NOVEMBER 20, 1995

Will McLaren get Prost?

WHILE Ron Dennis hopes that Mika Hakkinen will be fit to drive for McLaren next year, he will also be having to face up the fact that he may have lost the Finn and will have to make contingency plans to replace him.

WHILE Ron Dennis hopes that Mika Hakkinen will be fit to drive for McLaren next year, he will also be having to face up the fact that he may have lost the Finn and will have to make contingency plans to replace him.

The loss of Hakkinen would be a bad blow for Dennis. McLaren does, however, have David Coulthard signed up and the Scot could easily slide into the number one role. The team also has testing agreements with Jan Magnussen and Alain Prost and either is quite capable of stepping in if necessary.

If Hakkinen is not well enough to race, Prost would be the ideal choice for Dennis and, at last week's Adelaide press conference Ron admitted that he had been talking with the French star.

"There is a possibility he could become an integral part of our team," said the McLaren team boss. "There is some possibility he could race, but that's very, very, premature."

Despite the fact that Alain will be 41 before the 1996 season kicks off, he is likely to be competitive. He retired as WorldÊChampion in November 1993 and tried - without success - to use the Ligier team to set up his own F1 team. He tested a McLaren-Peugeot at the start of 1994, but decided not to join the team and embarked on a relationship with Renault to be the firm's roving ambassador. He terminated this agreement a few months ago and has since tested both a Mercedes touring car and the current McLaren-Mercedes.

Alain has been very clear that he is not interested in just being a driver. He wants more. And that is likely to mean plenty of discussion in the press once again about shareholdings in McLaren. At a time when there are rumors that Mansour Ojjeh is willing to sell his majority shareholding in the team, Dennis cannot expect Prost to agree to drive without suitable enticement and Alain is not going to dip into his own pocket to pay for a shareholding and Ojjeh is unlikely to be giving his shares away as he will want to recoup some of the losses made by the McLaren F1 supercar program. The shadowy presence of American entrepreneur Roger Penske - linked to McLaren through his connections with Marlboro, Mercedes and Mobil in American business and racing - has yet to be intelligently explained away.

Multibillionaires like Penske do not just turn up at Grands Prix to sit in on FOCA meetings, as happened at the Nurburgring recently. Penske is one of the leading lights of Indycar racing and as such is one of FOCA's rivals in the global motorsport market. Penske has long been rumored to be buying a share of McLaren, although at Suzuka, Dennis said that these stories were the result of a joke he and FOCA boss Bernie Ecclestone had played on the other F1 team owners.

The attitudes of Marlboro and Mercedes are going to be vital in the months ahead, because without their support McLaren would be in very big trouble. It was Marlboro which engineered the merger between the old Team McLaren and Dennis's Project 4 Racing in 1980, which gave Ron control of McLaren International. At the time Marlboro was unhappy that McLaren had won no races in three years and no championships in a four-year period. Dennis will be very aware that the team has just completed its second full season without a win and it is now four full seasons since McLaren last won a World title. Some of McLaren's other sponsors are not expected to continue in 1995, notably Boss and Courtaulds although neither withdrawal has yet been confirmed.

In reality, the future of the team rests squarely on Dennis's ability to convince the world that he can overcome the current problems. He created one of the strongest teams ever seen in F1 history and is a man of undeniable talents. The McLaren operation is a remarkable one and with the backing of Mercedes-Benz on the engine front it should be winning races next year.

The loss of Hakkinen would be a setback but no decision is necessary for some months yet because Prost is unlikely to make any decision about driving until he has tried out the 1996 McLaren - which will not appear until the New Year.