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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 May, 2004, 21:49 GMT 22:49 UK
McLaren stalled in F1 slow lane
By Andrew Benson
Motorsport editor at the Spanish GP

McLaren boss Ron Dennis
McLaren boss Ron Dennis is said to have lost his focus this season

Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones sat sipping champagne with McLaren co-owner Mansour Ojjeh after the Spanish Grand Prix, but it is far from clear what they could have been celebrating.

Not so very long ago, McLaren used effectively to own Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya, which is regarded as one of the most comprehensive tests of a car's capabilities on the Formula One calendar.

The team won three races in a row at the track from 1998-2000, when it was McLaren rather than Ferrari that were dominating the sport.

Those days seem now to be from a bygone age.

You could not fault the application of McLaren drivers David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen in Sunday's race.

The two men fought tooth-and-nail throughout - with each other and with BAR's Jenson Button.

But once Button passed them, he streaked away into the distance, leaving the Scot and the Finn to dispute 10th and 11th places - behind Ferrari, Renault, Williams, BAR and, most embarrassingly, Sauber.

The only solace McLaren and their engine partners Mercedes can take from the result is that both cars finished for the second race running.

That suggests the team might finally be getting on top of the reliability problems that have plagued them this season.

For the lack of pace that goes with them, however, there is no sign of a solution.

McLaren's Mika Hakkinen celebrates winning the 1998 Japan Grand Prix
McLaren's glory days of the late 1990s are long gone

McLaren boss Ron Dennis came up to me after the race and said: "Put money on us winning a Grand Prix this year."

It is a remark that would have many questioning the sanity of a man who for years ran the best team in F1, regardless of the fact that McLaren are working flat out on a fundamental re-design of their car that is due to make its race debut in July.

That is not the only thing about Dennis that has been questioned in recent weeks.

Some inside the team say that he has become distracted by the building of the McLaren Technology Centre, an ultra-expensive, state-of-the-art new base that is being officially opened by the Queen on Wednesday.

The building, designed by Norman Foster, has been overseen by Dennis with his infamously painstaking eye for detail.

He has personally supervised such apparently mundane issues as the siting of lights, and the look of the floor tiles - the gossip this weekend was that he has even been vexed by the problem of how to remove wild rabbits from the grounds before the Queen's visit.

Even Dennis has admitted it looks like he is "designing myself a pyramid", and team members say that having their visionary boss so clearly focused on something other than the F1 team has allowed McLaren to lose sight of what the company is really about.

But Dennis does not design the F1 cars or their Mercedes engines, the things that are at the root of McLaren's problems.

The bottom line is that the McLaren car is not quick enough and its engine not powerful enough.

The engine has attracted much of the recent criticism, but team insiders point out that Renault's engine is no more powerful than the Mercedes, and it propelled Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso to third and fourth places in Spain.

David Coulthard in action at the Spanish Grand Prix
The MP4-19 has failed to deliver results

A number of theories have been put forward for the causes of the car's failings.

The MP4-19 with which the team started the season is fundamentally, according to technical director Adrian Newey, the same car as the MP4-18 that tested but never raced last year because it had too many inherent problems.

Those bugs have been ironed out, but it was clearly a mistake not to design a new car over the winter.

The much-anticipated revised car, the MP4-19B, is clearly the machine with which McLaren should have started the season.

But is there a realistic hope of it being the major step forward that is required given that it is being designed by the same team that failed with the MP4-18 and 19?

More realistic McLaren insiders admit that it will probably be next year - when the team will produce yet another new car, the MP4-20 - before the team can expect to be competitive again.

It will be the sixth McLaren to be built since 2002, a period in which the team have won just three races.

If it, too, fails, Dennis will have a lot more to worry about than his "pyramid".


SEE ALSO
Spanish joy for Schumacher
09 May 04  |  Formula One
Spanish Grand Prix photos
09 May 04  |  Photo Galleries


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