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Prost tries new McLaren

ALAIN PROST gave the new McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 its first shakedown tests at Estoril on Saturday - the day before the team's official presentation.

At the end of last year the team gave the impression that progress was being made. At Suzuka - a track which suited the car - Mika Hakkinen finished second to Michael Schumacher - although it was a fairly lucky result as both Damon Hill and David Coulthard went off in their Williams-Renaults. At Adelaide, Hakkinen crashed badly in practice and Mark Blundell could do no better than fourth - two laps down to the winner Hill.

The team's strategy in the winter appears to have been one of ironing out the problems of the MP4/10 and optimizing the performance. The team has not taken the risk of radical changes because it cannot afford a failure like last year's car.

The 1995 pointed nose has gone and is replaced by one similar to that used on the Williams FW17. The "mid-ship" wing has gone and the cockpit area has been changed in line with the new driver safety regulations. The Mercedes-Benz V10 engine has been upgraded - and, hopefully, made more reliable - and a lot of work has gone into the development of electronic systems.

Whether or not these changes will be sufficient to close the gap to the F1 front-runners remains to be seen, and the pressure is on because McLaren has not won a race since 1993 and there hasn't been a Championship victory since 1991. Although Dennis denies everything, his McLaren partner Mansour Ojjeh is rumored to want to sell his shares.

Dennis's management style - which proved to be so successful in the 1980s - is now under scrutiny, but he is sticking to his guns, refusing to hire a "name" designer and relying on a rather faceless team of engineers - the same group which produced the MP4/10. If the new car fails there is a very real chance that Marlboro and Mercedes-Benz will take action to ensure that their investment in F1 is used to better effect. Dennis is well aware of the possibilities because back in September 1980 it was Marlboro which engineered the merger that put him in charge of the team.

At the launch of the MP4/11, Mika Hakkinen made his first public appearance since his Adelaide accident, alongside team mate David Coulthard and test driver Jan Magnussen. Hakkinen has been training hard for the last month in an effort to be fit enough to race in Melbourne on March 10.

Last week he tested an old McLaren at Paul Ricard, and the indications are that the Finn is still able to be competitive. Testing and racing, however, are very different, and we must wait for the first races to really be able to judge whether Mika has been affected by the accident. If he does not race the job will go to Magnussen.

The first test of the new car, however, was entrusted not to Coulthard, Hakkinen nor Magnussen but to the team's "technica advisor" Alain Prost. The 1993 World Champion lapped Estoril in a time of 1m23.40s. This was largely a shakedown run and so the lap times may not be indicative of the performance of the car, but they were a long way from the pace of 1m21.50s set last week by Jacques Villeneuve in an old Williams-Renault FW17.

The fastest lap by a 1996 car was a 1m21.66s set by Mika Salo in the Tyrrell-Yamaha 024, suggesting that lap times have been pegged to 1995 levels. The fastest lap of the winter at Estoril, incidentally, was a 1m19.95s, recorded by Damon Hill in December. This was well below David Coulthard's pole position for Williams-Renault of 1m20.53s at the Portuguese GP in September. McLaren's best qualifying time for that race was Mark Blundell's 1m22.914s.

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