A year of scandals

Kimi Raikkonen... deserving winner of the World title.-AP

Thanks to the espionage cases, 2007 will go down in Formula One history as probably one of the most squalid seasons ever, writes G. Raghunath.

The emergence of Lewis Hamilton as the bright new star, one endowed with immense talent, magnificent driving skills and a mature head on his young shoulders, the intense three-way duels for pre-eminence, especially in the final race of the season, the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, and the crowning of a new champion, Kimi Raikkonen. Formula One couldn’t have had it better.

Well, that was what one thought until some imperfections began to play up grievously on the circuit.

Formula One and controversy, no doubt, are like the horse and the cart. Not a year runs out without an uproar on the circuit. But the year that was, 2007, will go down in Formula One history as probably one of the most squalid seasons ever.

The espionage scandal involving McLaren-Mercedes’ disgraced chief designer, Mike Coughlan, and the Ferrari engineer Nigel Stepney plunged the sport into its darkest hours. In what is now infamously referred to as “Stepneygate”, the disgruntled Italian team engineer allegedly passed on Ferrari’s confidential technical documents, running to nearly 780 pages, to Coughlan.

McLaren got away the first time when Ferrari’s appeal came up for hearing at the FIA World Motor Sport Council which, apparently, didn’t find enough evidence to impale the British outfit. But soon the Woking-based team found all its escape routes cut off and paradoxically, the man responsible for this was McLaren’s own driver, defending champion, Fernando Alonso.

Even as the espionage scandal was blowing fiercely, Alonso’s run-ins with Hamilton — which only grew worse with each race as the Spaniard, refusing to concede that his rookie team-mate was as good as him if not better, charged McLaren of blatant bias and saw some sort of a conspiracy by the team head Ron Dennis and Hamilton to keep him out of the title race — and his big barney with Ron Dennis after the Hungarian GP Qualifier, when he was demoted five places on the starting grid for stalling his team-mate in the flying lap, sealed McLaren’s fate.

During the heated argument between the two, Alonso reportedly pointed to one of the computers in the McLaren pit and warned Dennis that he would send it to FIA if the team did not recognise his status as two-time world champion and instead continued to focus more on Hamilton. Meaning, the Spaniard threatened to disclose to FIA what according to him were some incriminating e-mails pertaining to the spy scandal.

That wrote the finis; Dennis decided that he would be the one informing FIA of the scandal and not Alonso. And he was soon on telephone to FIA president Max Mosley. McLaren eventually was stripped of all its points, ejected from the constructors’ championship race and fined a hefty £50m.

Many weeks later, McLaren issued a public apology to both Ferrari and FIA for illegally using the Italian team’s technical data. The apology also revealed that some of the Ferrari data had even gone into the designing of McLaren’s car for the next season — the MP4-23.

FIA finally closed the case after McLaren agreed to furnish an undertaking that it would put a cap on the development of systems that had been influenced by the Ferrari data.

Meanwhile, McLaren charged Renault of espionage after it discovered that one of its employees who crossed over to the French team had done so with some disks containing crucial technical details. Renault, however, surprisingly escaped punishment.

Fernando Alonso’s run-ins with Lewis Hamilton grew worse with each race as the Spaniard refused to concede that his rookie team-mate was as good as him if not better and charged McLaren of blatant bias.-AP

An embattled Formula One could have done without these scandals. And it was unfair that such contemptible incidents off the track should take the sheen off some top-drawer battles between Alonso and Hamilton (Malaysian GP, Monaco GP and United States GP), Raikkonen and Alonso (British GP) and Raikkonen and Hamilton (Hungarian GP) which took the race for the world title to the wire.

Though Raikkonen won the world title, the protagonist of the 2007 season was Hamilton by a mile. The 22-year-old from Hertfordshire in England began the season by smashing one record after another, which was reminiscent of Canadian Jacques Villeneuve’s debut in 1996 when he recorded four victories, 11 podiums and finished second in the championship race.

Like Villeneuve, Hamilton too finished second in the championship with four victories. However, what is remarkable about Hamilton is that he single-handedly ramped up the popularity of Formula One in 2007. As the first Formula One driver of African descent and hailing from a humble background, he has inspired a legion of under-privileged children to take up motor sport.

Raikkonen, on the other hand, maintained a low profile during the first half of the season, bringing back memories of his insouciant days with McLaren when he failed to deliver after showing great promise. But beginning with the French GP in July, he made clear his intent of mounting a serious challenge for the world title.

And in the final race at Interlagos, he proved in no uncertain terms why he is regarded as the fastest modern day Formula One driver. And it was only appropriate that the Finn won the World title.