And so, the chequered flag on a largely checkered F1 season.
But if its a page turner that you were looking for, if you had any doubts about F1’s viewership after Michael Schumacher drove away into the sunset, if box-office was Bernie Ecclestone’s mantra, then it really could not have gotten much better than this.
It all started even as the last season ended. Michael Schumacher’s retirement, his getting pipped at the post by Fernando Alonso (then with Renault), Juan Pablo Montoya moving to the Nascar were all events to have a bearing on this season. These were all contributory factors to the drama that followed in 2007.
Fernando Alonso, now a two time World Champion with Renault was wooed by and succumbed to the charms of Ron Dennis at Mclaren Mercedes. He wanted to show that it was not the car, but him. Champions are like that. That ego was to assert itself all season long. To be fair to Mclaren and Ron Dennis, their move was also prompted by the fact that their number one driver Kimi Raikonnen was snapped up by Ferrari as the replacement to Michael Schumacher. Not really though. Nobody replaces Schumi at Ferrari. Not yet anyway. Kimi did not arrive at Ferrari as the undisputed “number one” driver like Michael was. After all, Kimi had never won a world championship. Fernando Alonso though, double world champion arrived at Mclaren with a former test driver, in his rookie season, for a teammate.
Formula One is a largely British Sport. The commercial rights are held by the British, the President of the FIA is British, the race director and his assistant and the sport’s commissioner are all British as well. And Mclaren, of course are a British team and so when Lewis Hamilton, British, Afro-Carribean origin, all of 22 years old there was an Henman-esque aura of hope to it. But Alonso was of course, the reigning World Champion…..
The season started off quite well, but by the third race, Lewis Hamilton with three podium finishes in his first three races and with the leaderboard reading Kimi 22, Alonso 22, Lewis 22 – was already inviting comparisons with some golfer called Woods. That was Bahrain and the next race was in Spain and the heat was on the champion. Massa won his second race in a row but Lewis Hamilton stood to his right on the podium. Alonso was third and had lost the lead on his home grand prix.
Monaco was next. Alonso wins and Lewis is 2nd but under what seems like team orders, is not allowed to mount a challenge and the young kid lets it be known that he’s not happy, that he’d like to keep his chances of a title alive. A title !? The teammates are leaders and level on points.
To prove he’s not joking, and five podiums after he started racing F1, Lewis wins his first race in Canada. Alonso manages a seventh and that gives the rookie a 8 point lead into Indianapolis. In the USA, Pole position and another win sees Hamilton extend his advantage to 10 points over Alonso, who crosses the line second. Raikkonen’s fourth place sees him fall 26 points off the lead. Thats as far as he’ll ever fall back.
It was somewhere here that the whole Stepneygate saga first erupted. It turned out that there had been a whole load of espionage going on, ostensibly fuelled by Nigel Stepney’s dented ambitions at Ferrari. It was a massive saga but the gist of it suggested that Mclaren had been 780 pages of Ferrari documents including designs, fuel information etc . Even as this occupied centrestage, the races continued.
On the return to Europe from America, Ferrari regained some superiority and managed to claw back some points and after France, Britain and the Nurburgring, it stood at Lewis 70, Alonso 68 and Kimi 52. Importantly though, Mclaren had been absolved of all charges.
Maverick, Its not your flying. Its your attitude. The enemy’s dangerous but right now you are worse than the enemy. You are dangerous and foolish. You may not like the guys flying with you, they may not like you. But whose side are you on ?
Hungary was probably the turning point of the season. Fernando Alonso got pole position but during the last qualifying session , he parked just those few extra seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton at the final pit stop. Incredibly, Hamilton complained to the stewards, and Alonso was stripped of pole position. Moved down 5 places in the grid, he finished 4th later in the race. It would prove more costly than Mclaren imagined. The next morning, Alonso went up to Ron Dennis. Alonso won’t say what was discussed but as per Ron Dennis, at some stage Fernando issued a threat to go to the FIA (subsequently retracted the same day) with evidence in the form of emails of exactly the things that Mclaren had been absolved of just a few days ago.
