Friday, March 24, 2017

1000 Words: 2007 Formula One Season

The 2007 season was exactly what Formula One needed. After the departure of Michael Schumacher, Formula One needed something to fill the void of the seven-time champion and that came in the form of a titanic title fight, the emergence of not one but two great young drivers, a case of espionage, inter-team turmoil, an unusually placed gravel trap and one glitch that opened the door for a Flying Finn.

Fernando Alonso was fresh off his second World Drivers' Championship and had finally joined McLaren after announcing his intention to join the team on December 19, 2005. Kimi Räikkönen made way for Alonso at McLaren and the Finn filled the vacant seat left by the retiring Schumacher where Felipe Massa would be his teammate. Alonso entered as the championship favorite and slotting in beside the Spaniard was the defending GP2 champion and McLaren prodigy Lewis Hamilton.

Alonso's story had been laid out for the world over the two prior seasons but Hamilton's presences stole many eyeballs from the glorious champion. Hamilton was the first black driver in Formula One history. He didn't come from a wealthy family. His parents were divorced; his father burned the candle at both ends to provide a career for his son. Hamilton was the confident kid who told Ron Dennis during the end of the Ayrton Senna-era he would one day driver for McLaren and eventually Dennis signed Hamilton to McLaren's driver development program. It was a feel good story that had not been seen in Formula One for some time.

The season started in Australia and started with Räikkönen and Alonso going toe-to-toe with the Finn taking pole position in qualifying with Alonso in second. Räikkönen was able to hold off Alonso at the start while Alonso dropped to fourth behind the BMW Sauber of Nick Heidfeld and Hamilton. Räikkönen would win the race handily on his Ferrari debut while Hamilton and Alonso were both able to get on the podium with Alonso shuffling up to second with Hamilton in third through pit stops.

Massa started on pole position at the second round of the season at Sepang but Alonso and Hamilton were able to jump to 1-2 at the start. Alonso pulled away from the field and Räikkönen challenged Hamilton for second but the Briton held off the Finn. Massa started on pole position again at Bahrain and would win the race ahead of Hamilton and Räikkönen with Alonso finishing in fifth. This result left Alonso, Räikkönen and Hamilton tied on 22 points after three races with the series heading back to Europe.

Massa won his third consecutive pole position at Barcelona with Alonso starting second in his home race with Räikkönen and Hamilton on row two. Alonso made a challenge for the lead into turn one off the start but ran wide through the gravel and fell to fourth. Alonso would move up to third after Räikkönen retired with an electrical problem after nine laps. Massa took his second consecutive victory with Hamilton moving into sole possession of the championship lead with another second-place finish with Alonso two points behind his teammate after finishing third.

At Monaco, Alonso flexed his muscle by winning pole position and handling winning the famed race over four seconds ahead of Hamilton and lapping up to fourth-place. Massa finished third, over a minute and nine seconds behind the Spaniard. Räikkönen started 16th after hitting the barrier in qualifying but climbed up to eighth, scoring a valuable point. From Monaco, Formula One crossed the Atlantic for its North American tour with Alonso and Hamilton tied for the championship lead on 38 points but Hamilton yet to stand on the top step of the podium.

Hamilton started the Montreal weekend winning his first career pole position handily over Alonso with Räikkönen and Massa starting fourth and fifth behind Heidfeld's BMW Sauber. Alonso ran wide in turn one and dropped to third. Alonso would run wide in turn one three more times during the race and adding insult to injury Alonso was caught out by a safety car for an accident involving Adrian Sutil and he had to stop when the pit lane was closed for fuel, handing Alonso a ten-second stop-and-go penalty.

Shortly after the restart, Robert Kubica had his infamous accident heading to the hairpin. Kubica's BMW Sauber clipped the grass, slamming head first into a concrete barrier, ricocheting his car back toward the racetrack, somersaulting once before the car slid into the outside barrier and ending with Kubica on his side. Kubica escaped with a concussion and a sprained ankle.

