McLaren and Honda enjoyed what can only be called mixed fortunes at the opening test in Jerez, but this is of course just the opening chapter of the story. We all know what the Japanese manufacturer is capable of, and history suggests that things will come together. The two Barcelona tests will give us more idea of the potential of the package, and I have no doubts that as the season progresses the lessons learned in a chilly Spain over the course of February will pay dividends.
Following the progress of the MP4-30 in Jerez from home via the internet brought to mind memories of a circuit that I always enjoyed visiting, and which so often seemed to produce eventful weekends. None was more memorable than the last Grand Prix there in 1997, when McLaren was one of the major players over the course of one of the most extraordinary weekends the sport has seen in recent decades.
It's only in the last few years that Jerez has become established as the crucial first test session of the season, although it has never gone out of fashion, and has been in continuous use since '97. Indeed I note from my research that back in the days of unrestricted testing the place was in action for as many as 43 days in both 2005 and 2006, over 10 separate sessions each year – figures that look astonishing now.
We only had seven Grands Prix in Jerez, but I have to say I have fond memories of the place. When we first went there in 1986 Spain had been without a Grand Prix for five years. Montjuich Park had long ago been abandoned, and Jarama had fallen out of favour. Then someone decided that it was a good idea to build a circuit in what was in reality a pretty remote part of the country. Jerez was far away from the population centres of Barcelona and Madrid, where there was at least some following for a sport that as I recall had virtually no regular TV coverage in Spain at the time.
New circuits always have the difficult job of living up to expectations, and it was even more apparent in those days – think of the moves from Clermont-Ferrand to Paul Ricard, Spa to Nivelles and Zolder, or the old Nurburgring to the 'ersatz' new version of the track.
Jerez was fortunate in that nobody was too bothered about the loss of scruffy old Jarama, and 11 years after that tragic 1975 race, Montjuich Park, much as we loved it, was but a fading memory. Thus Jerez didn't have to do much to impress, and in any case, we were all pleased to be back in Spain. The fact that we were in the heart of wine and sherry country, and the weather was pretty much guaranteed to be perfect, made it a very pleasant place to go for a motor race. I had no complaints!
In fact the circuit turned out to be much better than we might have expected. It was a first class facility by the standards of 1986, and it had some dauntingly fast corners, with a bumpy surface adding to the challenge. The drivers enjoyed it, and overall, the sport gave it a thumbs-up.
There were also no concerns about traffic jams on race morning given that the place attracted very few spectators, and in those pre-Alonso days the grandstands were nearly empty throughout the weekend. Clearly there was a financial imperative for us to be there, and to some degree the race pointed the way forward for the sport – what mattered was not bums on seats, but promoting the city and the region, and its sherry interests, to a worldwide TV audience.
That first race is fondly remembered for the extraordinary finish that saw Ayrton Senna's Lotus cross the line a matter of inches ahead of the Williams of Nigel Mansell. For the next four years the track played host to the Spanish GP, and it proved to be a successful hunting ground for McLaren, with victories for Alain Prost ('88) and Senna ('89). The appeal of the place waned somewhat after Martin Donnelly's horrific crash in 1990, but by then greater forces were at work. The momentum behind the 1992 Barcelona Olympics led to the creation of the Circuit de Catalunya, which from 1991 became the new home of the Spanish GP.
The Jerez people didn't give up, and when circumstances allowed they were able to claim the European GP title in 1994, and again in 1997. It's the latter race, by chance the last of a closely fought season, which has gone down as the most memorable in the venue's history.
The big story was of course the battle for the World Championship between Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve. In qualifying we had the extraordinary and somewhat inexplicable spectacle of both the title contenders and Villeneuve's team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen setting identical lap times. In the race we had a tense cat-and-mouse battle that ended when Villeneuve attempted to pass Michael – with a decisive and bold move of which his father Gilles would have been proud. A clumsy attempt at 'defence' by Schumacher ended with the Ferrari beached in the gravel.
Anyone who had given the German the benefit of the doubt after his collision with Damon Hill in Adelaide three years earlier now had to accept that there was more than a little Dick Dastardly about the way he went about his racing. He was called to account by the FIA, and eventually given the virtually meaningless penalty of losing his second place in the championship.
The other big story of the race was the first Grand Prix victory achieved by Mika Hakkinen – an achievement that got lost in the smokescreen of the title showdown.
