Prix, as Kimi Raikkonen spun out of a battle for 10th place when a water pump failure cooked his Mercedes V10 engine; and when last year's winner, David Coulthard, crept home an embarrassingly lapped eighth in a car that was expected to beat the winning Ferraris.

The programme that saw the relatively lacklustre McLaren MP4-17C updated from 2002 into the race-winning, championship-contending MP4-17D in 2003 is the most impressive engineering thing we have seen recently from a team whose new, £275m technical centre in Woking has just come on stream. But thus far, the new alliance of the design guru Adrian Newey and the newcomer Mike Coughlan has yet to produce the goods.

Their MP4-18 of 2003, which never raced, was like Sam Fox packed into a Kate Moss dress. It was so poorly cooled that it tended to ignite itself after only handfuls of test laps; the evolutionary MP4-19, despite testing since December, has yet to do anything remarkable.

There is talk of problems with the casting of the engine block, something Mercedes-Benz took upon itself this year. And you don't mention the words porosity and torsional rigidity within earshot of the McLaren garage. Dennis says he knows where the faults in the car lie, and one believes him in this age of computer technology that leaves neither driver nor designer a hiding place.

But even allowing for Bridgestone producing a superior tyre to McLaren's Michelin in Melbourne, the question needs to be asked why they have now twice in a row failed to create a Ferrari-beater. What is going on at their Woking headquarters?

Then there was the Toyota technical director, Mike Gasgoyne, who joined the German-based Japanese giant late last year and inherited somebody else's design for 2004. Speaking of the team's disastrous Melbourne race - Cristiano Da Matta and Olivier Panis finished only 12th and 13th on Sunday and were blown away by Eddie Jordan's underfunded cars - Gasgoyne remarked philosophically: "The good thing is that the engine is small, light and has decent power. The chassis isn't up to much, but there are quite a lot of things we can do with the TF104 package this year. But they can only come at a certain pace." The team consultant at Toyota, Ove Andersson, was more candid, however. "I knew we were not good, but I didn't think we'd be this bad," he said. Some even believed the team would have been better off using last year's car.

One man who seemed cheerful, even though he grimaced whenever he recalled the gearbox gremlins that had stopped Mark Webber's spirited chase of the BMW-Williams cars on Sunday, was the Jaguar chief executive, Tony Purnell. Webber had qualified an excellent sixth and was running strongly in the race before that frustrating failure stopped him. "That was a major disappointment," Purnell admitted. "But overall we were very happy. The Jaguar R5 is a good car, and we proved it there." After a pause, he smiled. "You know, McLaren and Toyota are probably spending $200m [£108m] more a season than we are. $200m! Think what you could do with all that extra technology..."

Not a bad point, considering Jaguar's promising performance in Melbourne and the fact that some of his rivals believe the marque should not be racing in Formula One because they don't spend enough money.