McLaren too quick for their own good

Cutting edge of technology is wounding Formula One's standard bearers
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The Independent Online

It was a fairly predictable, if cruel, jibe which made its way around the Interlagos paddock after the FIA's men had finished wielding their tape measures and kicked David Coulthard out of the Brazilian Grand Prix. "What do McLaren-Mercedes have in common with a typical Norwegian entry in the Eurovision Song Contest?""Nul points."

For a team who are arguably the best in F1 and have the best car, this is embarrassment with a capital E. With Michael Schumacher and Ferrari snaffling the opening races, Mika Hakkinen needs to win the next five, assuming Schumacher finishes second in each, just to draw level.

When Hakkinen dropped out while leading in Australia, Schumacher was quick to make psychological capital by downplaying the McLaren's speed and suggesting that he himself had been sandbagging. As if. But though Schumacher appeared to have been the dominant force after his two-stop strategy reaped the big reward last Sunday, Hakkinen was spoiling for a serious fight when his McLaren stopped again. Coulthard was unable to take up the cudgels, having lost second and third gears, but had Hakkinen stayed the course the result would probably have been different.

The great dictum of racing, however, is that to finish first, first you have to finish, and suddenly McLaren do not seem able to. In Australia their Mercedes-Benz engines were silenced by blocked filters. In Brazil, a different engine problem stopped Hakkinen. In the overall scheme of things these are trivial reasons for bringing a multi-million dollar enterprise to a halt.

Ferrari will be racing on home ground in the San Marino GP at Imola this weekend, when Hakkinen must exorcise ghosts after spinning out of the lead last year. Coulthard has his own demons to fight from that day, having lost the chance of victory by being trapped for far too long behind Olivier Panis - ironically now McLaren's reserve driver.

It is not the end of the world to lose the first two rounds in a 17-race championship, but if Ferrari win again next weekend McLaren will be in trouble given the bulletproof reliability of Eddie Irvine's red car last year. Especially since the Ferraris no longer appear to be light years behind the McLarens on performance.

It has been suggested that McLaren have fallen into the same trap they hit in the early Nineties, after focusing too much on their F1 roadcar and then the stillborn supersonic land-speed record challenger.

This time it is said the focus on F1 is being distorted by construction of the all-singing, all-dancing Parragon head- quarters designed by Sir Norman Foster, close to McLaren's existing premises in Woking.

But such a strong organisation shouldn't lose their touch because of tangential projects. The real root of McLaren's current plight lies in their desire to win races. Technical director Adrian Newey admits that in designing the MP4/15 he deliberately sought to optimise its speed in races, and when you ride the cutting edge of technology, sometimes you fall painfully astride it.

Hakkinen was unlucky in Interlagos. While his 275 revs per second engine succumbed to low oil pressure, Schumacher was able to nurse his through a similar problem.

To add to McLaren chief Ron Dennis's pain at losing, the team have taken a lot of stick over Coulthard's exclusion. They blame the Interlagos circuit itself. In a statement released prior to their appeal, which will be heard tomorrow, they said: "The team identified structural damage to both the underbody and chassis combined with the fact that the front wing endplates had rotated about their axis. It was caused by the heavy bottoming and vibration induced by the circuit."

The resurfacing of Interlagos was a disgraceful farce that actually made already severe bumps on the pit straight so bad that both Sauber Petronas cars lost their rear wings on Saturday. But it is interesting that McLaren made a late change to the ride height on Hakkinen's car. Nobody would confirm whether it thus differed from Coulthard's.

Ferrari's two-stop strategy in Brazil shows a willingness to gamble that may prove crucial. "We followed our policy of 'what do we have to lose?' " sporting director Jean Todt said. And therein lies the difference. McLaren are used to winning championships, whereas Ferrari have become inured to losing them and that may just give them the stronger hand.

Dennis and his men face a massive test of nerve, character and strategic thinking that augurs well for a head-to-head championship that will make Irvine v Hakkinen seem like a spat in a kindergarten.