And just like the struggle between the sport’s most notorious antagonists – Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost – their rivalry began at McLaren.
Here is how the battle of the season unfolded – both on the track and off it.
Qualifying for the first race in Melbourne set the tone for the season. Lewis Hamilton was two tenths of a second faster than Fernando Alonso in the first part. He repeated it in the second part until Alonso, oddly, chose to do an extra lap, which proved quick enough to put him ahead of his team mate.
He cemented that position in the final part of qualifying by taking second, Hamilton (carrying more fuel) fourth behind Nick Heidfeld. But at the start of the race Alonso received the clear message that his new team mate would be no push over.
Neither McLaren started well from the dirty side of the grid and Heidfeld passed Alonso just as Robert Kubica took Hamilton. But the Briton fought back, not only passing Kubica around the outside of the first corner, but Alonso as well.
Hamilton demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for perfectly judging his braking point for the first corner of a race which we would see again at Sepang, the Nurburgring and Monza. But although he led Alonso at the start, the Spaniard was ahead by the end of the race.
In the light of what happened later it’s ironic to remember that Hamilton inadvertently helped Alonso win the Malaysian Grand Prix. Another stunning start carried him past both Ferraris, and millimetre-perfect defensive driving duped Felipe Massa into a mistake for which the Ferrari driver was justifiably pilloried.
Hamilton kept Raikkonen tucked up while Alonso scampered off to head a McLaren one-two, the Spanish driver taking the championship lead.
Hamilton turns the table
That would all change in Bahrain, however, where Hamilton beat Alonso for the first time. Alonso struggled with his brakes and finished fifth after being passed by Heidfeld. Alonso should have beaten Hamilton in Spain, but he went off at the first corner trying to pass Massa and fell back. The rookie took the lead of the drivers’ championship.
Alonso took his second win at Monte-Carlo, but he knew that Hamilton was closing in. Had Hamilton not happened across Mark Webber’s Red Bull while on a hot lap, he was set to out-qualify Alonso despite carrying more fuel.
During the race McLaren pitted Hamilton early for fuel to prevent him being vulnerable should the safety car come out. But it cost him a shot at the win and remarks from Hamilton in the press conference hinting at what had gone on led to McLaren being investigated by the FIA for using team orders. They were cleared, but it focussed attention on the developing battle between the two drivers.
Alonso goes public
The lack of empathy between the two became even clearer at Montreal. Hamilton took his first pole position but was put on the defensive after a bad start. Alonso tried to pass him at the first corner but, just as in Spain, he ran wide and fell back.
While Hamilton pressed his advantage fortune turned against Alonso. He pitted while the pit lane was closed during a safety car appearance (presumably not having left any extra fuel in the tank as Hamilton had at Monte-Carlo) for which he was given a drive-through penalty, dropping him to seventh by the flag.
After the race Alonso’s words seemed a little uncharitable, but it seemed he was more angry with the safety car than unhappy with his team mate:
The safety car always makes the races a lottery and you need luck. I had to stop on lap 24, and the safety car come out on lap 24; I had to stop on lap 49-50 and it came out on lap 47, and that was the race for me.
My team mate benefited the most. As I said, the safety car is a lottery and there can’t be a race where you are more unlucky. There will be other times when it will be my turn to have a good race and the rest will have all the bad luck.
But it was also at this point in the season that we became used to hearing remarks coming out of Alonso’s briefings to the Spanish press that did not turn up in the British reports. Alonso said:
Well, right from the start I’ve never felt totally comfortable. I have a British team mate in a British team, and he’s doing a great job and we know that all the support and help is going to him and I understood that from the beginning.
He added, “but I’m not complaining,” somewhat disingenuously, for stating that your team is favouring your team mate can hardly be considered anything else.
There were no mistaking the signs all was not well at McLaren the following week at Indianapolis. Once again Hamilton won from pole, but under constant pressure from Alonso who briefly drew alongside his team mate approaching turn one. Having failed to get past, on the next lap he drove right up to his pit wall, signalling his frustration at being unable to pass Hamilton.
