McLaren caught on a rollercoaster ride

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LONDON, Sep 12 (Reuters) Ron Dennis likened his Italian Grand Prix weekend to a ''difficult, emotional rollercoaster'' and even as he said it, the McLaren boss knew that the stomach-churning ride was far from over.

Among many twists and turns, another vertiginous drop awaits at a hearing of Formula One's governing body in Paris tomorrow.

The meeting of the International Automobile Federation World Motor Sport Council, the FIA's top sporting body, will consider new evidence against McLaren in a long-running spying controversy with Ferrari.

If found to have benefited from a dossier of Ferrari technical information seized from the home of their suspended chief designer Mike Coughlan, McLaren could be kicked out of this and next year's championship.

The elation of the Mercedes-powered team's historic one-two at Monza, their first in Ferrari's backyard, could turn to despair.

Even if that worst case scenario does not happen, there are many who suspect that the championship leaders will be stripped of some or all of their constructors' points.

What happens to the drivers, with 22-year-old British rookie Lewis Hamilton leading Spanish double world champion team mate Fernando Alonso by just three points in the standings with four races to go, is another burning question.

The irony for Dennis, a self-made multi-millionaire who started out as a mechanic with Cooper-Maserati in 1966, is that all this is happening just when there should be so much to celebrate.

After failing to win a race last year, McLaren have taken seven of the 13 grands prix to date and have two great drivers jousting in one of the most thrilling championships in years.

INTEGRITY QUESTIONED Dennis, caught wiping away tears as well as champagne in a rare show of emotion after Sunday's win, has seen the integrity of his team questioned as they spiral from crisis to crisis. His own future at the helm has been called into doubt.

First there was the deteriorating relationship between Hamilton and Alonso, who had hoped to be number one but instead found himself upstaged by the novice.

Then there was the debacle of Hungary, with the team stripped of 15 constructors' points after Alonso impeded Hamilton in qualifying.

Last weekend there was a 50,000 dollar fine for the use in Hungary of a gearbox that had not passed a crash test and the appearance of Italian magistrates in the paddock to notify senior McLaren management that they were under investigation.

McLaren cannot claim they have not made mistakes. Even if Coughlan was acting as a rogue element for his own benefit, there is no denying that he had 780 pages of highly confidential Ferrari information.

What is in question is how deep that went into the team, despite McLaren's assurances that none was incorporated into their cars.

STRAINED RELATIONS The personalities of key players, and historic rivalries and animosity, add another twist to the drama.

It is no secret that FIA President Max Mosley, whose easy aristocratic charm masks a steely determination, and fellow-Briton Dennis do not come high on each other's Christmas card lists.

''Many Formula One insiders believe that the issues surrounding the stolen Ferrari technical data are emblematic of the strained personal relationship between Dennis and Max Mosley,'' was how experienced commentator Alan Henry put it in the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday.

Dennis was asked at Monza whether he felt McLaren were being victimised. The 60-year-old avoided the question, careful not to lend credence to any suggestion of a vendetta. He made clear also that he would not be forced into retirement.

In the past, paddock wags have suggested that FIA stands for 'Ferrari International Assistance' and triple champion and former team owner Jackie Stewart alluded to that perceived influence.

''The FIA have historically been very close to Ferrari and closer to them than anyone else,'' he told Reuters.

''It seems that some of the most powerful people in this sport are more aligned to Ferrari than anybody else.'' Rival team owner Frank Williams was more circumspect:''I won't use the word witch-hunt, but there is enormous tenacity to find out what happened,'' he said of the governing body's handling of the enquiry.

An FIA spokesman said such comments were to be expected but referred back to the evidence.

''This enquiry was triggered by a letter of complaint from Ferrari which was, in turn, triggered by the extraordinary discovery of 780 pages of their most confidential technical information in the hands of McLaren's chief designer,'' he said.

''Under the circumstances, the suggestion that the FIA's ongoing investigation is about anything other than the pursuit of sporting fairness demonstrates a blinding refusal to accept the basic facts.'' Reuters TB VP0650

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