The Formula One World Championship has only been around since 1950 but in that time it has developed a very rich history. Part of that is because, unlike many other sports, it changes so dramatically each and every season.
No doubt 2008 will be the same.
The new year provides a good opportunity to look at Formula One twelve months ago, and see just how much the sport has changed.
At the last round of the World Championship in 2006, Jenson Button finished third scoring six points. That is the same number of points he scored in all of 2007.
Honda were confident they would be fighting for victories this year and even went as far to say they had a chance at winning the title. They were able to back this up with their winter testing pace because Rubens Barrichello and James Rossiter were topping the timesheets in the 2006 car. They had a very good base upon which to build a fast machine for 2007, but in the end their new car was actually slower.
Honda finished the season eighth in the Constructors Championship (ninth if you include McLaren) and were outgunned by Super Aguri for most of the year. It was highly embarrassing for the team.
Their massive drop in performance caught most people in Formula One by surprise, including Honda F1 boss Nick Fry. Twelve months ago he was brimming with confidence saying “I think we’ll have a good year.”
He was the only person expecting Honda to have a strong season. At the start of 2007 Sporting Director Gil de Ferran also said “Both Jenson and Rubens, I think are in a position to fight for the championship.” Rubens backed this up by adding “I’m feeling very confident for the season.”
Barrichello finished 20th in the title chase with zero points, and Gil de Ferran is no longer employed by Honda.
Both McLaren and Fernando Alonso were very excited to be working together in 2007. McLaren had just spent a year with two drivers lacking in motivation and were thrilled to replace them with a double world champion. Alonso was also excited because taking victory with McLaren was the new challenge that he had been seeking.
Fernando was not just another driver for McLaren. He was something very special. This was evident when the team launched their 2007 car in front of 200,000 Spanish fans in Valencia and broadcast the event live on Spanish TV. Alonso was a very big part of their future plans.
McLaren CEO, Martin Whitmarsh, believed as much saying “Fernando, I’m sure, will be phenomenal. From the moment that we decided to pursue Fernando, which from my recollection is slightly different to Ron’s, we thought it was the right thing. We thought we made the right decision a year ago, but it was actually a better decision than we realised at the time.”
Perhaps most telling was Whitmarsh’s final comment “He had several setbacks this year, in terms of stewards decisions, and he has demonstrated just how battle-hardened he is.”
In the end it was Alonso’s mentality that brought him undone. He could not handle being outgunned by Lewis Hamilton and that eventually led to the breakdown in his relationship with McLaren.
It makes the following comment made by Ron Dennis twelve months ago even more poignant. “When it comes to the drivers, we are going to try and create the best environment for them to succeed.”
Once Lewis Hamilton knew that Alonso was rattled he didn’t make things easy for the Spaniard. He raced very hard on the track and even held Fernando up at the start of qualifying in Hungary. Lewis threw a few subtle jibes at his teammate into the press as well, which was very different to his attitude at the start of 2007 when he said “It is truly an honour for me to be given this opportunity to work alongside Fernando in my first year as a Formula One driver.”
Fernando Alonso is now back at Renault.
The newest team in Formula One was not even a pipe dream twelve months ago as their Indian boss was actually reinforcing ties with Toyota. Vijay Mallya owns the Kingfisher group of companies and thought a sponsorship deal with the Japanese manufacturer would be the best way to give India a presence in Grand Prix racing. Toyota thought so too saying “We hope this partnership will strengthen Formula One’s position in India and bring Panasonic Toyota Racing to the people of India.”
Vijay Mallya ended up having bigger aspirations than a deal with Toyota and bought Spyker, rebranding them as India’s national team.
The French Champ Car driver completed his second test with Scuderia Toro Rosso in December of 2006 and his performance was good enough for the team to invite him back later in 2007.
However Vitantonio Liuzzi was not so impressed at the time saying “Bourdais probably thought he would get here and humble everyone. By contrast, even if by a small amount, in the two days of our challenge I was faster. And the gap would have been wider without a traction control problem on the new tyres.”
As it was, Liuzzi was sacked to make way for the new man.
Michael’s younger brother started the 2007 season without even daring to think it would be his last in Formula One. His three year contract with Toyota had a two year extension and he was expecting that to be renewed. It wasn’t.
Singapore and Valencia
The two new venues for 2008 were barely rumours at the start of this year since both deals were arranged and finalised very quickly. In fact, after McLaren launched their championship campaign in Valencia, Bernie Ecclestone made it quite clear he was not expecting the city to host a Formula One Grand Prix. He said “We have a race in Spain already, and Valencia’s suitability as a Grand Prix venue has nothing to do with what went on at the McLaren launch.”
A large number of new Formula One races were announced in 2007. Singapore and Valencia were confirmed for 2008. Abu Dhabi will join them in 2009, along with India and Korea in 2010.
Dave Richards started the year full of confidence that Prodrive was on track to enter Formula One in 2008. He said “I have started my recruitment programme and my first announcement will be made shortly. Over the next few months you will see a few other significant announcements.” No such announcements were made and the team never got off the ground. No drivers or sponsors were ever confirmed and the delay with the new Concorde Agreement (allowing customer cars) put an end to their ambitions.
Dave Richards said twelve months ago “There is absolutely no question about it. Customer cars are permitted in 2008.” Unfortunately this comment was not entirely correct and the legitimacy of customer cars is the very reason that Prodrive withdrew their entry.
At the end of 2006 Ferrari was going through a big shake up after Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn left the Scuderia. Nigel Stepney was the team’s Chief Mechanic and was expecting a bigger role in the new technical line up. However, Mario Almondo was promoted ahead of him and Stepney became disillusioned, telling Autosport magazine “I’m not currently happy with the situation within the team. I really want to move forward with my career and that’s something that’s not happening right now.”
Nobody at the time could have imagined that Stepney’s dissatisfaction would change the face of Formula One.
Funnily enough, his efforts to destabilise Ferrari actually ended up working in their favour.
He handed confidential Ferrari information to Mike Coughlan, and when the McLaren designer was found in possession of the dossier the two teams went to court. McLaren was excluded from the Constructors Championship, and forced to limit development on their 2008 machine.
It was impossible to have guessed that from Stepney’s comments twelve months ago.
It will be interesting to see how much the sport has changed again at the end of 2008.