The McLaren Spring of 1989

There is a taboo I have noticed in Formula 1 recently. As a member of the press corps, unless you are a Brazilian, you're not supposed to praise Ayrton Senna. Alain Prost is the established superman and, as Ron Dennis is finding out, it's tough fitting two supermen into the same telephone box.

But let's give Ayrton his due. He is at the top of his profession now; his driving is as beautiful and as precise as ever; his use of the throttle in the corners is musical.

Don't get me wrong, Prost is still as good as ever he was, perhaps a little less motivated now, but Senna has learned some tricks from the old master. Where he used to do stupid things, his performance in Monaco - effectively conning Prost into believing he had no problems - was masterful.

Prost would have been proud of it.

Ayrton cannot afford to relax with Alain about, and he remains as hungry and as committed as ever, but there are signs that the Brazilian is mellowing as a person. Another World Championship, while never a formality, is certainly on the cards. Despite his odd behavior at Imola, Ayrton seems calmer now. The shyness and self-absorption which was often mistaken for arrogance in the past, doesn't offend as once it did.

In part, I think it is to do with the presence of a lady called Xuxa, a Brazilian television star, who is probably as rich as Ayrton and, in Brazil, at least as famous.

She perhaps understands a little of the weird isolated world inhabited by "the celebrity".

While Ayrton has often been sullen, she bubbles with personality and a little of it seems to be rubbing off on the World Champion.

Years from now, I believe people will talk of this McLaren-dominated age as a golden era, when two of the finest drivers were together in the same team. They will talk of Senna and Prost as they do today of Moss and Fangio or Varzi and Nuvolari at the height of their powers.

At Monaco Ron Dennis said that the team always wants to win but insisted that McLaren wants to have fun as well. "Fun? Really? Pull the other one." was the response of the press corps. Is it possible to have fun in this commercial age of F1?

Rio de Janeiro was fun. But only because it was so different. We know now, and suspected at the time, that this was not an average race. Ferrari won.

"I know how it happened," an Italian pressman told me after the race with a broad smile. Was it a new tweak? Something revolutionary on the new gearbox?

"No," he said. "It's very simple. It was a miracle."

By the time every Italian and his mama had crammed into the Autodromo Ferrari at Imola, expecting another Ferrari win, the story was different. McLaren won again, lapped the field. Boring, eh?

"He is not only a bore," said Malcolm Muggeridge of Sir Anthony Eden. "He bores for England."

McLaren has made F1 the same. That isn't a condemnation. In a commercial age, professionalism is to be applauded. But it hasn't made the Grands Prix good to watch. F1 is stagnant. He who spends most, wins most. There is a lot of money in F1, but not the kind that the big manufacturers throw around.

Since the end of 1985 there have been 51 Grands Prix. Only five men have won: Prost & Senna (14 apiece), Mansell (12), Piquet (seven) and Berger (four). There maybe someone out there willing to spend hours to prove me wrong, but a quick glance at the files reveals that this is a unique statistic in the 39- year history of the World Championship. There has been no new GP winner since the end of 1986.

Yes, winning is everything in F1 -- I'm not arguing against that. But such a closed shop? It isn't healthy.

"Serious sport," wrote George Orwell, "is war minus the shooting." And, believe me, F1 is deadly serious.

Ron Dennis has always been serious about F1 -- and very often he has been right as well (an annoying habit for anyone to have!).

I was mulling though old AUTOSPORT volumes the other day and I came across a Ron Dennis interview. It was 1981 and Leyton House Racing Team Manager Ian Phillips, who was still wielding a typewriter from the AUTOSPORT office, was the interviewer.

"I think a DFV team will win the championship next year," said Dennis. "Possibly without winning a race." A year on Keke Rosberg took the title with one win -- in a Williams-Cosworth.

"I think domination is something we are looking for in the future," said Dennis. Right again.

"I see us diversifying into Indy," said Dennis. Aha, so the rumors must be true...

Watching Ron and his drivers on the podium at Monaco made me wonder about Ron's comments about having fun: maximum points for the second consecutive race, the two drivers lying equal in the championship and a total of constructors's points four-fold that of the nearest rival. It did seem like a good reason for a tiny little smile. There was infinitely more joy in the Dallara pit, where Caffi had finished fourth.

Ah well, in 1981 Dennis said he wanted domination, he got it in 1984. Perhaps we have to wait until 1992 before the fun starts... He should also be aware that, historically-speaking, no empire lasts forever. It should be enjoyed while it still exists.

All has not been exactly sweetness and light at McLaren of late. When everybody concerned says 'the problem has been solved' so publicly, it obviously hasn't.

Whisper: "Crisis? What crisis?" and every pressman will think they have a secret and will write that everything is hunky-dory between Alain and Ayrton. Tell a child to do something and they won't, tell them not to and they will. It's an old trick.

