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Mighty McLaren

Back in October last year, I warned that it would be foolish to write off McLaren just because they had a bad season. And I admit to some relief that they have proved me right so far (unlike Honda).

Alonso

Fernando Alonso

When McLaren are good, they are very, very good and they will not lose competitiveness as the season progresses. The car is marginally less quick than the Ferrari at the moment but is likely to get better as the efficiency of the team ensures that improvement continues. The well-oiled machine is up and running and will not let up until all memory of 2006 is erased by a championship.

There has been a lot of speculation that Alonso is becoming rattled by the speed of his teammate. Don’t you believe it. Fernando knows that he is still quickest and he has been in this situation before – in the Renault team, Fisichella was faster than him on rare occasions, after all, but was never going to threaten him for the championship. Alonso/Hamilton is turning out to be a brilliant pairing of excellent drivers but it is the Spaniard who will emerge as the main contender this season. Hamilton’s turn will come later.

Whether we like it or not, the reason for McLaren’s success and efficiency is Ron Dennis. Mike Lawrence of Pitpass has written a very good article on the man that explains the kind of commitment and dedication required to get an F1 team to the level of McLaren. Ron is probably the best team boss of the lot, and that includes Jean Todt.

So the most likely scenario this year is the double for McLaren: the contructor’s award and Alonso as world drivers champion. More debatable is what happens thereafter; Ron has declared that he will step down within the next five years and it remains to be seen what will happen then. Martin Whitmarsh will be the boss but the possibility of Ross Brawn joining the team could make them even stronger in the future. We shall see.

This has been the most difficult to write of all these early season assessments; once the McLaren steamroller gets going, there are few dramas or problems that get in its way. And it’s the difficulties that give us something to talk about – success is just, well, success…

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The Most Wanted Man in Formula One

I seem to be saying “I told you so” a lot these days. And, when a rumor gets out that McLaren want Ross Brawn to work for them in 2008, it’s inevitable that I will say it again. It makes sense that they would want his services, if only to deny them to the competition.

Ross

Ross Brawn

One can understand too why Honda should be thinking about making Brawn an offer he can’t refuse, although it is unlikely that he could start soon enough to help them this year. When you’re as far up the creek without a paddle as Honda are, the chance of an outboard motor like Ross must seem very tempting.

Naturally, Ferrari chime in with Brawn’s promise that he’ll consult with them first; their motives may be similar to McLaren’s, however, and I doubt that they will offer the job that Ross wants – to be team boss. Nothing less will persuade him to work outside England again.

Although I think McLaren will win Ross over in the end, especially as they are talking in terms of next year rather than this (thereby allowing the man to catch a few fish in the meantime), the Honda offer may be quite tempting to him. No doubt there is a fat paycheck attached but, more importantly, there is a matter of the challenge involved. It’s risky but, if he could turn the team around and make them successful, his reputation would be enhanced even further.

What we tend to forget in all these possibilities is that F1 is a competition between teams. The sport has its stars and it is easy to assume that they would succeed wherever they went; history tells us a different story, however. Ferrari’s success over the last few years was achieved because they built a winning team – each of them had a part to play and did so admirably well. But remove a few from the equation and it begins to fall apart. Already there is muttering about the Malaysian GP and how things would have been different had Michael and Ross been there.

There is no such thing as a magic wand in F1. What is required is a whole bunch of them. Consider how John Barnard was regarded with awe while he was with McLaren yet failed to bring Ferrari success thereafter. And now Red Bull has Adrian Newey – the man who was expected to put them at the front of the grid this year. It hasn’t happened because it takes more than one man to make an F1 team.

Even so, Ross Brawn has much to offer the Honda team. He won’t fix the problems with the car but he could build them a team instead. That is clearly what he wants to do next – hence his determination to be boss at Ferrari or nothing. Nick Fry would have to take a lesser role but hey, if you want the best for the team, sometimes sacrifices have to be made. And, if anyone can knock the team into shape, it would be Ross.

The more I think about it, the more I think Ross has a great opportunity here. Even if he went to Ferrari as team boss, he would have Montezemolo looking over his shoulder; the Honda team would be his alone, however. And what a chance to show how important he was in Ferrari’s success!

