Open season

For most of the F1 year four drivers wrangled over the title chase – including spectacular newcomer Lewis Hamilton. But even Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the finale…
By Nigel Roebuck

After failing to win a race in 2006, McLaren won eight times in ’07, yet in so many ways Ron Dennis will remember this as his annus horribilis. The team’s relationship with one driver deteriorated to the point of disintegration, while the other lost the World Championship at the final race. And that was only the half of it.

The season was all about McLaren – and, inevitably, Ferrari. BMW-Sauber vaulted up the pecking order, while Renault slid down it, and Honda was not less than an embarrassment to a great name. As expected, Alonso, Räikkönen and Massa were much to the fore, with Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg in the wings, while such as Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher slipped over the horizon. Sebastian Vettel put a marker down for the future, while another rookie did rather more than that…

As the New Year dawned, the Formula 1 landscape was more hazy than for a very long time, and that in itself brought an unusual degree of anticipation. Much had changed since the closing race of 2006, in Brazil, not least the fact that now everyone was on the same tyres (supplied by Bridgestone), that World Champion Fernando Alonso had moved from Renault to McLaren, and that his major rival Kimi Räikkönen had switched from McLaren to Ferrari. And perhaps most significant of all was the disappearance, after 15 years in Formula 1, of Michael Schumacher.

That was how it looked as post-Christmas testing resumed, and already the signs were that McLaren, having failed to win a race in 2006, would displace Renault as the major challenger to Ferrari. Out of the box, the MP4-22 was both quick and reliable, and reigning World Champion Alonso was widely talked up as favourite to win a third consecutive title in ’07.

When Ron Dennis announced that his other driver would be Lewis Hamilton, there was surprise in some quarters, former McLaren driver David Coulthard, for one, suggesting that Hamilton had been brought into the team too early. Within McLaren itself there was endless debate, but when Dennis pointed out that Hamilton, rookie or not, was better than anyone else available, it was difficult to take issue.

Alonso, at this point, was entirely content with his decision to join McLaren. When he visited the team’s Norman Foster-designed HQ for the first time, he asked for an opportunity to address the entire workforce. “I’m yours now,” he began, and he went on to speak emotionally about what it meant to him to be a McLaren driver. “By the time he’d finished,” said an onlooker, “everyone in the place had fallen in love…”

Well, maybe so, but Jackie Stewart sounded a cautionary note as he looked to the season ahead. “Alonso’s a great racing driver, but he’s the new boy in the team – Hamilton may be an F1 rookie, but he’s been part of the McLaren family for a very long time. Fernando’s got to prove something – he’s got to make his mark in the team, because he knows that the McLaren romance with Lewis is a very big one…”

All looked set reasonably fair, but over in Maranello there was rather more uncertainty, for not only Schumacher – winner of five consecutive World Championships for Ferrari – was gone from the scene. Absent, too – perhaps only on sabbatical, perhaps not – was Ross Brawn, whose contribution to the team, both as technical director and unequalled strategist, had been immeasurable. In his place was Mario Almondo, something of an unknown quantity in this job, while Räikkönen joined Felipe Massa on the driving strength.

Jean Todt, somewhat against his wishes, was persuaded to continue as team principal, and many wondered how easily Räikkönen’s approach to racing – in fact to life in general – would sit with his new employer, which had been for so long accustomed to the Schumacher work ethic. Kimi, dour at the circuits but a party animal of legend away from them, had never been renowned for his enthusiasm for endless debriefs.

For countless years Ferrari had remained committed to Bridgestone, but over time major rivals had drifted away to Michelin, believing that otherwise they would be obliged to race on ‘Ferrari tyres’. True or not, undeniably there had been a special relationship between the two companies (not least because of Schumacher), and when the FIA announced that there would be a single tyre supplier for 2008 and beyond, and Michelin declined to get involved in a bidding war, there was some consternation among Ferrari’s rivals, who suspected that the team’s intimate knowledge of all things Bridgestone would give it a distinct advantage in 2007. This gathered strength when Ferrari’s F2007 was announced, for the long-wheelbase car was somewhat at odds with other teams’ designs, making them wonder if Maranello knew something they didn’t.