It left Ron no option but to call up Max Mosely at the FIA with the information. The case was reopened. A few days later, Mclaren were found guilty of espionage primarily on the basis of 300 emails and sms’ between Mclaren’s Mike Coughlan and Ferrari’s Nigel Stepney and Fernando Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa. That led to an unprecedented penalty. Apart from the biggest fine in any sport of US$ 100 million, Mclaren were docked all their constructors points in the championships. Incredibly, they were allowed to keep all their driver’s points though. A part of that was because the FIA President Max Moseley had given them a “gentleman’s word”, a sort of immunity for every word they spoke and every piece of evidence they provided – presumably against Mclaren. However, as he himself admits,
When McLaren was stripped of their constructor’s points it would have had a certain logic to also slash the drivers’ championship points. But the majority of the World Council was of different opinion.It was a decision of logic versus emotion. Logic would have demanded to slash all points, but emotion was not willing to wreck such an incredible championship with an armchair judgment.
Ultimately, box office won and the championship continued.
Massa beats Raikkonen for a Ferrari one-two, with Alonso third. A puncture forces a damage-limitation exercise from Hamilton, who trails home in fifth.
Standings: Hamilton 84, Alonso 79, Raikkonen 68
Alonso has the edge over Hamilton as McLaren route Ferrari on the Italians’ home turf. It puts them just three points apart with four rounds remaining. Raikkonen finishes a distant third.
Standings: Hamilton 92, Alonso 89, Raikkonen 74
Raikkonen wins in commanding fashion from Massa, with Alonso third and Hamilton fourth. The gap shrinks to just two points.
Standings: Hamilton 97, Alonso 95, Raikkonen 84
Hamilton weathers the Fuji storm to win, extending his championship lead to 12 points after Alonso crashes out. Raikkonen’s third place keeps him in the hunt – just.
Standings: Hamilton 107, Alonso 95, Raikkonen 90
Lewis Hamilton was now one race away from racing immortality. 12 points ahead of his nearest rival. and 17 points ahead of Kimi Raikonnen.
The penultimate race was in Shanghai. Typhoon Krosa was exerting its influence on the fringes of the track. The hurricane of emotion within an eager mind though is different. For a long time, Lewis Hamilton led on track. Then as the weather started playing tricks and the sun and rain made dry lines in some parts of the circuit, ripples of doubt began to form in puddles of Mclaren’s strategy. To make matters worse, Ron Dennis blurted out that they were not racing Kimi, but Alonso. It was something that Fernando had been drumming all along. Ultimately bringing the car in for his first pitstop, still running wet tyres in drying conditions, just a few metres shy of the pit garage and well into the pit lane, Lewis Hamilton overdid it. He overran it all and ended up in the gravel. Experience is a brutal teacher is probably a chinese saying in Lewis’ mind. Raikonnen first, Alonso second.
Standings: Hamilton 107, Alonso 103, Raikkonen 100
Across the world they traveled. To Brazil. And it was all to play for. Could anyone possibly have scripted this?
Oh and did I mention Felipe Massa ? This was his home grand prix. And he had won last year. And he’d love to win again. And he was on pole.
The rest is history. And even today, three days later , a bit of a blur.
Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton have ended up tied at 109 points. Both losing as much as they have won. Fernando’s dream of proving his mettle in a new place wrecked as much by his own ego as by his employers inability to accommodate him. Lewis Hamilton’s falling away in the second half as expectations and pressure of performance caught up with him is something that is likely to only go higher from here on. Wayne Rooney was Pele in 2004. Henman didn’t win Wimbledon. Beware the weight of expectations.
And finally to Kimi Raikonnen. Its a tribute to the man that he’s called the Iceman so often. Consider this though. As he warmed up to the scarlet Ferrari, he’s just gotten hotter. Its not that the pressure of making up points is any less. But in the last 9 races, Kimi had 4 wins, 2 second places and 2 thirds.
Ultimately tho, the difference was that one team had two guys who were willing to respect each other and allow for the other’s ambition. And therein lies a lesson.