Columns - Big Al

Don't take your eye off the ball, Ron!


The main priority for the McLaren-Mercedes team this week will most certainly NOT be a process of picking-over the events of Adrian Newey's will-he-won't-he psychological wobble last week in which it seemed as though he was going to Jaguar. And then, suddenly, he wasn't.

No, the real priority is to get David Coulthard's World Championship challenge firmly back into contention after the debacle of Monte Carlo where another launch control failure caused him to stall on the grid. And where better than for David to shine than the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, venue for next Sunday's eighth round of the title chase, the Canadian GP.

McLaren's MP4/16 is one of the best cars that Newey's design team has produced during his four year tenure with the Woking-based company. Properly set up it is extremely quick, yet in certain circumstances it can be quite difficult to "hit the spot" as Coulthard explained after he and Mika Hakkinen qualified out of the top six in Austria, a race he subsequently continued to win.

However, we should expect Coulthard to be right back on the pace in Montreal and every bit as likely to emerge the winner as Ferrari team leader Michael Schumacher. The Scot urgently needs to win, of course, because last week's test at Magny-Cours strongly signals that the Michelin-shod Williams-BMWs are getting their act together again and likely to consolidate their position as F1's third credible force over the next few races. In other words, the Williams squad could produce an added complication for Coulthard as he seeks to play catch-up.

Some critics will say that Ron Dennis was a little slow off the mark last week in terms of getting the message that Newey was negotiating with Jaguar. However, once he's got the target's range he was absolutely relentlessly in protecting his own turf. He sent a firm message to Jaguar - and indeed to Newey - that he's not a man to be trifled with.

That said, Jaguar will not let the matter drop. They would even be happy if Newey joined them if he - let's say - changed his mind again. Fat chance, I suspect, now that Dennis has check-mated his rival F1 team.

Bobby Rahal and Newey go back a long way. In 1984, fresh out of Southampton university with a degree in aeronautical engineering, Newey joined March Engineering working on their Indycars in the USA.

He quickly began working on Rahal's March and the two men forged a close bond. As recently as 1995 Rahal offered Newey a job in his CART team, even proposing that he take a shareholding.

"I have nothing but the highest respect for Adrian," said Rahal, who retired from driving at the end of 1997, in his recently published racing memoirs.

"I think forgetting the fact that he's a genius, Adrian is a hell of a race car engineer. When I worked with him in 1984 and 85, he gave me such confidence as a driver that I felt I could move mountains."

Perhaps so. But I doubt their special relationship will have endured the events of the past week. In fact a lot of relationships won't be quite the same again, I suspect.

Interestingly, I understand Adrian Newey won't be attending this weekend's Canadian Grand Prix. I don't suppose that McLaren want to subject him to any penetrating media scrutiny. And I don't suppose Adrian is to keen on bumping into Bobby Rahal in the paddock, either.