In point of fact, the fears proved relatively groundless, Massa pointing out that the latest generation of Bridgestones was so different from those gone before that Ferrari, too, was learning about something new.

For many teams – and drivers – coming to terms with the new tyres was not the work of a moment. Räikkönen may have won the opening race, in Melbourne, but the best part of half a season would pass before, after years of a McLaren on Michelins, he came fully to terms with a Ferrari on Bridgestones. And if McLaren quickly adapted to this very different rubber, others – notably Renault – did not. Alonso had every reason to believe that he had made a smart move.

On one front, though, there may already have been some misgivings. Alonso had finished second to Räikkönen in Australia, but Hamilton – on his F1 debut – had been third, and for much of the race was ahead of the supposed team leader. It was a startling first appearance, and Hamilton’s getaway from the grid – which took him past both Alonso and Nick Heidfeld – had the paddock in particular rapture. Only by strategy and guile did Alonso later repass his team-mate.

In Malaysia, a fortnight later, it was a different matter. This time Alonso took the lead at the start, and disappeared into a race of his own. This was what McLaren had been looking for when it signed him: “A lean, mean, killing machine,” was how Martin Whitmarsh described Fernando’s drive.

Hamilton was second this time, and in parc fermé the two McLaren drivers hugged each other. “There’s a new spirit in the team,” beamed Dennis, “that I believe will have been witnessed by anyone watching us this weekend.” Talk about words coming back to haunt you.

Ferrari, meantime, having enjoyed a distinct advantage in Melbourne, was rather less formidable at Sepang. In Australia McLaren had sought ‘clarification’ from the FIA’s Charlie Whiting as to the conformity of the new Ferrari’s floor, and Whiting duly declared it ineligible for future use. That said, Räikkönen’s victory stood, and still stands. We would hear more of the ‘Ferrari floor’ incident some months later. And of much else, too.

In Bahrain Massa, after a disappointing start to the season, strongly reasserted himself and won from Hamilton, the pair of them outpacing their team leaders and prompting many again to wonder why, in this automated era, some drivers are paid so much more than others. At Barcelona it was same story: Massa first, Hamilton second…

It was in Spain, perhaps, that the Alonso-McLaren love affair showed its first signs of coming unstitched. Before a passionate home crowd, the World Champion was squarely beaten by a kid in an identical car, and it didn’t sit well with him. There was a handshake afterwards this time, but no embrace.

From across the water, Mario Andretti looked on approvingly. “I look at Hamilton’s situation,” the former World Champion said, “and I salivate! He’s a rookie, in one of the very best teams – and he’s got nothing to lose. If he finishes behind Alonso, it’s just what’s expected – but if he beats him, and keeps on doing it, Alonso’s stock will go down dramatically. Hamilton keeps saying he’s living the dream – and of course he’s also living Fernando’s nightmare, and that has got to be grinding on the guy. He’s going to have to dig deep, and if he does it, I’ll really applaud…”

Dig deep Alonso did at Monaco, taking pole position and leading every lap of the race, but what would have been a perfect weekend was somewhat marred by post-race comments from Hamilton, suggesting that he could have won had he not been ordered to hold station behind his team- mate. Ron Dennis quickly jumped on this: “I don’t like to see these things happen, because I’m an absolute racer, but it’s the way you have to win the Monaco Grand Prix – it’s not like other races.”

True enough. Had Alonso and Hamilton been given free rein, and finished up in a heap of silver wreckage, Massa’s Ferrari would have won, and many felt that Lewis, in only his fifth Grand Prix, was a touch high-handed in his remarks. His team-mate, to be sure, was not impressed.

By this point in the season, it was looking mighty unlikely that any team save McLaren and Ferrari was going to win a race, but BMW-Sauber’s progress had impressed everyone, and once the silver and red cars had gone through you expected to see a white one, probably driven by Nick Heidfeld, who, to the surprise of most, usually had the better of the highly-touted Robert Kubica. The Pole was finding it difficult to adapt his driving style to the very different characteristics of the new tyres.

