The Hungarian Grand Prix is usually a fairly dull event. Whilst the atmosphere on the grass hills surrounding the track is fantastic, the circuit itself is rubbish. It is often described as ‘Monaco without the barriers’ and the layout is not conducive to entertaining races.
Last year was a rare exception but this was only because of heavy rain. The tight and twisty layout is very dusty off the racing line and makes overtaking almost impossible. Therefore, just like Monaco, one of the most crucial and exciting parts of the weekend is qualifying and not the race.
That was exactly the case again this year although nobody could have expected just how incredible qualifying turned out to be.
The Alonso-Hamilton incident on Saturday has developed into one of Formula One’s great controversies. There will always be a bit of gamesmanship between teammates but this rarely spills over onto the track.
At the very end of the session both McLaren drivers entered the pits to fit new tyres before their final hot lap. Alonso arrived first but his pitstop took over thirty seconds, ten of which he spent waiting after the lollipop man had signalled him to leave. Hamilton was queued behind Alonso and the subsequent delay meant Lewis was not able to record another fast lap.
Hamilton was clearly not happy afterwards saying “I really don’t understand why I was held back, so I guess you should ask the team and I definitely will do when I go back and have a debrief”.
Although it was the pitstop that got everyone’s attention, the incident started almost 15 minutes earlier in the garages.
Both McLarens had to be cooled down between Q2 and Q3. Hamilton’s car reached the appropriate temperature first so it was his McLaren instead of Alonso’s that led the field out of pitlane.
Due to their respective strategies McLaren wanted Alonso in front of Hamilton to take full advantage of the fuel burn period. When asked to let Alonso by, Hamilton refused to do so and that is when the trouble started. A very heated argument took place between Lewis and the McLaren pitwall with some choice words being directed at Ron Dennis personally.
Hamilton explained the argument. “When you don’t obey a team order from your team boss, who has given you the opportunity, it’s a difficult situation. But in the end you have to stand up for what you believe and how you feel. At the time I took that decision and that’s just the way it went”
It is the first time McLaren have experienced Hamilton’s rebellious side. He disobeyed the orders that have previously been used to help him and not surprisingly that upset the team greatly. There was a lot of tension around McLaren for the rest of the weekend and on the podium after the race there was only a muted celebration from the mechanics.
As a result of Hamilton staying ahead of Fernando the two McLarens were out of sequence by the end of qualifying. That is why Hamilton was forced to queue behind Alonso during that fateful pitstop.
It would appear that McLaren simply mismanaged the situation because it is unlikely they wanted to impede either one of their drivers.
BMW got Q3 timing wrong in the first two Grands Prix of the season with Kubica, so maybe it was just an honest mistake by McLaren to delay Hamilton as long as they did. He only missed the cut-off by four seconds.
The FIA didn’t think so and declared “The actions of the team in the final minutes of qualifying are considered prejudicial to the interests of the competition.”
Ron Dennis argued this wasn’t the case and that the team had simply got it wrong. “The truth is we’re under phenomenal pressure in the last three minutes of qualifying and we time these things to very small margins and you only have to see that Fernando crossed the line with two seconds to go to get his final flying lap in which shows it wasn’t a contrived approach, but pushing our system to the limits”.
At what point do you draw the line between getting it wrong, and acting purposely against the interest of competition?
Although Alonso was gracious about his five-grid-place penalty it was his comments about Hamilton that really highlighted how significant this moment was to the 2007 title chase.
The talk of a rift between Alonso and Hamilton is no longer just a rumour. Despite the implication of a recent Mercedes TV Commercial, the two drivers are far from friends and their championship rivalry is now very much alive.
Ron Dennis insisted at the start of the season that no problems existed between Fernando and Lewis but was forced to admit this weekend “there’s a tremendous amount of tension in the team”.
It is a tension that could possibly tear McLaren apart.
Alonso left Renault because he was no longer happy in the team and there is nothing to suggest he wont do the same again.
Ron Dennis might not be too worried about the prospect of Alonso jumping ship. There aren’t any vacancies at Ferrari so even if the double world champ was keen to leave McLaren there isn’t anywhere competitive for him to go.
Or is there?
Although highly unlikely, Alonso could feasibly swap positions with Nick Heidfeld. BMW are yet to confirm any drivers for 2008 so the door is open for someone else to join them. The old Sauber team are definitely on the way up and could be challenging for wins as soon as next year. Alonso could take them towards a world championship and would indisputably be the outright team leader. BMW would be more than happy for Alonso to make the team his own and that is exactly the scenario Fernando wants.
Not only does an Alonso-BMW partnership make sense, but McLaren would comfortable with Nick Heidfeld as well. He has very strong links with the team having previously been their test driver and won the Formula 3000 Championship for them in 1999. There is no doubt that Mercedes would also love to have a German in their car.
This weekend may just have been the turning point for Alonso who has experienced a strained relationship with McLaren since day one.
During the off-season Ron Dennis organised a ‘meet the drivers’ session at Woking where employees could ask Fernando and Lewis any questions they wanted. Alonso was apparently miffed afterwards that most of the questions were not for him.
Despite the obvious tension that exists at McLaren at the moment Ron Dennis insists the situation is under control. Some people point to the Senna-Prost relationship as proof the McLaren team boss can handle his drivers.
The truth is that Ron didn’t handle Senna and Prost very well at all. Their time together only lasted two years and both drivers were critical of McLaren’s management. Prost angrily left the team and Senna also felt he was treated unfairly. When forced by Ron Dennis to apologise to Prost for an incident during 1989, Senna said the instruction was such an injustice that it made him cry.
The situation in 2007 is very different to what it was in 1989 but the same competitive energies are at play. Both drivers will stand up for what they believe in and this weekend we saw that Hamilton will go as far as to disobey the team.
The McLaren drivers are not talking to each other at the moment, so it will be very interesting to see how their conflict plays out in three weeks at Istanbul.
Even more interesting will be what this means for McLaren in 2008.
Alonso in a BMW? Not very likely, but then we never expected what happened in Hungary qualifying either.
If Formula One in 2007 has proven anything, it is that anything is possible.