The McLaren empire strikes back

McLaren’s performance in Brazil, as had been predicted, was a huge disappointment. But only to the rest of the pit lane.

Having been the butt, if you’ll pardon the pun, of jokes about Nigel Mansell’s inability to fit into his new car, Ron Dennis handled an awkward situation with both wit and candour. “We certainly made an error,” he confessed. So had the press corps. Having confidently predicted the fall of the McLaren empire, the vultures gathered to bury the crowd pleaser, not to praise him. But left praising him anyway.

“We’ve put quite a few smiles on the faces of a lot of people in Grand Prix racing, because they’ve seen us apparently struggle,” conceded the McLaren boss. “The car has some innovative concepts which people have also smiled at. Hopefully, those smiles will disappear. The only thing that ever takes a smile off someone’s face is when they’re actually beaten. That’s our objective. I think we’re going to be a lot better this weekend than people anticipate.”

He was right.

Sporting substantial modifications to its rear suspension, the MP4/10 was clearly some way short of being a world-beater, but was nowhere as disastrous as its testing form — or rather lack of it — had indicated.

Mika Hakkinen and Mark Blundell impressed, both with their endeavour on the track and their diplomacy away from it. But just as there was no hiding the plasters which bore testimony to the Briton’s discomfort in the cockpit, the fact that the cars were two seconds adrift of the pace was also evident from the timesheets after first qualifying.

Although Benetton’s improvement demoted both men further in the final session, they were by now only one second from Damon Hill’s benchmark. “If we break that down to half a second for the chassis, and half a second for the engine, that’s not such a bad start,” stressed Mercedes competitions boss Norbert Haug. “Before Brazil, we were quite prepared to start 15th, and build from there.” If the Stuttgart giant was clearly relieved to see its new partner’s discomfort slightly eased, the race itself brought further solace in the form of two points finishes.

“Only a fool would ever discount McLaren,” said Dennis, having nicely extricated himself from his own pre-season hype. But then, having suggested, “I think optimism is a weakness,” he went on to boast: “I don’t have any doubt that the future will show this to be one of the strongest partnerships, if not the strongest, that has ever been formed in Formula One.”

The passing of time may well prove him correct. But, right now, it is a prediction which sits rather like McLaren’s drivers: uncomfortably.