They signed a double world champion and the sport’s most exciting rookie for years, and the pair fell out horribly. Both missed out on the drivers’ championship by a single point.
Their appeal to have the results of the drivers’ championship changed failed because they filed the wrong type of appeal. And their every move, whether positive or negative, was dogged by a hopeless PR campaign that made them look inept, cynical and hypocritical.
It was an utterly wretched 2007 season for McLaren.
I’ve already looked at the vicious rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso and the question of whether Hamilton and Alonso were treated equally in two recent posts – so this article will look more closely at other areas of the teams performance.
The season began with a fresh new look for McLaren – a double world champion bringing the coveted number one with him to the team, a fresh-faced rookie, both resplendent in crisp white uniforms before a cheering crowd at the Valencia launch.
In testing the signs looked good – the MP4/22 was the only car that looked lie it could stay with the F2007 over long runs. Although Ferrari ran away with the first race, McLaren bounced back at Malaysia and claimed a one-two. Ferrari had been forced to change the underbody of their car following an appeal from McLaren – but the watching world did not yet understand the true significance of this development.
Ironically, given what was to develop, it became apparent that the MP4/22 and F2007 were conceptually very different cars that performed well on different circuits. McLaren were untouchable around courses with short, tight corners like Monte-Carlo (where Alonso won) and Montreal (where Hamilton scored his maiden win).
But as its drivers forged ahead in the drivers’ championship the relationship between the pair was unravelling, and at the Hungaroring that in turn provided the catalyst for the FIA to renew their investigation into the team and ultimately to give them such a massive penalty.
Some have argued that McLaren had done nothing out of the ordinary. It was interesting to hear the team’s former designer Adrian Newey make the following remarks this week:
The fact is that there have been far bigger breaches of personnel taking info with them from one team to another in the past which have gone undetected or without penalty.
My personal opinion is that anything anyone can take with them in their head is fair game, but anything that is written or in electronic format is not.
It is clear that McLaren were guilty of the latter, ad if the governing body has indeed set a new precedent for punishing teams for using ill-gotten intellectual property, then Renault may well be concerned about the outcome of the investigation into McLaren’s appeal against them, due early in December.
The FIA threw McLaren one lifeline. Having offered their drivers immunity from punishment if they handed over any evidence they might have, the governing body could hardly turn around and punished the two drivers who had been incriminated – Fernando Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa.
What’s more, Bernie Ecclestone and others were not keen on seeing the highly marketable Hamilton kicked out of the championship for something he might not have had a part in. The FIA duly delivered an exemption from the drivers, allowing them to keep their points.
Relations between the drivers continued to collapse, with Alonso seldom passing up the opportunity to have a go at the team, and Hamilton eventually returning fire, questioning Alonso’s loyalty and openly wishing for him to leave.
Beaten at the last
Despite this the team remained competitive. At Monza, days before the second espionage hearing, they romped to a one-two with Alonso a clear winner from Hamilton, who rescued second with a smart pass on an injured Kimi Raikkonen.
But there were several occasions when the team’s strategic preparedness left a lot to be desired. Hamilton’s crew fouled twice on wet weather tyre strategy – first at the Nurburgring (switching to dries to soon) and most critically at Shanghai (switching to dries too late). The driver carries some responsibility for this, as does the team who were well aware of his lack of experience in this area.
Their failure to judge just how quickly Hamilton could wear through a set if tyres caught them out at Interlagos, where they ended up switching him to a three-stop strategy that proved the final nail in his world championship hopes.
Alonso only suffered one similar mistake on the team’s part all year (which was ironic given the hard time he gave them), when he found himself having to pit illegally under the safety car at Montreal, as did Nico Rosberg.
This was particularly peculiar as, only two weeks earlier, McLaren had gone to great lengths to ensure the same did not happen to Hamilton, which prevented the rookie from being able to challenge for the win and led to the accusation that McLaren had used team orders to favour Alonso.
I wonder what Ron Dennis thinks of the train wreck that his 2007 campaign became? Does he blame Mike Coughlan for his foolishness, or does he shoulder the responsibility for failing to create an environment where to commit Coughlan’s mistakes would be unthinkable?
Does he blame Lewis Hamilton for breaking the team’s instructions at the Hungaroring and tipping his team mate over the edge? Does he blame Fernando Alonso for failing to accept that the team were not showing favour to Hamilton? Or does he see a fault in himself, for failing to control two enormously talented and gigantically competitive rivals?
Dennis has said before that he takes defeat very badly and feels it as a physical pain. It is hard to conceive of a more total and more galling defeat than that McLaren suffered.
Does he have any appetite for the fight left in him?
More about McLaren