The race restarted and Hamilton comfortably won the race ahead of Heidfeld and Alexander Wurz, who started 19th and used a one-stop strategy to get to the front. Heikki Kovalainen and Räikkönen rounded out the top five. The 2007 Canadian Grand Prix not only will be remembered for Hamilton's first victory but the greatest day for Super Aguri-Honda as Takuma Sato ran most of the day in the points and passed Alonso on track for sixth. It was the best finish for the team and Sato's final time in the points. Even Anthony Davidson appeared to headed for a points-paying finish until he hit a groundhog and had a poor pit stop, leaving him to finish 11th.

Hamilton doubled up the week later by winning the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He started on pole position again despite being behind Alonso in the first two rounds of qualifying. He held off Alonso while neither Ferrari had anything for McLaren with Massa and Räikkönen finishing third and fourth. While Hamilton was on top again, BMW Sauber had a new driver. Kubica was not deemed fit for the United States Grand Prix and in came a German named Sebastian Vettel. He started seventh and finished eighth, scoring one point and becoming the youngest driver to score a point at 19 years and 349 days old.

Hamilton headed back to Europe with 58 points, ten clear of his teammate, 19 points ahead of Massa and 26 points ahead of Räikkönen. Just when it appeared this dream start to a Formula One career was turning into a historic season, everything hit the fan off the race track.

In the days following the United States Grand Prix, Ferrari filed a formal complaint, which launched a criminal investigation by the Modena district attorney into Nigel Stepney, head of the team's performance development. The complaint and later investigation stemmed from a white residue that was found in the fuel cell of the two cars at Monaco, leading to a suspicion that the team was sabotaged at Monaco.

While the investigation took place, Formula One returned to competition at Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours. McLaren had won three consecutive races and three consecutive pole positions and appeared on track for a fourth consecutive pole position as Hamilton was fastest through the first two rounds of qualifying with Alonso right behind him. However, it all started to unravel on McLaren in round three. Alonso had a gearbox problem, keeping him from turning a lap and forcing him to start tenth and Massa beat Hamilton for pole position by 0.070 seconds. In the race, Massa kept the lead into turn one but Räikkönen got by Hamilton into the first turn. Räikkönen would leapfrog to the lead during a pit cycle and score his first victory since the season opener ahead of Massa and Hamilton with Alonso only managing a seventh-place finish.

Two days after the 1-2 finish in France, Ferrari fired Nigel Stepney and a legal case was filed against Stepney and a McLaren employee over the alleged theft of technical information from Ferrari. The McLaren employee was Mike Coughlan and in a police raid on Coughlan's house Ferrari documents were discovered. McLaren suspended Coughlan.

Three days after the dismissal of Stepney, Formula One was back on track for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. On Saturday, Alonso was on top through the first two rounds of qualifying, ahead of Räikkönen and Massa. Hamilton stole pole position on the final lap of qualifying while Räikkönen jumped to second, knocking Alonso to third on the grid. A botched first pit stop cost Hamilton the lead as he fell behind Alonso and Räikkönen. Alonso was short-fueled on the first pit stop but it would cost him on the second set of stops as Räikkönen was able to get ahead of the Spaniard and not look back as he took his second consecutive victory ahead of Alonso and Hamilton.

Two days after Räikkönen's victory at Silverstone, Coughlan's case went to the London High Court and he is accused of being in possession of stolen confidential documents. The next day, Coughlan reached an agreement with Ferrari for the Italian manufacture to drop its High Court case in exchange for Coughlan's for full disclosure and cooperation. The day after that, the FIA announced that the World Motorsports Council would have an extraordinary meeting with McLaren on July 26th in Paris over charges of breaching Article 151c of the International Sporting Code.

Four days prior to the meeting was the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. Hamilton entered with 70 points, leading Alonso by 12, Räikkönen by 18 and Massa by 19. Hamilton had started the year with nine podium finishes in nine races. He had yet to start worse than row two. A wheel failure sent Hamilton into tire barriers during the final round of qualifying, forcing him to start tenth in the race as Räikkönen took pole position ahead of Alonso and Massa.