All that matters at McLaren is win after win after joyless win, but in recent days, behind the scenes, damage-control has been a much-used word.

In many ways McLaren is lucky, the public airing of the drivers' dirty linen has been moderately controlled thanks to typical Dennis efficiency and relative discretion on the part of the drivers.

Down at Ferrari things are very different. They don't have disputes at Maranello without a very public blood-letting.

There is, in Maranello, a journalist whose only task in life is to wheedle out information about what is going on behind the gates of the Ferrari racing department.

He frequents the local bars and talks to anyone from the factory. If anything happens inside the walls, he is supposed to know about it -- and usually he does. The wires might get crossed from time to time, but he generally delivers the goods.

Many of the leaks stopped a few months ago when one particular member of the Ferrari staff was moved to a different department, having been tracked down by Ferrari's counter-espionage unit.

Even in times of crisis, however, the men at Ferrari have fun. They have been known to take advantage of the said pressman, who is led up the garden path. The team giggle as the gentleman in question is fed dud information and lowers his foot into his mouth. That is fun (unless you happen to be the pressman, of course!)

Generally-speaking F1 is fun: most of the drivers are easy to approach and fun to talk to, but it isn't always like that. When things are tough some drivers assume a tortured look and could probably get a part as Lady Macbeth if they bothered to audition. Some are permanently like that.

In Adelaide last year Alan Jones was commentating for Channel 9 and he discovered this phenomenon.

"Jeez," he said one day, frowning. "If I had known when I was driving what some of these drivers are like to the press. I would have been so much nicer to you guys."

"It's too late," someone snarled nastily. Drivers don't take prisoners, why should the pressmen?

If you have ever handed out leaflets to people in the street you will understand what I mean. People look straight through you, you don't exist.

Sure, the drivers are busy and self-obsessed and too important to talk to anyone (even, in some cases if they are being paid by them), but a little politeness and charm wouldn't go amiss at times. The offenders know who they are...

Perhaps, I'm being unkind. For some time I've been thinking of complaining to the editor about sexual harassment at work. How can anyone concentrate in a racing paddock when there are so many beautiful women wandering around? Maybe the drivers do have fun after all.

The fans certainly enjoy themselves. The Brazilian spectators at Rio believe in having fun, as do the tifosi. They will do anything to get into a paddock to rub shoulders with the drivers. If they are caught, they smile and shrug their shoulders. They gracefully accept defeat. When they succeed, they make the most of it.

They'll try any trick in the book. One day in Rio, en route to the track, we followed a police car through the checkpoints. Now this was not your run-of-the-mill Brazilian police car and the two gents inside looked most unlike policemen (except perhaps in Miami Vice). They drove clean into the paddock: the inner sanctum of F1 racing.

A couple of cans of spray paint, a few lights on top and stencilled words reading 'Police -- Special Task Force': worked wonders.

You don't argue with people in cars like that in Brazil. The men on the gates were most diplomatic.

The Italian gentlemen at Monaco who applied for press passes as members of the Russian media were less successful...

For me the fun has come from cheering on the little fellows at the back (Well, you know how the English love the underdog). On the surface it's always the same old story, but further back on the grid, behind the V12 Ferraris and the V10 teams of McLaren and Renault (you could say Ronnie & Regie if it didn't sound like the Kray brothers), F1 is sensationally close, with even the pre-qualifying teams able to get their moment of glory.

A few years ago, who would have thought that you would see an Osella, an AGS or a Minardi way ahead of a Lotus or dicing with a Brabham?

It has been a delight to see the newer generations doing their thing: Johnny Herbert, Olivier Grouillard, Nicola Larini, Gabriele Tarquini, Stefano Modena and Alex Caffi. Their enthusiasm for the sport shines through them. They love what they are doing and want to share that feeling of fun.

Less fun, but certainly interesting has been the rivalry within the teams: Senna v Prost, Mansell v Berger, Modena v Brundle, Nannini v Herbert, and Alboreto v Palmer.

During qualifying at Imola, Jonathan Palmer had a little fun with me.

"I will be happy to see Michele as far ahead of me as possible" said Jonathan, totally straight-faced. "But," he added, "this will be only time this year. He has a new car, I have the old one!"

JP is a man deeply interested in safety issues which have been much in discussion this year in the wake of the accidents of Streiff and Berger.

There has been little fun in that. Watching Berger's Ferrari burn at Imola was not an experience any of us want to have again.

The safety question is an intriguing one. Why don't the drivers use the oxygen pipes which must be fitted to their cars. At Monaco, I spotted only two drivers connected up with their oxygen supplies.

I asked one driver why he does not use the system. Is it pure recklessness, the belief that it will always be the other guy?

No, he explained, Oxygen feeds fires -- every kid learns that at school.

"I've seen a demonstration with a helmet leaking oxygen from around the neck in a fire. The helmet is surrounded by a ball of fire."

That's no fun at all.

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