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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 August 2007, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
McLaren haunted by stance on equality
By Andrew Benson

McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso
Relations between Hamilton and Alonso have hit a low
As he sets off on holiday to the Caribbean this week, McLaren boss Ron Dennis will have plenty of time to reflect on the damaging row between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso at the Hungarian Grand Prix.

And Dennis will be as aware as anyone that the rift exposed in one of the most taxing weekends of his life is rooted in the principle by which he runs his Formula One team.

Rejecting the policy employed by others of nominating a number one driver who is the focus of the team, Dennis is wedded to the idea of treating his drivers equally, and letting them resolve out on the track who is superior.

It is a noble concept, and it is certainly more appealing to those outside the team than the alternatives, but it has one fatal flaw - when the stakes are highest, it simply does not work.

Most of the time, McLaren get away with it - because, most of the time, one of three things prevents it becoming a problem.

606: DEBATE
Either one driver emerges as clearly the faster, so any debate about who should get priority is irrelevant.

(This was the case with McLaren in the 1990s. Then, still operating nominal equal status, McLaren in practice favoured Mika Hakkinen over David Coulthard. The Scot was sometimes upset by that, but had to resign himself to the reality that Hakkinen was usually quicker than him.)

Alternatively, events transpire to ensure that one of the team's drivers has a better chance of winning the title than the other, so a decision about who should be favoured is made for them.

Or, if the car is not good enough to battle for the title, that takes the pressure out of the contest between the drivers.

But this year none of those things has happened. Instead, McLaren - almost certainly to their surprise - have two of the three best drivers in the world in their team, and they are each other's chief rival for the world title.

McLaren boss Ron Dennis
Dennis's philosophy is to let his drivers establish status on the track
Like male lions competing for control of a pride, no F1 team is big enough to comfortably contain two sporting alpha males of this stature.

Top racing drivers are intensely driven and complex individuals, and competition from within their own camp is not appreciated.

Their psyche is based on the belief that they are the best - so any challenge to that belief, or the ability to demonstrate it, provokes extreme responses.

This was at the root of the sequence of events that led to a row bursting out into full public view that had until Saturday largely been simmering behind the scenes.

First Hamilton double-crossed Alonso in qualifying in search of an edge, and then the Spaniard returned the favour. They stopped speaking to each other. And now there are questions over whether Alonso will see out his three-year, 33.8m contract with McLaren.

He must be considered unlikely to stay, however many problems his departure would create for McLaren through their engine partner and chief shareholder Mercedes, and sponsor Santander, the Spanish bank, both of whom are understood to want him in the team.

Alonso's options of alternative employment are limited - not because no-one would want him; almost everyone would - but because there are so few teams able to provide the double world champion with a car worthy of him.

The only workable solution is to simply let the two drivers get on with it

But history has shown on a number of occasions that this situation is not sustainable, however appealing it might be for a team to want to keep on its books two drivers of such elevated stature.

And Dennis knows this better than anyone, for he was caught at the heart of what remains - for now - the bitterest feud ever to hit F1.

Forget Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell at Williams in the 1980s, Mansell and Alain Prost at Ferrari in 1990, and even, so far, Alonso v Hamilton. All pale into insignificance when compared to the daddy of F1 feuds - Prost against Ayrton Senna.

In 1988, Senna joined McLaren as team-mate to Prost. The situation carries uncanny parallels to the current one with Hamilton and Alonso - with one key difference.

Back in 1988, the double world champion - Prost - was the man settled at McLaren. And the young coming man - Senna - was the new boy, determined to replace the Frenchman as The Man both within McLaren, and by extension in F1.

Just like this year, Dennis kept the lid on the simmering rivalry for most of their first year together, only for it to break out into the open as the title contest came to a climax.

Ayrton Senna drives his McLaren into the back of Alain Prost's Ferrari at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix
McLaren's current rivalry pales compared to Prost v Senna
Prost and Senna stayed at McLaren for 1989, but the relationship totally broke down early in the season. And they ended up deciding the title by driving into each other in Japan, a situation which repeated itself - this time at more than 160mph - in 1990, when Prost had moved to Ferrari.

Now, it is Alonso who is new to McLaren, and Hamilton who, although an F1 rookie, has been part of the team for the past decade as Dennis's protege.

Their ability can be compared to greats such as Senna and Prost. And so far Hamilton and Alonso seem to be even more closely matched than their predecessors.

So, sooner or later, one of them will decide he has had enough and seek elsewhere the priority status he feels he deserves.

And even though Hamilton's relationship with Dennis will never be the same again after their four-letter argument on Saturday, the likelihood must be that it will be Alonso who goes.

None of this is to say that Dennis's approach to running an F1 team is wrong.

Lewis Hamilton leads McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso at the Canadian Grand Prix
Alonso is not enjoying chasing Hamilton in the championship
For those fortunate enough to be observing from outside the team, it provides a sporting spectacle of rare compulsion. Because of the intensity of the rivalry between Hamilton and Alonso, the remaining six races of this season promise to be the best climax to an F1 season in years.

And it is hard not to admire the principle itself, the man who chooses to try to apply it in such an unhelpful environment, and the purity of the competition it provides.

But for Dennis the situation poses almost insurmountable problems.

So far, he has tried to run the team by co-operation - agreeing strategies between everyone and trying to stay in control.

Already this year - in Monaco - that plan almost came unstuck, when McLaren's decision to stop the drivers racing led to Hamilton, the man who finished second, betraying to the media what had gone on.

But that strategy is no longer tenable. And it seems the only workable solution is to simply let the two drivers get on with it - force them to share their technical information, but beyond that effectively let them operate as two teams within a team and may the best man win.

Whether McLaren choose to take that approach remains to be seen. But whatever happens one thing is sure - for those watching, F1 has rarely been better.



SEE ALSO
Jordan warns Hamilton to end feud
07 Aug 07 |  Formula One
Mansell critical of McLaren row
06 Aug 07 |  Formula One
Hamilton imperious in Hungary win
05 Aug 07 |  Formula One
Alonso cool on future at McLaren
05 Aug 07 |  Formula One
Alonso is ignoring me - Hamilton
06 Aug 07 |  Formula One
Alonso punished for Hamilton move
05 Aug 07 |  Formula One


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