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APRIL 6, 1998

Mini feature: How did McLaren get so far ahead?

AS Formula 1 teams get their first real break of the season - there is little happening in Grand Prix circles in Europe between the two South American races - team bosses are beginning to realize why it is that McLaren-Mercedes has enjoyed such domination in the first two races of the year.

Attempts to cut back the advantage with protests in Brazil failed to dent McLaren superiority and the only conclusion left is that the overall package of engine, tires, drivers and chassis is exactly what is needed.

The Ilmor Engineering-developed Mercedes V10 engine is obviously a very powerful engine and now it is reliable as well. The McLarens are able to run more wing than its rivals but top speeds are still competitive so the only conclusion one can draw is that Mario Illien's new V10 is the most powerful in F1 at the moment. It has obviously helped that the project is being incredibly well-funded by Mercedes-Benz.

The switch from Goodyear to Bridgestone tires was a risk but it seems to have paid off in the first two races with the Japanese tires enjoying a slight advantage over the Goodyear rubber. It remains to be seen whether that advantage can be maintained at other race tracks and Goodyear engineers are working very hard to come up with better tires.

In Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, McLaren has two drivers who are both talented and still eager for success as neither one has really fulfilled his potential to date. Hakkinen is naturally the faster of the two and can drive around technical problems, but when Coulthard gets the set-up right he is going to be very hard to beat.

Most observers agree, however, that the most important change at McLaren has been one of philosophy rather than a great technical shake-up. Ron Dennis's acceptance in the summer of 1996 that he must hire a star designer rather than try to rely on a committee system of engineers, a policy he had championed since the mid 1980s when John Barnard quit the team, was not felt until this season but the arrival of Adrian Newey was the catalyst which the team needed. Newey seems to be getting technical freedom which previous McLaren designers did not enjoy.

Newey's arrival suggests that it is he alone who has pulled the team round, but this is an unfair reflection on the efforts of others. McLaren has a large number of very talented engineers. Chief designer Neil Oatley has taken a lot of criticism in recent years but he is a solid engineer and there are several teams which would be happy to employ him if he was available, notably Williams, where he trained under Patrick Head in the early 1980s.

Newey is a rather more charismatic character and his arrival has pumped up the engineering team. The chassis produced have always been of the highest quality but for a long time there have been questions about the effectiveness of the team's windtunnel at Teddington. It is a good windtunnel for F1 but it is not in the same league as the Williams facility at Grove or the new Ferrari tunnel at Maranello. The team knows this but as the new McLaren factory will not be ready until the year 2000 at the earliest the team is going to have to make do with its current facility.

One important advantage which is being overlooked at the moment is that Newey was sidelined by Williams last Spring. While he was not allowed to work for McLaren until August, there was no way that Williams could stop Adrian from thinking about the 1998 regulations and as he did not have all the other distractions which F1 technical directors normally face, he was able to think problems through. This should not be underestimated as an explanation of McLaren's current domination. It should also be remembered that McLaren is currently enjoying a big advantage in terms of its production capacity because the staff at McLaren Cars are currently without work. There are rumors of a major new road car project being embarked at Woking (presumably some kind of top-of-the-range sportscar for Mercedes-Benz) but until that is more advanced they are able to work for the F1 team, which means that the team can produce many more parts than its rivals which means that early testing problems were quickly overcome and the team is in a much better position to develop the cars. Even the biggest rival teams are struggling for development parts at the moment.

The other factor to be considered is that the other teams are simply not doing the job as well as they should be. Williams and Benetton are somewhat handicapped by the decision they were forced to take early last year to stay with Mecachrome engines. At the time there was no choice but as Mecachrome is not doing as much development work as its rivals it is inevitable that the challenge will weaken. Benetton is already taking steps to get a better engine in 1999 while Williams looks like having to wait until the year 2000 for the arrival of BMW.

Ferrari has not done a very good job with the F300, given the budget and manpower of the team. It is not surprising that things should not be easy because the hiring of Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne meant that the Italians had to adopt new attitudes. These things take time.

Jordan is still much smaller than many of its rivals and is being hampered by having to grow at the same time as having to build and race cars. It is a similar - but more pronounced problem - at Prost, although we expect to see the French team become much stronger as the season progresses. Arrows is suffering similar problems and is trying to catch up and Stewart is in the same boat.

Sauber should probably be doing a little better than is currently the case but there has been quite a switch around of engineering staff within the team in recent months. It should also be noted that it is not easy for the Swiss operation to attract the best staff because of the employment laws in Switzerland and because not everyone wants to live there.

But while can point out weaknesses in the opposition one must applaud Ron Dennis for having masterminded McLaren's comeback after five years of struggling to come to terms with the problems of F1. In part this was caused by a certain amount of arrogance developed in the immensely successful 1988-1992 period.

McLaren team bosses would be wise to remember not to let themselves lose sight of their objectives now that the team is winning again.