DECEMBER 2, 1996

WHAT'S HAPPING AT McLAREN?: The McLaren enigma

THE performance of the McLaren team - or rather the lack of it - in the last 12 months has been mystifying when one compares the results to the team's successes in the late 1980s when McLaren won 13 World Championships in eight seasons. In those days winning seemed to be easy. Between 1988 and 1992 McLaren and Honda - with drivers Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger won 41 victories in the 74 races. Team boss Ron Dennis said it was all down to good planning and even went as far as to say that everything at McLaren was planned five years ahead. At the time no-one had any reason to disbelieve him.

THE performance of the McLaren team - or rather the lack of it - in the last 12 months has been mystifying when one compares the results to the team's successes in the late 1980s when McLaren won 13 World Championships in eight seasons. In those days winning seemed to be easy. Between 1988 and 1992 McLaren and Honda - with drivers Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger won 41 victories in the 74 races. Team boss Ron Dennis said it was all down to good planning and even went as far as to say that everything at McLaren was planned five years ahead. At the time no-one had any reason to disbelieve him.

Dennis - perhaps getting a little carried away - talked about McLaren becoming a team which would never stop winning. When it was pointed out that all empires in the history of mankind have failed in the end, Ron refused to accept that it was inevitable for McLaren. But in F1 you can say what you like when you are winning.

The problem is always that you are only as good as your last result. Conventional F1 logic - and Dennis played a big part in creating the mentality - dictates that finishing second is losing. It is not "promising" nor "a step in the right direction". It is failure.

McLaren has not won a race for three full seasons. The Australian Grand Prix in March next year will be the team's 50th consecutive Grand Prix without a race victory. Since F1 racing became big business in the early 1980s and the top teams were able to build up industrial structures to keep themselves ahead of the opposition, there has only been one comparable losing streak. Between the end of 1990 and mid-1994 Ferrari failed to score a win in 58 races. The Williams team had a bad run after it lost Honda engines in 1987 but it was only 24 races before a Williams driver was back on the top step of the podium.

These are painful statistics for McLaren but they are the reality. There have been no victories lost to unfortunate unreliability or accidents. The results do reflect the true performance of the team. The cars have not been fast enough.

Formula 1 is a cynical - some may say vicious - world, and people in the paddock have been asking for some time whether that trend will continue in 1997 or whether McLaren will bounce back with much-needed victories. On this opinion is divided. Some say that a team like McLaren cannot stay down for long, others say that the team has lost its way and is sliding - just as Lotus and Brabham once did. Which is the correct theory? To answer that one needs to understand why the team has not been winning - and that is difficult.

There is no doubt that part of the reason for the lack of success has been the disruption caused by three engine changes in three seasons. Everyone involved in F1 knows that changing engines is not a good idea. McLaren, however, proved that this does not have to be the case when it switched from TAG Turbo to Honda engines in 1988 and still managed to win a record 15 victories in 16 races. But it wasn't like that in 1992 after Honda pulled out of F1...

Initially Dennis did the logical thing. He tried to buy his way to the best engine. His aim was to secure Ligier's supply of Renault V10 engines by throwing money at the French team. The Ligier political situation was such a mess that in the end he gave up and had to settle for a customer supply of Ford HB V8 engines. Thanks to some incredible driving from Senna and McLaren's advanced electronic systems, McLaren was able to humiliate Ford's factory team Benetton using inferior engines. Ford did not want to split with Benetton, and the Ford V8 really did not look like a match for the Renault V10, and so McLaren began looking for a new engine supplier. There were talks with Chrysler, and in September 1993 Senna tested a Chrysler V12-engined McLaren at Silverstone. The Chrysler management in Detroit was confident that they had a deal with McLaren for 1994 and beyond but within a month McLaren had signed a highly controversial four-year contract with Peugeot. Chrysler bosses were furious.

Twelve months later McLaren announced that it was splitting with Peugeot and had signed a five-year deal with Mercedes-Benz. Peugeot bosses were furious.