As the cars rolled on the formation lap, rain clouds hung over the Nürburgring and while the start was dry, those conditions would be completely different by the end of lap one. The heavens opened and cars slid off track, cutting corners and drivers were just trying to survive to get back to the pit lane. Conditions were so horrendous Räikkönen hydroplaned passed the pit lane and had to do another lap on slick tires.  While 21 cars scattered, one rolled the dice and switched to wet tires after the formation lap in anticipating for the rain. Spyker's Markus Winkelhock took the lead on lap two.

Almost the entire field switched to intermediate tires, which proved not to be good enough for the conditions. Many were caught out by the running water across turn one. Jenson Button spun into the barriers and within a half a minute Sutil, Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Scott Speed, who would be making his final Formula One start, as he would be replaced by Sebastian Vettel midseason at Toro Rosso, and Vitantonio Liuzzi all joined Button in the gravel trap, leading to the race being red-flagged.

Winkelhock restarted in the lead on wet tires but most of the teams switched to intermediate tires during the red flag period. Winkelhock lost the lead almost immediately and he would retired after only 13 laps due to an hydraulics failure. It was his only Formula One start.

Massa would dominate most of the race as the track dried. Räikkönen was forced to retire just after halfway. Another shower hit the circuit in the final ten laps; forcing everyone back to intermediate tires and created a battle between Massa and Alonso for the victory. Alonso passed Massa with four laps to go after slight contact with the Brazilian. Alonso ran away from Massa, winning the race by over eight seconds. Massa voiced his displeasure to Alonso prior to the podium ceremony in a memorable shot that was caught by the television cameras. Hamilton failed to score points for the first time in his career and Alonso left Germany trailing him by two points.

At the FIA World Motorsports Council meeting in Paris, McLaren was found guilty of possession of confidential Ferrari information but received no penalty, as there was insufficient evidence that this possession affected the championship. The FIA reserved the right to reconvene should more evidence become public. Ferrari was understandable furious that McLaren received no penalty despite being found guilty and the FIA International Court of Appeals announced it would hear the case in August.

With the Paris meeting in the past, Formula One headed to Budapest for the Hungarian Grand Prix and just when it appeared McLaren could regroup, the fight between Hamilton and Alonso boiled over. Hamilton was quicker than Alonso through the first two rounds of qualifying and was in position to take another pole position until a cycle in the pit lane. Alonso was first in for fresh rubber and when his crew finished his stop, he sat idle in the pit box for almost 30 seconds with Hamilton behind him in the pit lane, waiting for his scheduled tire change. Once Alonso left, there was not enough time for Hamilton to complete another lap in qualifying, handing Alonso the pole position.

Ron Dennis was visibly upset at Alonso's pit lane balk, throwing his headset in disguise. The stewards reviewed the incident and handed Alonso a five-spot grid penalty, dropping him to sixth and elevating Hamilton to pole position, Heidfeld to the front row and Räikkönen to third. The FIA also decided that McLaren would not be awarded constructors' points for the Hungarian Grand Prix and not be allowed to accept a trophy should the team win at Budapest. Things had become so sour within the McLaren camp that on the morning of the Hungarian Grand Prix Alonso allegedly threatened Dennis that he would give the FIA emails between himself and McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa that would incriminate Dennis in the FIA investigation.

Hamilton led every lap in the race but was hounded by Räikkönen throughout, holding off the Finn by 0.715 seconds at the finish line. Heidfeld rounded out the podium with Alonso in fourth. Hamilton left Hungary and entered the summer break with 80 points, seven clear of Alonso and twenty clear of Räikkönen.

At Turkey, Massa started on pole position with Hamilton on row one but Räikkönen would get by Hamilton into turn one. Hamilton's challenge for second was cut short by a tire puncture, which allowed Alonso to take the final podium spot and dropped Hamilton to a fifth-place finish, cutting his lead over his teammate to five points with Massa and Räikkönen 15 and 16 points behind respectively.