Having put his 1995 Adelaide crash behind him, Mika had matured enormously through the 1996 and 1997 seasons. In the latter year the McLaren MP4-12 had finally given him the tools with which to consistently challenge for race wins. However, he was thwarted by mechanical gremlins, most notably at Silverstone and the Nurburgring, where he had recorded his first pole.
Adding to his frustration was the fact that team-mate David Coulthard won in Australia and Italy, and scored significantly more points. Certainly the feeling among my colleagues at the time was that Hakkinen was on the verge of a major breakthrough, and would be a title challenger in 1998. What he really needed was to get that elusive first win out of the way, a milestone that would open the floodgates. If he could do it before the 1997 season was done, it would be the perfect springboard for the following year. And that is exactly what happened – but in the most extraordinary circumstances.
Having traded places at the first pit stops, by the middle of the race Coulthard and Hakkinen ran in third and fourth places, a little way back from the frenetic title battle. After Schumacher's self-inflicted demise on the 48th of the 69 laps they eased into second and third, with only Villeneuve ahead. The French-Canadian was now World Champion elect – but only if he could bring the car safely across the line in at least fifth place. In other words he didn't actually have to run flat out and win, and could afford to back off, lose a few places, and cruise safely home.
In fact there was more going on than we knew at the time. Ron Dennis and Frank Williams had enjoyed an informal chat before the race, and the crux of it was that the McLaren drivers would not get in the way of the title battle. With Schumacher out of the way, the circumstances had changed somewhat, and it was payback time. Villeneuve was reminded on the radio that he didn't have to win the race, and it might be sensible if he allowed the two McLaren drivers to pass.
That was only half the story, for within the McLaren camp there was also much urgent radio traffic. With three laps to go David let Mika through into second, and then on the very last lap both McLaren drivers slipped neatly past Villeneuve, duly crossing the line to record McLaren's first one-two finish since the 1991 Japanese GP. Hakkinen looked a little shell-shocked as he alighted from his car, and he wasn't the only one. In the media centre we were not yet fully aware of the machinations that had gone on, and there was a 'what just happened?' feeling among us as we tried to put the pieces together.
The bottom line was that Mika had scored his first Grand Prix victory, albeit one that was somewhat lost amid the Villeneuve celebrations and the immediate fallout of Schumacher's manoeuvre. Nevertheless once the dust settled the circumstances of Mika's victory came sharply into focus, and Coulthard's frustration at having handed over a victory was all too apparent.
“At McLaren the rule is that there are no team instructions given to a driver during the period in which he can mathematically win the World Championship,” Ron Dennis would explain. “But after that point has been reached, I think the team can justifiably expect that the drivers perform for the team before themselves.
“In our efforts not to interfere with the World Championship, we reversed the first pit stop sequence previously agreed for Mika and David. Mika stopped first and that advantaged David, and therefore I decided, when Villeneuve was not going to risk any overtaking manoeuvre, to instruct David to reverse the order again.”
Inevitably there was much sympathy in the paddock for Coulthard, but Ron – as has always been his style – saw a bigger picture.
“I don't have to justify this to anybody, and you might say that it was a hollow win for Mika. But for him not to have won a race in his career, not through the lack of his own efforts, would not have been right. I felt completely justified in taking off his shoulders for 1998 the psychological pressure of not having won a race.”
He continued: “There were lots of races he should have won, but didn't. You might argue that this was a race he shouldn't have won, but he did. But I only reversed a situation that the team had already created, and the disappointment that was clearly on David's face – and I'm being kind to myself saying 'disappointment' – was due to the fact that there had been no dialogue before the race, and he couldn't understand why we were apparently being unfair to him.”
In the aftermath of the race Ferrari complained about the apparent “collusion” between Williams and McLaren – others saw a blatant effort at blocking Villeneuve by the lapped Ferrari-powered Sauber of the hapless Norberto Fontana as a far greater sin. Nevertheless, the FIA World Council looked into the McLaren/Williams situation. Quite rightly, the charges were dismissed almost before the hearing started.
In the end, Dennis was proved right. The maiden win did indeed put Mika in a good frame of mind as he headed into the winter, and it helped to give him a flying start as he began what turned out to be a successful campaign for the 1998 World Championship.
Unfortunately for Coulthard at the very next race after Jerez, the season opener in Melbourne, circumstances once again conspired against him. For a second time he lost a win after he was ordered to let Hakkinen through, and the balance of power in the camp continued to move towards his team mate. But that's a story for another day...