The McLaren-Mercedes relationship was not concluded until late in the day and so the 1995 season was always going to be difficult. There was a new engine, designed hurriedly for the new 3-liter regulations and the whole program was rushed. McLaren also made a major mistake by deciding to sign up Nigel Mansell. The former World Champion wanted to make a comeback in F1. Williams was not interested. McLaren needed a high profile driver. It was an unlikely alliance because over the years Ron Dennis had been an outspoken critic of Mansell, but everyone said sweet things about one another when the team was launched. Within weeks the relationship was spinning out of control. Mansell went to test the MP4/10 and found that he could not fit his hips into the cockpit of the ultra-slim chassis. Rather than embarrass himself with a few poor performances - allowing the team to build a wider chassis - Mansell went public, sitting out a couple of races. When he returned he found that the MP4/10 was not a car he felt comfortable with. The two parties went their separate ways after just two races. Mansell, however, had demolished the belief of McLaren infallibility.

The work that went into developing the MP4/10 and its derivatives was truly extraordinary - but there was little improvement. These days you have to build a fast car to win the World Championship. You can do a certain amount of development during a season but as everyone is testing flat out the potential for improvement in limited. The team collected only a few points but Dennis confidently predicted that McLaren would soon be winning again. His critics, he said, had got it all wrong. They did not understand F1 and time would prove him right. He spoke of having "total support" from the team's sponsors and said that the Mercedes Marlboro McLaren partnership would last "for a good many years yet".

In theory he was right. The 1996 season should have seen McLaren return to the winning circle. The relationship with Mercedes-Benz was in its second year; the Mercedes-Benz engine was very good; the team had two good drivers in MikaÊHakkinen and David Coulthard. There was no shortage of money.

But success never came, and a year after Dennis had spoken of "total support" from the sponsors, the team's biggest backer Marlboro announced that it was giving up its 23-year-relationship with McLaren. Dennis countered by announcing a big deal from West cigarettes but there is no disguising the fact that the loss of Marlboro was a slap in the face for McLaren.

The lack of success in 1995 and 1996 has also meant that McLaren is under increasing pressure from Mercedes-Benz. A team in its third year of a relationship with a major engine manufacturer cannot afford not to be successful, and there is no question that success is long overdue for Mercedes-Benz.

The German car-maker began investing in F1 around 1991, helping Sauber to build a state-of-the-art factory near Zurich. Mercedes decided not to be publicly involved in F1 but agreed to fund the construction (by Ilmor Engineering) of Sauber V10 engines, with which the Swiss team entered F1 in 1993. That season was a success and so in 1994 the Sauber V10s became Mercedes V10s. The season was not a success and at the end of the year Mercedes split with Sauber and signed with McLaren. But still success has not come. Is it the engine?

An F1 engine is only as good as the chassis in which it sits. The two must be considered as a package. Horsepower is important but drivability and mid-range punch are both essential. The aerodynamics affects the top speed. When you analyze the speed traps and sector times in the last season you have to say that the Mercedes V10 looks to be very competitive. The races at which McLaren did well were the fast tracks where the V10s were able to pump out horsepower without the car having to go round too many corners. On the slower tracks - where handling was more important - the team struggled. But all year long Dennis has defended the McLaren chassis - without coming up with an explanation of why the cars were not performing. The argument was always the same: the critics do not understand F1.

Dennis's critics say that McLaren has dropped behind other teams in the race to design F1 chassis and that, until recently, Dennis would not even accept that there was a problem.

One can make a case to suggest that McLaren chassis problems date back to 1990. At the time Senna admitted that the McLaren chassis was not the best in the field. That year he fought for - and won - the World Championship against AlainÊProst's Ferrari.

"I did not have as good a car as he had," said Senna, "but I was able to get on with the team, with the mechanics and engineers, to put together things when it really mattered in such a special way that we were able to beat them."

That year Senna won six races. The following year Ferrari went off the boil, Williams was getting better but McLaren exploited the weakness of its rivals. Senna won seven races and the title. Mansell should have won. In 1992 Williams was unbeatable. Senna would win only three times.

