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Michael Schumacher and Ferrari’s dominance of Formula One has driven rival teams to extremes as they try to close the gap. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent developing engines, building wind tunnels, chasing a vital few tenths of a second per lap. The opening Grand Prix of the season on Sunday in Melbourne will show whether these efforts have been worthwhile.
For the McLaren Mercedes team, however, progress has not been restricted to technical innovation alone. Ron Dennis, the team boss, has strengthened his driver line-up, recruiting Juan Pablo Montoya, the fiery Colombian, to drive alongside Kimi Raikkonen, of Finland.
Not since he paired Ayrton Senna with Alain Prost in 1988 has an F1 team had such an exciting combination of drivers. Both are hard, aggressive racers who combine stunning speed with fearless commitment. Although their mutual goal is to beat Schumacher, the struggle for supremacy within the team will be one of the most thrilling aspects of the coming season.
“We have two great drivers in our team and I think that these two guys are going to be spectacular racing against each other,” says Dennis. “It’s the best driver pairing in F1, no question, because they get into their cars knowing that they can race each other.”
But superteams do carry a health warning. The Senna/Prost experiment was hugely successful in terms of results, but proved a nightmare to manage as rivalry turned into hatred. They became self-destructive: Prost collided with Senna to snatch the 1989 world title and the following year, with Prost at Ferrari, Senna repaid the insult with interest, driving Prost off the road at more than 120mph.
Dennis, however, has no fears that Raikkonen and Montoya will go the same way.
“The cultural and character differences between Senna and Prost were significantly greater than between Kimi and Juan Pablo and I do not envisage having the same sort of problems,” he says. “The other difference is that I am quite a bit older and that gives me a bit of edge.
“These two drivers have phenomenal car control, are fearless and there is an intuitive approach to their racing. They are slightly different in how they get there. Kimi is more introvert, he is cooler and less volatile than Juan Pablo, but I don’t think that the guided Juan Pablo is going to be as volatile as he’s been in the past because he’ll learn that it’s not a constructive way forward. I think they will work exceptionally well together.”
Montoya has never appeared the sort of character who would respond well to attempts to direct or control him. The 29-year-old , who is due to become a father for the first time next month, is a force of nature.
Prodigiously gifted, he has tended to rely on his talent and eschew the work ethic that has made Schumacher the benchmark for all modern drivers. This has long been obvious within F1 circles. Although he had a strong run at the 2003 championship, he still lapsed into mistakes, which rarely happens to Raikkonen.
Sir Frank Williams never seriously attempted to mould Montoya when the Colombian drove for the BMW-Williams team. He made occasional references to Schumacher’s dedication, hinting that Montoya would benefit from similar application, but always stopped short of intervening.
Williams is a strong believer in leaving drivers to their own devices. Dennis takes the opposite view and believes, that under his management Montoya will reach greater heights. He also points to his experience of managing Senna as proof that he knows how to get the best from Latin drivers.
“With South American drivers, working in English as a second language, using analogies and mental pictures gives the flavour of a message. Juan Pablo has lost six kilos, he’s fitter, his eyes are brighter, you can see that he has a far more focused approach. He wasn’t told to do it. We said: ‘This is the upside of being fitter. You are better equipped to drive hard all the way through the Grand Prix.’ Our team is about creating an environment in which the drivers perform well. There has been a lot of good humour between them and we want to foster that. Keeping them light is what it’s going to be about.”
Montoya has settled in to his new team remarkably quickly. He is well advised, with Julian Jakobi, Senna’s former manager, a strong figure in the background, and he knows that in Raikkonen he faces a much tougher adversary than Ralf Schumacher, his former Williams team-mate. The McLaren treatment is working.
“Williams was a great team, but I came here because I think I can do better things,” he says. “I’m making sure I don’t leave anything out. They are motivating me to get more out of myself; that I never had at Williams. They give me the tools to get more out of myself.”
Such statements are music to Dennis’s ears. Montoya is fully on-message. He now has a full-time trainer, a tough Scottish ex-serviceman who is paid by the team.
Whereas before, Montoya regarded a few hours riding his moto-cross bike as a work-out, now he trains like an athlete. He needs to. Raikkonen, 25, is well established and is revered within the McLaren team, and Montoya knows that he needs to be on top of every aspect of his game, if he is to challenge the ice-cool Finn.
“I’m not expecting to go quicker than Kimi straight away,” he says. “He’s been with the team for three years. It will be hard for me. I’m not expecting to be on his pace for the first few races. But I get on fine with Kimi, we have a lot in common and there is no rivalry at the moment. First we have to try to beat everyone else before we find out which of us is the fastest.”
Winter testing has indicated that Ferrari’s domination is under threat and that McLaren’s hard work has paid off. They have traded fastest times with Renault throughout winter testing and Dennis believes there is more to come. “Both of our drivers have been carrying some time in their pocket. They both have something left.”
Going into Sunday’s race they appear to be the pace-setters. Ferrari will not introduce their new car until May and this offers rivals the chance to chalk up a few wins and gain a head-start in the title race. From then on, the fight is expected to be intense.
James Allen is lead F1 commentator for ITV Sport