Modern Times

Running a Formula One team is a drama enacted on a very public stage. You get glory when you win, and you get an endless stream of complacent, told-you-so criticism when you don’t. Secrets are hard to keep, so the whole world can gossip happily about the innermost details of your initiatives, your strategies, your dealings with your own people. And when things aren’t going well, everyone in the paddock seems to derive pleasure from your discomfort. The nearer the top you are, the more overt the expressions of schadenfreude when you start to topple.

So spare a thought for Ron Dennis. Since he took over in 1980, McLaren has won 108 grands prix — more than any other team in the same period. In those 17 seasons, it has taken 16 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships. Yet this is the same team that, in the first 10 races of this season, has had five embarrassing start-line failures, two suspension breakages, one electronically-linked clutch failure.

Mika Haldtinen has been even less fortunate: in Spain his car failed him when he was leading, and the former world champion has but nine points to show from 10 races.

Almost more seriously, McLaren has shown weakening Saturday pace. Coulthard took two glittering poles at Imola and Monte Carlo, but at seven of the first 10 races this year one or both silver-and-black cars have failed to make it onto the first two rows. So what has gone wrong? Ron Dennis has briskly quashed suggestions that the team has lost direction, saying — with a typically odd choice of words — “We are comfortable with what we are doing.” But he concedes that recent events have upset the balance and harmony of the team. He’s referring, of course, to the tug-of-love with Jaguar over design chief Adrian Newey. That ended with Newey opting toy, but the episode can hardly have strengthened his relationship with his colleagues.

Back at base, the magnificent new Paragon showcase factory, still under construction, has been soaking up much senior executive time. Meanwhile Coulthard and Newey have both admitted this year’s McLaren chassis currently doesn’t use its tyres well enough on a single qualifying lap.

But these are all short-term reasons. The longer term may be more daunting. History indicates there is in the fortunes of F1 teams, as in big companies, as in political parties, a kind of flywheel effect It takes a long time to get to the top. But when you pass a peak and start to come down the other side, the hardest thing is to reverse the trend. I’m not saying that McLaren is Marks & Spencer; but you get the idea.

During the 1950s and into the ’60s, the pendulum used to swing more quickly. A team could win everything one season, spend a year in the doldrums, and then clamber back to the top again. These days, long and carefully-nurtured relationships with engine builders and sponsors, plus mighty investments in technological development, modem factories and wind tunnels have slowed the whole process down. The peaks are higher, but the troughs are deeper.

At the moment, Ferrari is at a peak, one of perhaps half a dozen they’ve enjoyed since they started to vanquish Alfa Romeo in 1951. They were overshadowed by Mercedes, then shone again until the advent of those impudent English garagistes’ rear-engined cars. They copied them to such good effect that they were dominating again in ’61, and fought back to take drivers’ and constructors’ titles in ’64. But the next peak didn’t come until the Lauda era in the mid-70s. It lasted untillody Scheckter’s ’79 tide: but the fall the following season, with the ungainly T5, was swift True glory didn’t return until the dream team of Schumacher, Brawn, Byrne and Todt was in place — and even then it took five years.

Lotus, in 37 seasons of F1, had peaks and troughs which coincided with the volatile life and technical bursts of genius of its founder Colin Chapman. There were the glory years of the 25, the 49, the 72 and the 79, helped by drivers of the stature of Clark, Hill, Rindt, Fittipaldi and Andretti. And there were the years out in the cold. Somehow Chapman always bounced back, but after his death in 1982 it needed an Ayrton Senna to bring back the wins for a while before seven empty years and final disappearance.

Williams had its first peak at the start of the 1980s, with Alan Jones’ championship and back-to-back constructors’ titles, and then came Keke Rosberg’s crown which had more to do with consistency than outright wins. It battled with McLaren for the rest of the 1980s, but the loss of Honda power pulled it down. It rose again with Renault, but from September 1997 to April 2001 there were no wins while the BMW relationship was signed and then nurtured to maturity. Now they have become the closest challengers to Ferrari, and it is McLaren who are on the back foot. If you follow my pendulum theory to its logical conclusion, you could postulate a starting grid a few seasons in the future with perhaps Jaguar and a Honda-controlled team battling for top honours, while Ferrari, McLaren and Williams fight over the third step of the podium and Toyota come through as the young hopefuls.

With the might of Ford, BMW, Toyota, Mercedes, Fiat, Renault and Honda all determined to get a return on their ever-increasing investment, F1 will go on getting tougher. In fact, the biggest swings may come from a big car manufacturer facing an economic downturn and a need to cut budgets, or a boardroom reshuffle ushering in a boss who is less persuaded of the return on spending millions on motor racing. While the fortunes of the great teams ebb and flow, the success of the great drivers follows a quite different pattern. Generally, a driver’s career follows a single curve. You develop your talent to a peak: then, having passed it, you don’t get quicker, only slower.

The variable is the steepness of the curve up, and down. Some arrive very fast, and are a long time slipping back down the grid. A very few, like Alain Prost, stop while they’re still up there, and never subject themselves to the public indignity of getting slower. Tragically, Ayrton Senna had no choice in the matter, but surely he would never have allowed himself to go through that diminishing process; nor can I imagine an elderly Michael Schumacher needing, or wanting, to hustle for a drive at the future equivalent of Prost or Minardi. But many drivers would be seen in a better light by the historians had they retired before they did: both Damon and Graham Hill should have hung up thier helmets earlier than they did. Going up and going down, the process is accelerated by the available opportunity. If you’re a young hotshoe, you attract suitors from top teams while you’re still cheap. By the time you get to your peak, you’re expensive, and much is expected.

Who can say to the thousandth of a second how much Haldcinen’s problems this season are due to McLaren, and how much due to the Finn starting that imperceptible curve down?

Of course, the curve of a driver’s career also depends on being in the right team at the right time. A driver may reach his peak almost invisibly, because the team he’s driving for is far from its own peak. Good or bad timing can make or ruin a driver’s whole career. At this year’s European GP, when his cars qualified fifth and sixth, Dennis said in a burst of candour that McLaren was currently not the team it was, and would be again. What isn’t clear is the timescale of that remark. It could be years, but Ron hopes it’ll be weeks. David Coulthard must hope so too. He is at his peak now: if he is to realise his life’s ambition, he needs McLaren to be at a peak too.