In Montreal Kubica made the headlines, but not in the way he would have wished. At something close to top speed, his BMW clipped the back of Trulli’s Toyota and somersaulted into an accident that not long ago would have been unsurvivable. As it was, Kubica survived with nothing more serious than a concussion which kept him out of the following weekend’s race in Indianapolis. If it looked like a miraculous deliverance, Professor Sid Watkins, watching with Niki Lauda, wasn’t too concerned: “There were several glancing impacts, all of which were dissipating energy from the car. It’s the sudden stop you really have to worry about…”

Kubica is a friend of Hamilton’s from their karting days, and initially Lewis was extremely concerned, but soon they radioed him to say that all was well, and he pressed on to score his first Grand Prix victory, having dominated throughout. Since Barcelona he had led the World Championship, and now was eight points clear – of Alonso.

Seven days on Hamilton won again, narrowly beating Alonso at Indianapolis. As on so many occasions in 2007, qualifying effectively decided the race, and – as in Canada – Lewis nicked pole position in the dying seconds. “Last week I made a mistake on my quick lap,” Alonso said, “but this time… What can I say? I was at the maximum.”

Throughout the Indianapolis weekend there were negotiations about the future of the race, and a couple of weeks later Tony George, the owner of the Speedway, announced that he and Bernie Ecclestone had been unable to agree terms, and that as a consequence there would be no race in 2008.

“Let’s see if we miss America,” was Ecclestone’s facile comment, and it went down extremely badly with the F1 community, which knew damn well it would miss America, a massive market for such as Mercedes, BMW and Honda. Since the fad began for new money-no-object circuits, in such as Malaysia, China and Bahrain, the tariff for a Grand Prix has risen hugely, but Indianapolis – like Silverstone – receives no government backing.

It was a curiosity of the first half of the season that, while many were quick to criticise the performances of Alonso, relative to those of Hamilton, few made much of the fact that Räikkönen, the highest-paid driver in the history of the sport, was being routinely blown away by Massa. Since that first victory in Australia Kimi had plainly struggled, but that was all due to change as the teams headed back to Europe. By now he had finally found a set-up to his taste, and in the space of seven days he won twice, at Magny-Cours and then at Silverstone, where the ‘long wheelbase’ Ferrari was in its element.

Broadly, this was how the two leading teams divided up the season. At circuits like Silverstone and Spa, where fast corners predominate, a Ferrari was the thing to have, but at slower circuits, where there is greater emphasis on ‘mechanical’ (rather than ‘aerodynamic’) grip, McLaren had the edge, and its cars were also clearly superior over kerbs, which proliferate at Montreal and Monza.

It was during the week between the French and British Grands Prix that word first emerged of the scandal which was to disfigure the second half of the season. A 780-page Ferrari dossier, it was announced by Maranello, had found its way into the hands of McLaren.

Quickly it emerged that two disaffected men – Nigel Stepney of Ferrari and Mike Coughlan of McLaren – were at the centre of this unholy mess, and the FIA announced that a meeting of the World Motor Sport Council would discuss the matter. This duly came to be, and the WMSC declared that, while the Ferrari dossier had undoubtedly been copied by Coughlan, there was insufficient proof that McLaren had profited by it, and therefore no grounds for punishment. Jean Todt, sanctimoniously outraged, announced that Ferrari would appeal.

By this time the clans had gathered at the Nürburgring, where mixed weather was responsible for an enthralling race in which Alonso hunted down, and passed, Massa in the treacherous closing laps. Fernando’s joy was further amplified by the fact that Hamilton, who had escaped injury in a big practice accident, for the first time scored no points at all.

The pair resumed hostilities at the Hungaroring, each attempting to scupper the chances of the other in qualifying. It was juvenile, but their actions affected no other teams, and if any sanction were due it should logically have come from McLaren. As it was, the FIA stewards decided to become involved, and as a result Alonso was docked five grid positions, and the team – unfathomably – disqualified from scoring constructors’ points in that race.

All this was to have very far-reaching consequences not apparent at the time. Next morning, an enraged Alonso told Ron Dennis that unless he ‘slowed down’ Hamilton, the FIA would be learning of new evidence in the ‘Spygate’ case. Dennis, rocked by the revelation that there was any new evidence, at once called Max Mosley and informed him. Later Alonso tried to retract what he had said, but the genie was out of the bottle.

