Woking wounded

German nightmare for McLaren

As egg on the face goes, Ron Dennis knew that the yoke was on him.

It wasn’t only the weather which was miserable at the Nurburgring, for in front of 9000 Mercedes-Benz guests, including the German giant’s hierarchy, McLaren-Mercedes endured a disastrous Grand Prix of Europe.

Both its drivers, like their Ferrari counterparts, gambled by starting on slick tyres on a wet but drying surface. But where Jean Alesi was soon leading by over half a minute, and, with a second stop for fresh tyres, could arguably have won the race, Mika Hakkinen and Mark Blundell found themselves fighting not with Schumacher and Hill, but with Jean-Denis Deletraz’s Pacific at the rear of the field.

Blundell eventually retired, and there was no doubting it was a merciful release, while his team-mate struggled to a startlingly unimpressive eighth. So what went wrong?

‘What went right?’ would appear the more appropriate question, but there is no doubting that during the second half of the season McLaren has improved its package considerably. But, having honed its recalcitrant MP4/10B chassis into a reasonably competitive proposition, it opted to rush through a much-modified successor a month earlier than planned. Where the MP4/10C was scheduled to see service only in the final three races of the season, it was instead thrown into the fray at Estoril and at the new ‘Ring.

So unstable was its balance, that in both races the drivers opted to run ‘hybrid’ cars, incorporating the rear suspension and floor of the older, hitherto unloved, machine.

“You could say, ‘Well, you really made a massive and very silly mistake,” conceded Dennis of the 10C’s introduction. “And everybody could understandably criticise our actions. But if you just come with what you’ve got from the previous Grand Prix, your performance will be the same. There is no magic in life. The only way you are going to make progress is by believing in what you are trying to achieve and trying to take steps. Sometimes they move you forward, sometimes they move you back.”

The new car handled with all the aplomb of, well, something that didn’t handle at all, really. That was in no part due to a lack of effort on the Woking manufacturer’s behalf. Prior to the car’s debut, McLaren went so far as to buy-out another team’s prearranged test agreement at Silverstone in order that it could put some mileage on the chassis. Then, in spite of an already hefty logistical problem of freighting cars between Portugal and Germany for successive weekends, it stayed on at Estoril in an attempt to address some of the problems.

“Our goal is undiminished,” stressed Dennis. “Our job is to try to win races, and therefore you’ve got to be adventurous. But as I’ve said before, it is a moving target that we’re shooting at.”

And, initially at least, the new car was patently wide of the mark.

“It is virtually undriveable, but has more grip than the 10B and therefore the potential to be quicker,” admits Hakkinen. “The question is: can we realise that potential?”