2007 was supposed to be the beginning of something big for Fernando Alonso. Alonso, the reigning double champion from 2005 and 2006 with Renault, was the man who had dethroned the great Michael Schumacher, ending the German stars run of five consecutive titles at the wheel of a Ferrari.
For 2007, Alonso moved to McLaren, and was expected to continue where he left off at Renault. Alonso however would be unsettled and taken out of his comfort zone by his rookie team-mate, the reigning GP2 champion, Lewis Hamilton. The battle between the two would rip McLaren apart, and allow the opportunity for Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to sneak in and snatch the championship as McLaren imploded.
The season saw Ferrari and McLaren battle it out for victory, with all four drivers of the leading teams taking turns to win. The McLaren drivers had the edge though, and it seemed that the title was theirs to lose. Hamilton opened his account with a victory in Canada as the reigning champion and young pretender duelled for the lead of the championship, but the tension within McLaren came to a head in Hungary.
Alonso was penalised for impeding Hamilton in qualifying – after he felt Hamilton had ignored a team order to let him by earlier in the session. While the concept of undisputed number 1 within a team is unpalatable today, it is perhaps understandable when viewed in the context of Schumacher’s dominance of both Ferrari and the sport for the previous decade. Alonso felt he had been promised clear number 1 status in signing for McLaren and felt he had been betrayed by the team’s support for the young English driver. A grid penalty at Hungary is like a life sentence, and Alonso lost valuable ground to his rookie team mate. The momentum was now with Hamilton, for now Alonso was not only fighting to catch his teammate, he was also locked in combat with his team as well in his fight for a third consecutive championship. With Alonso threatening to spill the beans on McLaren over the possession of confidential technical files on the Ferrari car, McLaren went to the FIA themselves, with the result that McLaren would be thrown out of the constructor’s championship and hit with a massive fine. Alonso and Hamilton were allowed to keep scoring points, but there was no doubting who McLaren wanted to succeed at this point.
By the time the F1 circus arrived in Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton stood on the verge of making history. With 2 rounds remaining he held a massive lead, propelled to the brink of a world title in his rookie season by victory in a soaking Fuji Speedway in Japan the previous round while Alonso crashed out. Hamilton led by 12 points from Alonso, with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen 17 points adrift. With 10 points going to the winner, Raikkonen’s hopes seemed merely mathematical, while Alonso would need assistance from the Ferrari’s to have any hope of stopping Hamilton’s stealing his title.
How would the rookie handle the pressure of being so close to the title? Hamilton answered with a great lap in qualifying to pip Raikkonen’s Ferrari to pole. Alonso could only manage fourth behind the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa. On Sunday morning the rain fell, and with a damp track and more rain expected, the field would start the race on intermediate tyres.
At the start Hamilton got away cleanly to lead from Raikkonen, with Alonso initially driving around Massa to take third, only to see Massa come diving up the inside a few corners later to relegate the defending champion back down to fourth. In the slippery conditions Hamilton surged clear, quickly opening a gap to Raikkonen, with the rest of the field dropping back. With the rain coming and going, Hamilton came in for an early stop for fuel on lap 15. Raikkonen stayed out and put in a number of fast laps before he pitted on lap 19. The gap between the two, which had swelled to almost 9 seconds before Hamilton’s pit stop, was down to 4 seconds. Further back, Alonso was still stuck behind Massa after the first round of stops. All drivers opted to remain on the intermediate tyres they started the race on rather than putting on a fresh set.
Everything still looked good for Hamilton at this point, with third place being sufficient to secure the title if Alonso couldn’t do better than fourth. With the rain still coming and going however, Raikkonen started to make inroads into Lewis lead, the McLaren starting to struggle for grip on his intermediate tyres. Massa came in to take a gamble on dry tyres, allowing Alonso up to third, and then Raikkonen made a move on Hamilton as Lewis ran wide to take the lead on lap 28. Still with Alonso some 17 seconds back there was no reason to panic for Lewis…yet. Alonso however, freed from Massa was now on the move cutting into his team-mate’s advantage, while Hamilton was in serious trouble, his intermediates clearly past their sell by date. McLaren wanted to delay Hamilton’s stop until they could be sure to give him slick tyres to take him to the end of the race, to prevent the risk of an extra stop that might allow Alonso get by him. With Hamilton struggling badly and sliding off the track on his worn out intermediates, he was finally given the call to pit for dry tyres at the end of lap 30,with Alonso already in his mirrors.
Disaster struck as Hamilton dived into the pits, his McLaren unable to find grip on the slippery pit entry and sliding wide as he tried to turn in, veering slowly into the gravel, with Hamilton trying vainly to keep the car alive and escape the gravel, only to see his car sluggishly bog down and end his race. Ron Dennis would later admit that the strategy call to delay Lewis stop was focused entirely on beating team-mate Alonso. The intense division within the McLaren camp had created a disaster where none existed, and what should have been a result that inched Lewis closer to the title had now swung the championship door open for Alonso, and left it slightly ajar for Raikkonen.
With Hamilton gone Raikkonen pitted for dry tyres, followed by Alonso. Raikkonen was the one with the pace in the drying conditions however, and he pulled clear to secure the win that kept his slim championship hopes alive. Alonso was also able to keep his championship hopes alive by coming home second, having gotten the better of Massa in the second round of stops, with the Ferrari driver completing the podium in third.
This was the race that saw McLaren trip up and set the scene for Raikkonen’s miraculous championship comeback, as he would go on to seal the title with victory at the final round in Brazil as Lewis Hamilton hit trouble. Raikkonen’s team mate Massa helped him to victory and provided the cover needed to secure the Finn’s only title, securing the second place that would prevent Alonso defending his title. While McLaren had thrown away a title with their infighting, Ferrari had shown them how it should be done. Looking back at the outcome, maybe Alonso’s desire for number 1 status becomes more understandable, if no more palatable.