I think it is fair to say that the 2007 Formula One championship has been a bit of a rollercoaster thus far. We have had four different winners, although from only two teams, a few surprise podiums, let downs in expected performance, impressive form from rookies and just a smattering of controversy. And as F1:2007 heads into its final few races, let’s take a quick look back at the biggest surprises, and also look forward to what promises to be an epic showdown for the title.
I suppose it is only fair to discuss Lewis Hamilton, after all, the young driver has had a pretty explosive debut season in Formula One. Whether you like all the attention he receives or not, you cannot take away nine podiums from nine starts – the first nine starts – and Lewis is sure to be at the start of a very promising and fruitful career in Formula One.
Initially, it was seen as a big risk from McLaren team boss Ron Dennis to put such a young and relatively unproven driver in the seat next to reigning world champion Fernando Alonso. I’ll be honest, I thought Pedro De La Rosa would have fitted the bill better – I guess that is why I’m not a team owner! But from the season start in Australia, it was quite clear the new number two driver meant business. Since then, Lewis has won twice (conquering both North American rounds), gathered a strong following of devotees and currently leads the title race. Not bad for your first season.
At the other end of the spectrum are perhaps Renault and Red Bull Racing. The French team are the reigning constructors champions, and while they were expected to take a blow from losing Alonso (who defected for the 2007 campaign), they were still thought to be able to challenge the big two teams. But again, it was all too clear in Australia that Renault were struggling. Giancarlo Fisichela has shown that his maturity behind the wheel can help with a team that is performing poorly, but he isn’t the dare-devil super-fast Alonso. Heikki Kovalainen, who arrived in F1 at the same time as Hamilton, struggled initially, warranting some strong words from his team boss Flavio Briatore. However, a few races in and Heikki started to get to grips with the R27. The Anglo-French car appears to have improved in some areas, but lost ground in others. Currently they are pretty much where they started 2007; only able to scrape a few points from each race.
Red Bull are the other team that were expected to do well this year. Although it may have been presumptuous to think this of them, but with David Coulthard, Mark Webber, Renault engines and Adrian Newey, it is difficult to understand just where the team went wrong. This cocktail really should have seen the Austrian squad move up the grid after a lacklustre 2006 year, but instead they remain the have potential, but can’t tap into it team. I have lost count the amount of times the gear box has let the drivers down, and a couple of silly mistakes from the drivers sees RBR languishing on only a few points. Mark Webber’s podium in Germany (the teams second) will probably remain the highlight of the 2007 season for them.
Winners this year include Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton. It would have been nice to see Renault in the mix as well, and maybe even a maiden victory from BMW, but alas that is yet to happen. There still is a chance, with seven races still to run, but it unless the freak weather returns it seems as though McLaren and Ferrari will continue to dominate the top step of the podium. The continued improvement from the BMW stable is an excellent sign for the future though. The German squad have looked to be pretty sound all year, and even losing their regular second driver Robert Kubica for a race didn’t stop them from scoring a point, thanks to their talented reserve pilot Sebastian Vettel. If BMW can keep up the development into 2008 and not follow the usual [Honda-set] trend of building a St Bernard immediately after building a Greyhound, next year should be a very important season in the history of the team.
While 2007 has seen some impressive races and performances, the season has also seen some controversy, most of which is still to be resolved. The customer car row, that actually started before the season began last March, continues albeit in a little less public way now. Super Aguri and Scuderia Toro Rosso have taken centre stage in this debate, and Bernie Ecclestone is working to find a compromise between these two teams and those who oppose the idea of sharing designs between multi-teamed operations (Honda and Red Bull respectively). Interestingly though, and perhaps down to the story being kept away from the headlines recently, it doesn’t appear to have damaged the sport and its reputation too much. Of course, there is still time for further upsets, particularly as Super Aguri currently sit on a tidy four points.
Speaking of Super Aguri, I think one statistic says it all about the way Honda are running each of their teams. Just a quick glance at the constructors table shows Aguri on four points, and parent team Honda on one. Honestly, that speaks volumes.
Getting back to the controversy for a moment, Monaco has to rank quite highly in terms of potential hullabaloo. It was suggested by McLaren team boss and Lewis Hamilton that both drivers were told to back off from racing each other in the final laps of the Monaco Grand Prix. This is something that incensed the British media as they felt as though Ron was taking the maiden victory away from Hamilton in order to preserve his title chances with the more experienced Fernando Alonso. Normally in this situation, the team owner would stand their ground and eventually the story would disappear. But as the rumoured controlling of the race was potentially an infringement of the rules, the FIA involved themselves and launched an investigation. Thankfully and quite rightly in this case, nothing untoward was found and McLaren were not penalised. However, the event did make a few people realise just how ridiculous (and downright juvenile) some parts of the British media can be. I for one have not bought a Monday-following-race-day paper since.
However, the biggest spilled-milk-saga of the year has to be Stepney-gate: A damaging affair that has more than likely ruined the careers of at least two senior F1-involved figures and one that has brought a very dark cloud over the sport. The case continues in Italy with regards to ex-Ferrari employee Nigel Stepney, while Mike Coughlin will be required to attend a hearing in front of the FIA WMSC to explain his version of events. If either figure is found to be guilty, they face a likely ban from international motorsport for many years.
The fact that the story involves more than one team (Ferrari, McLaren and even Honda) and the fact that it all came out in stages only heightens the damage and keeps it in the papers and news sites. The whole drama is something Formula One doesn’t need right now as the calendar is being expanded (in all probability) and ventures into new countries and cultures. The leak of confidential documents from Ferrari to McLaren also damages the reputation of the teams involved, both of which run operations outside of the regular business of Formula One racing.
The Nigel Stepney affair is also something Ferrari could have done without. In a season that was always going to be trickier than previous, the team really could have done with some stability and reliability, and not just from the cars. Unfortunately, the team are at war with an employee who was wanting a sabbatical while the once formidable car has started to show signs of weakness. Still, Michael Schumacher is still around, present on the pit wall at most races and trying to work out where he fits in to the new team.
Finally – to wrap up this post – what can we expect from the remaining jaunts around the circuits left on the calendar? I imagine Lewis will likely win another race and just about keep his title hopes alive. Ferrari will also continue to be ever-present, winning races with both drivers sharing the champagne. But history has shown that Fernando Alonso thrives in these situations, and while his season has probably been more problematic than he would have liked, the Spaniard really is a true world champion. And true champions find a way of being there in the mix at the final race of the year. For that is when they show the world what they are capable of. I’m expecting Alonso to keep track of the other three and take the title in Brazil after some sterling performances and audacious overtaking moves.