He’s not asking me but, if he ever did, I’d have to say, “Go on, Ross, live dangerously. Take the Honda job and show us just how good you really are.”

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Fuel to the Brawn Fire

Some people just don’t know how to go on sabbatical. Ross Brawn is obviously bored already with his round-the-world fishing holiday and has been talking to the German magazine, Auto Motor und Sport about his return to F1.

Brawn

Ross Brawn

He says very little but there are hints included that tempt me to say, “I told you so.” From being a certainty, returning to Ferrari as the boss is now just an option. And resuming as technical director won’t cut it anymore. It seems to me that Ross has realized that it may not be as easy to go back to Ferrari as he once thought.

In a year’s time, the team as now constituted will be settled and everyone jealously guarding their position. Stepping down to allow room for Brawn may not be a priority for whoever is leading the team by then. Someone is bound to come up with the idea that, just because Ross was a great technical director, it does not follow that he would make a great team boss.

Clearly, Ross is keeping his options open. He is prepared to give Ferrari first shot at a job offer but it has to be as the boss. Once honor is satisfied, he is up for grabs by any team that makes the right offer.

Most likely to want Brawn is McLaren. Mercedes is apparently a little annoyed by Ron Dennis’ sale of shares to an Arab consortium and may well be looking for ways to increase their hold on the team. Since Ron looks to be preparing for retirement anyway, Ross Brawn might appear at just the right moment to be his replacement, especially as he has already demonstrated a loyalty to his employers and a willingness to tread the company line.

Whatever happens, it is becoming apparent that Brawn’s future is not set in stone – he has options apart from Ferrari and is not averse to considering them. All that remains to be seen is whether Ferrari can continue to win, now that the Schumacher/Todt/Brawn triumvirate is broken and dispersed.

Personally, I doubt it.

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Ferrari Gets the Jitters

Once again, Ferrari has affirmed that Michael Schumacher will be closely involved with the team, even when he is not present at the race. This time, it’s their technical director, Mario Almondo, making the announcement.

Tri

The Triumvirate, Brawn, Todt and Schumacher

It all sounds wonderful, with Michael supplied with a remote connection to the team for instant communication, a big office at HQ for the man and even a role for him as talent scout at karting events. Well, okay, the karting is new but haven’t we heard all the rest before? Isn’t it a case of “methinks the lady (in red) doth protest too much”?

What this constant repetition and confirmation of Michael’s position within the team does tell us is that Ferrari too is a bit nervous about the coming season. For years they have relied on “the dream team” to deliver the results and suddenly it is broken and scattered. Who can blame them for wondering whether success has departed with the mighty three, Schumacher, Todt and Brawn?

So they cover their fears with frequent declarations that nothing has changed, Michael and Todt are still on board, even though in different roles, and the red machine will roll smoothly on into the future. It’s themselves they’re trying to convince, not us.

It is apparent too that Ferrari has begun to have doubts about Kimi’s suitability for the team. Last week he was promised a talking-to about his offtrack behaviour, this week we are given the promise that he will smile a lot more. Now there’s one that might not be so easy to deliver, and I’m not even sure I want to see what the frozen-faced Finn’s smile looks like. We are so used to the flat delivery of the men from the land of lakes and forests, after all.

My theory is that it’s not so much that the Finns have absorbed the icy nature of their homeland but rather that their language produces the deadpan, passionless sound that we hear when they speak English. We call them the icemen but in reality they are as passionate as anyone else – it just doesn’t come across that way when they speak a tongue foreign to them. Remember Mika Hakkinen’s despair and tears when he threw away an Italian Grand Prix through a silly mistake?

And now Ferrari wants Kimi to smile. Pardon me for saying so, but there is implied criticism of their new employee in that idea. And that is hardly the way to welcome your new hope for the future.

All signs of nervousness in the Ferrari camp. If I were to wish them well (and I don’t – you know I’m backing Button for 2007), I’d tell them that we already know that Michael will continue in an advisory role and just to get on with it. But as for Kimi, my advice would be to leave the poor guy alone; give him the car and he’ll produce the goods – who cares about his public persona if he’s the fastest man on the track?

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