The MP4/8 chassis of 1993 worked well with the electronic systems available to the team, but in 1994 there were complaints from drivers about the MP4/9 chassis. In 1995 Nigel Mansell had no faith at all in the MP4/10. The team worked incredibly hard to produce B and C versions of that car but neither made much of a difference. This year's MP4/11 has regularly been a second or more a lap slower than the Williams-Renaults. At no point did the car look like a winner, except perhaps at Monaco where David Coulthard harried eventual winner Olivier Panis to the flag in a most unusual race. But to finish second to a Ligier these days is not a glowing recommendation for a car.

In the last few months there have been strong - and well-founded - rumors suggesting that Dennis has finally accepted that something needs to be done with chassis design and has been trying to sign up Williams's designer Adrian Newey. The curious thing is that when you talk to F1 engineers all agree that the McLaren men are not idiots.

"There are a good bunch of engineers at McLaren," says one insider, "but no-one is coordinating the whole thing. You need someone to push the project along, balance the input of the different departments and yell when mistakes are made. That just doesn't happen at the moment."

McLaren's style of management is unusual. Traditionally successful Grand Prix teams have been operated by inspirational egocentric leaders. Often there is a duo: a pushy engineer and a pushy businessman. In recent years Dennis has argued that McLaren can be successful without high-profile individuals. His argument is that everyone can be replaced and that mutual respect and company ambition can be made to triumph.

The irony is that McLaren was made successful by Dennis and engineer John Barnard in the early 1980s at a time when both were inspirational leaders: Dennis made a series of brilliant deals, Barnard took risks and built a formidable reputation as an innovator and a hard taskmaster. The combination put the team on the top of the F1 pile.

When Barnard left McLaren to go to Ferrari back in 1986, it was an acrimonious split and many in F1 believe that it was this divorce which formed Dennis's attitudes towards designers. He did not want another high-profile, egocentric star. He wanted team players. He wanted sensible working hours and industrial structures. Shy American Steve Nichols took over, did a great job, but was then poached by Ferrari. Neil Oatley, a talented and experienced engineer at both Williams and FORCE prior to joining McLaren, took over. Oatley has been in charge of a committee of engineers ever since.

Even if one wanted to replace Oatley, the McLaren management style does not appeal to many F1 designers. Top F1 designers have to be men with drive, who think that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They need to have egos. They need to be motivated to put up with the demands of the job. They want recognition when they succeed. They do not want to be part of some corporate entity. They are stars and want to be treated as such.

Is it a problem of structure? Once again it is hard to say.

Ron Dennis is no fool. Back in the glory days he was voted manager of the year by a British business magazine - and that was no fluke. By any standards he is a very successful and intelligent man. A man of exceptional talent.

He left school after taking his O levels and was an apprentice mechanic with the Brooklands-based Thompson & Taylor. He did a course at Guildford Technical College, worked on a racing car production line at Cooper and at 18 found himself a mechanic in Formula 1. At 23 he set up his own racing team and ran a series of operations until 10 years later he was able to become a partner in the down-at-heel McLaren F1 team. He then engineered a takeover of the whole operation with the help of Arab businessman Mansour Ojjeh. Dennis knew how to use the money he had available and with success, so he became a multimillionaire, built exquisite road cars and planned to break the World Land Speed record with "Maverick", a McLaren Advanced Vehicle.

If he had a failing in the old days it was that he adopted an abrasively arrogant attitude toward his rivals and to the F1 world in general. When he began to struggle it was inevitable that he would find little sympathy. It is hard to find anyone in F1 who feels sorry for Dennis. It is also hard to find anyone who will write him off. He may be down but he is not yet out. He may yet deliver a miracle which will put McLaren back on top. One way or another the future of McLaren rests squarely on his shoulders. He seems to enjoy the unfailing support of Ojjeh and as long as he does he is likely to remain at the McLaren helm.

Only time will tell whether Dennis has got it right - or whether the critics have a point.

It will be interesting to watch...