At the French Grand Prix Hamilton extended his championship lead to 14 points after Alonso suffered gearbox trouble in qualifying. But now Alonso began to fight back, beating Hamilton at the Briton’s home track, then taking a maximum ten points off him with a brilliant win at the Nurburgring.
Meltdown at the Hungaroroing
Perhaps it was the feeling Alonso was seizing the initiative that led Hamilton to tweak his team mate’s temper at the Hungaroring. In the short term it produced exactly the result Hamilton wanted. But the long term effects for the team would be disastrous.
McLaren’s complicated approach to guaranteeing each driver received equal treatment was somewhat opaque, and involved giving one driver the advantage of an extra lap’s worth of fuel during qualifying at certain circuits where it was deemed possible. The Hungaroring was one of them, and Alonso was due the priority at a venue where overtaking is notoriously difficult and pole position is especially prized.
So when Hamilton refused to let Alonso lead the way at the start of qualifying as had been arranged, the Spanish driver fumed. Exactly what McLaren might have done to redress the discrepancy isn’t clear, for Alonso chose to ensure his team mate’s disadvantage by blocking him in the pits. This was a fatal act of foolishness.
Alonso, more than any other driver, must have been aware of the rule forbidding drivers from impeding each other during qualifying. He had suffered a highly contentious enforcement of that rule at Monza only last year. But where that punishment had been questionable, here Alonso had quite plainly stopped Hamilton from getting a lap in, and his punishment was inevitable.
McLaren had already been called before the World Motor Sports Council once to explain why its chief designer Mike Coughlan had been in possession of a 780-page dossier of Ferrari intellectual property. Having convinced the court that the information had not been disseminated within the team, McLaren were cleared.
But on the morning before the Hungarian Grand Prix a furious Alonso told Ron Dennis that he was in possession of a series of incriminating emails linked to the documents. Alonso threatened that if Dennis did not rein in Hamilton he was give the material to the FIA.
This was Dennis’s testimony at the second WMSC hearing, and although Alonso has denied it he has not yet explained his version of events. The FIA offered all McLaren’s drivers immunity if they handed over any relevant emails. Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa did (Hamilton apparently had none) and McLaren were punished with expulsion from the constructors’ championship and a record fine.
Fighting till the end
Two moments in the Italian and Belgian Grands Prix illustrated how relations between the pair had degenerated – on Alonso’s side, at least. At the start of the Monza race Hamilton squeezed Massa hard to keep the Brazilian behind – but left the Ferrari driver just enough room to stay on the track.
Alonso did Hamilton no such favours at Spa, swinging across and forcing the Briton wide, even compromising his own drive out of the corner by running onto the grasscrete. But he kept ahead and took a point off his team mate on a day when Ferrari were dominant.
Alonso’s move brought no reaction from the stewards, but it was telling that the Spanish driver had resorted to the kind of driving he had attacked Michael Schumacher for at the British Grand Prix four years earlier.
No. I think the team have gone out of their way. As Fernando has been the world champion coming into the team, especially at the beginning of the season he’s the guy that’s supposed to take them to the championship, they’ve bent over backwards to make him feel comfortable.
Me and Pedro [de la Rosa] have done the same, we’ve been told: ‘try and make Fernando feel welcome in the team.’ We’ve done that, and then you saw what he did to the team.
Pole went to Hamilton by seven hundredths of a second and when the race finally got underway he pulled out enough of a lead over Alonso that they emerged from the pits with several cars between them. Alonso crashed out and, with a 12-point lead, the title was Hamilton’s to lose.
‘We were racing Alonso’
It all looked to be going the British driver’s way when he took pole position at Shanghai. Alonso was fourth, two-thirds of a second slower, and when he returned to the pits he threw his helmet across the room, almost broke a door off its hinges, and insinuated that the team had fiddled with his tyre pressures.