At Istanbul Massa reminded everyone of what he can do when all is right, winning conclusively, as he had the year before. Räikkönen, meantime, finished second, and was asked why on the penultimate lap he had suddenly recorded easily the fastest lap of the race. “It was something to do,” he said. “With the rules they way they are these days, you can’t pass, so the races are pretty much decided by qualifying. It’s very boring, running round behind another car…”

The date for the new WMSC meeting in Paris was set for September 13, between the Italian and the Belgian Grands Prix, and at Monza the atmosphere – as this crisis loomed over Formula 1 – was positively toxic. Many people were suggesting that, in a variety of guises, information had always found its way from one team to another, and it was absurd that the sport should parade its dirty linen so publicly. McLaren, some murmured, was the subject of a witch hunt.

In the midst of all this, the team was at its very best at Monza, Alonso winning comfortably from Hamilton, with Räikkönen a distant third. A week later, though, Kimi won at Spa, his favourite circuit, and Massa beat Alonso and Hamilton to second place. With three races to go, Lewis led Fernando by two points, Kimi by 13.

The Belgian Grand Prix weekend, though, was dominated by the decision taken in Paris on the Thursday night. McLaren, the FIA announced, would lose all constructors’ points scored in 2007, and would additionally pay a fine of $100,000,000.

One hundred million dollars. The figure reverberated around the world, and not only in the sports bulletins and pages. Not only was it, in any sane world, a draconian punishment, but also a tacky one: ‘Our sport is so awash with money that even our fines are bigger and better…’

That much was undeniable. As someone pointed out, following the 1999 Paddington rail crash in which many lives were lost, Railtrack was fined £4,000,000.

In Japan – this year at Toyota’s Fuji circuit, rather than Honda’s Suzuka – Hamilton appeared to put a lock on the World Championship, winning consummately in truly appalling conditions, which caught out Alonso. Two races to go, and Lewis was 12 points clear of his team-mate, 17 up on Räikkönen.

Everything changed, though, at Shanghai, where mixed conditions led to a situation in which McLaren – and Hamilton – dithered too long, and paid the heaviest of prices. By mid-race, the championship leader’s intermediate tyres were completely shot, but with the immediate weather uncertain the team was unwilling to risk bringing him in and putting him on the wrong tyres for the next stint. With a little more experience and self-confidence, Hamilton would have taken the decision himself, but when finally he was brought in the McLaren lacked the grip even to make a slow turn in the pit lane. Beached in a gravel trap, Hamilton was through for the day – while Räikkönen won, with Alonso second.

Suddenly everything was much more tenuous for this rookie who had led the points standings since May, but at the final round in Brazil he produced another sensational qualifying lap, beaten only by Massa. Alas, at the start he was beaten away by Räikkönen – and, more significantly, by Alonso, whom he foolishly at once tried to re-pass. That put him off the road and cost four places, but more significant by far was a glitch in the hydraulics which put the gearbox into neutral. By the time the system had been re-booted Hamilton was 18th; by the end of the race he was seventh, two places away from where he needed to be. Räikkönen, undoubtedly the outstanding driver of the second half of the season, won both race and championship – by a single point.

Seventeen races, then, with nine wins for Ferrari, eight for McLaren and zero for the rest. For virtually the entire season, four drivers had been in contention for the World Championship, and perhaps in the end it was appropriate that the man who won the title was the one who had the most race victories.

Kimi took his time to get going, but once he had a set-up suited to his driving style – which was from Indianapolis onwards – he was relentlessly strong.

On occasion, as at Sepang and Monza, Alonso was not less than imperious, as so often he had been with Renault, but the pace and flair of Hamilton disturbed his composure, and revealed flaws in his character which might otherwise never have surfaced. Emphatically not a ‘team man’, he came to be despised by many at McLaren, and it says much for the ethos of the team that its treatment of him remained scrupulously fair to the end.

At the last, Hamilton failed to become the first rookie World Champion in history, but in itself that tells the story of the most remarkable debut season there has ever been. Yes, there were the odd mistakes of youth, but remarkably few, and on many occasions he was plainly faster than anyone else. No racing driver was ever so thoroughly groomed for Formula 1, and none ever made so immediate, so devastating, an impression. For now, the World Championship awaits; assuredly it will come.