On September 5th, two days prior to the first practice for the Italian Grand Prix, the FIA announced a second hearing in the espionage case would be held on September 13th, the day before the start of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend. McLaren dominated the Italian Grand Prix. Alonso won pole position and never looked back, leading 48 of 53 laps with Hamilton rounding out the McLaren 1-2 in Ferrari's backyard. Massa retired from third position after a suspension failure. Räikkönen was able to get on the podium but finished over 27 seconds behind the Spaniard. Hamilton's lead was down to three points over Alonso but he was 18 points clear of Räikkönen and 23 points clear of Massa with McLaren leading Ferrari in the constructors' championship 166-143.

At the second hearing, the FIA threw the book at McLaren, fining the manufacture $100 million, excluding it from the 2007 constructors' championship and required a submission of its 2008 car design by December 2007 and possibly excluding McLaren from 2008 if it contained any Ferrari intellectual property. The next day it was revealed Alonso and de la Rosa did receive confidential Ferrari information from Coughlan.

With McLaren already covered in egg before the Belgian Grand Prix even took place, it didn't help ease the pain that Räikkönen and Massa would start 1-2 and finish that way with Alonso in third and Hamilton in fourth. With three races remaining in the season, four drivers were alive for the world drivers' championship with Hamilton on 97 points; two ahead of Alonso, 13 ahead of Räikkönen and 20 clear of Massa. Ferrari's 1-2 finish at Spa-Francorchamps would clinch the manufacture the constructors' championship.

Two weeks after Belgium, Formula One headed to Japan but for the first time since 1977, the Japanese Grand Prix was held at Fuji Speedway instead of the familiar home of Suzuka. Rain dominated the weekend but on a drying track Hamilton won pole position with Alonso in second ahead of Räikkönen and Massa. On race day, the torrential rain forced the race to start behind the safety car for the first 19 laps. The Ferraris had to make pit stops before the race ever went green due to being on the standard wet tires and not the extreme wet tires. Hamilton led until a pit stop cycle saw Sebastian Vettel lead his first laps of his career and become the youngest lap leader in Formula One history.

Hamilton would retake the lead on lap 41 and later that lap Alonso suffered a severe accident heading to the hairpin due to hydroplaning. It was the first retirement of the season for a McLaren. Hamilton would comfortably win at Fuji with Heikki Kovalainen scoring his first career podium finish in second and Räikkönen finishing third. Hamilton left Japan with a 12-points lead over Alonso and a 17-point lead over Räikkönen and a second-place finish for Hamilton at the Chinese Grand Prix would clinch him the world championship.

Like Japan, China started with wet conditions. Hamilton was on pole position ahead of Räikkönen and Massa with Alonso in fourth. Teams started on the intermediate tires and as the track dried out, it became more of a race for survival and finding each wet patch of asphalt available to extend the life of the tires. Hamilton lost the lead to Räikkönen prior to his first pit stop but Hamilton was still positioned to finish second and clinch the world championship.

When entering the pit lane for his stop, Hamilton slid off and into a gravel trap positioned on the outside of the entrance road to the pit lane. With his car beached, Hamilton tried to get out and marshals tried to push the McLaren free but it was of no use and for the first time in his career, Hamilton had retired from a race.

Räikkönen would retake the lead on lap 34 after Kubica retired due to a hydraulics failure and he would win by over nine seconds from Alonso with Massa in third. Hamilton's championship lead was cut to four points over Alonso and seven points over Räikkönen heading to the season finale at Interlagos.

At the season finale, Massa won pole position in front of his home crowd with Hamilton qualifying second and Räikkönen and Alonso on row two. Massa held on to the lead at the start with Räikkönen jumping up to second ahead of Hamilton and Alonso. Alonso made a move on Hamilton into turn three and forced Hamilton to lock up his tires and fall to eighth. At the end of lap one, Alonso was in position to be world champion with 109 points, a point ahead of both Räikkönen and Hamilton.

Hamilton passed Jarno Trulli on the next lap and by lap six was up to sixth but suffered a gearbox issue exiting turn three. Hamilton stopped on track as he reset the car and was finally to get back going but not before dropping to 18th.