An incredible error by McLaren and Hamilton left him floundering on destroyed tyres in the Chinese race. He failed to finish, and went into the last race four points ahead of Alonso and seven ahead of Raikkonen.
Following the blunder Dennis made a remark that sent Alonso’s fans (and Alonso himself) to new heights of suspicion. Speaking of Hamilton’s race Dennis said:
The problem was rain and [Hamilton’s] tyres were in the worst condition. But we weren’t at all fazed about Kimi. We weren’t racing Kimi, we were basically racing Fernando.
Kimi winning and Lewis coming second was adequate. It just didn’t quite work out that way.
Was this testimony to Alonso’s belief that the entire McLaren team was working for Hamilton? Or was this an ill-worded grammatical slip in the heat of the moment, when Dennis failed to realise that the watching world didn’t know he was talking about Hamilton’s half of the team, rather than the whole team?
Whatever it means, it certainly falls a long way short of conclusive, hard proof, whatever the conspiracy theorists may say. What Alonso made of it is unclear. Before the final race he seemed to clear up the matter, saying:
I was surprised, but I think it is difficult to see what is true, what is just normal words that you say after the race and if you take in a different way you can make some problems. I don’t see anything strange, I was surprised but not really worried.
But after the championship had been decided he took a different slant:
What my team boss stated in China, saying that they weren’t racing against Raikkonen but against me, was a declaration of intent.
The FIA bowed to Alonso’s demands and appointed a steward at Interlagos to keep an eye on the McLaren pit during qualifying. He found nothing.
Hamilton started second but Raikkonen and Alonso passed him at the start. Then Alonso delivered an exquisitely timed sucker punch, slowing a fraction early for Subida do Lago, sending Hamilton skidding off the track.
Hamilton would probably have recovered from that but for his gearbox problem on lap eight that sent him plunging down the order. While he fought back to within two places of the world championship, Alonso made no impression on the Ferraris and finished almost a minute behind the champion Raikkonen.
The pair had been inseparable all season and in the final reckoning both scored 109 points. Each won four races, and Hamilton’s larger haul of second place finishes (six to four) put him ahead of Alonso in the final ranking.
Predictably, Alonso railed against McLaren’s appeal concerning several drivers that finished between their two cars that might have used illegally cool fuel.
It would be a joke, and we’ve had too many already. If something like that happened, it would end up burying the sport.
And the failure of the FIA stewards to find anything untoward did nothing to divert Alonso from his claims that the team had not treated him fairly:
In the last races both my hands and feet have been tied. I didn’t have any power. I had to do it all the way they said and that made it harder to close the gap.
The result speaks for itself. McLaren lost the championship probably because of some of the decisions they took, especially in the second half of the season. It’s no secret that they haven’t helped me a lot.
The debates over how McLaren have treated Hamilton and Alonso have raged long and loud in these pages.
The pair fought long and hard all year, and neither was above resorting to psychological tactics to try to unsettle the other.
But Alonso’s decision to vilify his team at every opportunity is a high-risk one and it remains to be seen how his performance this year will be judged. Were he to stay at the seem, which seems unthinkable, would these accusations continue? If he were to stay and the complaints disappear it would be hard to take the criticisms he has made this year seriously.
Or will he instead go to another team and finally reveal some proof about ‘where the bodies are buried’ at McLaren?
This may be only chapter one of the history of Lewis Hamilton versus Fernando Alonso.
- Alonso continues attacks on McLaren and Hamilton
- Debate: Fernando Alonso
- Alonso and Prodrive central to 2008 driver market
- Alonso and Hamilton want split
- Alonso is not the victim of a McLaren conspiracy
- What Dennis’s remark to Alonso really meant
- When did the Hamilton backlash start
- Alonso & de la Rosa’s emails led to McLaren’s punishment
- The stewards’ full verdict on Alonso
- McLaren cleared by FIA over Monaco ‘team orders’
- Video: Alonso’s dirty trick on Hamilton
- McLaren out of ’07 championship and fined $100m