Massa and Räikkönen pulled away from Alonso and Räikkönen tried to jump his teammate during the first pit cycle but was still over three seconds behind Massa after his first stop. Kubica passed Alonso for third on lap 34, as he was lower on fuel and running a three-stop strategy. Massa came in from the lead on lap 50 while Räikkönen set consecutive fastest laps. The Finn came in on lap 53 and exited leading his teammate. Alonso was in fourth until Kubica stopped from third and Hamilton was only up to eighth. Hamilton would make up one more position after Trulli made his final pit stop but it was not enough to take the title as Räikkönen won the Brazilian Grand Prix and the World Drivers' Championship by one point over Hamilton and Alonso.

It is hard to believe ten years have passed from the 2007 season. When it ended, I don't think anyone thought Fernando Alonso could ever have become a sympathetic figure let alone become a McLaren driver again. Not only has Alonso become both but he was in talks to becoming Lewis Hamilton's teammate at Mercedes! How after everything that happened in 2007 could that nearly have happened? I completely forgot about the emails. Imagine if WikiLeaks was around then.

In a way, Alonso is living through a curse of that 2007 season. After being the cut throat, selfish driver he was at McLaren, the last ten seasons of his career have been turning over the hearts of Formula One fans as a great driver who has failed to make it back to the pinnacle because of underperforming car after underperforming car and it seems only fitting the worse of all has come at the team where he scorched the earth.

It is hard to imagine what Formula One would have looked like if Hamilton didn't beach it entering pit lane at Shanghai. A rookie world champion. Would he have doubled up immediately the next year or would he suffer a hard sophomore slump? Would Räikkönen have ever won a title? Entering 2007, I think we all expected Räikkönen would win a title with Ferrari. He had shown he had world championship talent at McLaren. Something happened after he won the title in 2007. I don't want to say something shut off but something changed in the Finn in 2008. He trailed Hamilton by five points after the 2008 Hungarian Grand Prix, then failed to score points in four consecutive races and handed Felipe Massa first in line at Maranello. The Ferrari F60 was a dud in 2009 and soon Räikkönen was gone from Formula One.

Räikkönen returned after two years out of the series but he has never been in the thick of it and has for more or less played a supporting role as Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso, Webber and Rosberg continued to be the main cast while Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen are the next wave of stars drawing attention on stage.

I think the 2007 season was the greatest season in Formula One history. It had everything but a murder and a love triangle. Räikkönen won the World Drivers' Championship despite entering the finale third in the championship. The only other previous occurrence of a driver going from third to first in the championship in the final race was Giuseppe Farina in 1950, the first season of Formula One. The 2007 season made everyone forget about Michael Schumacher and two of arguably the greatest drivers in Formula One history made their debuts in Hamilton and Vettel. Besides those two, the only leftovers from 2007 are Alonso, Massa and Räikkönen. Of the 11 teams on the 2007 grid, nine of them have roots that extend to the present. Renault became Lotus and then became Renault again. Honda became Brawn, which became Mercedes. BMW Sauber reverted back to Sauber. Spyker became Force India the following season. Super Aguri closed up shopped during the 2008 season and Toyota left Formula One after 2009.

There should be a documentary about this season and the completely unfathomable idea that a one team member intentionally gave a rival confidential information. The United States couldn't stop talking about the air pressures in footballs for two years. How aren't we still talking about the year espionage hung over the Formula One world? Seriously! Hell, Stepney was even sentenced to one year and eight months in jail by Italian authorities, none of which he served. By the way, Mike Coughlan now works for Richard Childress Racing in NASCAR. Who knew?

Tragically, if a documentary would be made of this great season, the man at the center of it all wouldn't get to tell his side of the story. Stepney was killed on May 2, 2014 after being hit by a truck. He will never get a chance to tell the world what he was thinking, what led him to do it and if he had any regrets. Maybe that adds to the legend of all this. Part of it will never be known. It is a secret that never can be leaked.