Since McLaren launched the new MP4-23 yesterday in Stuttgart, a lot has been spoken about the way the team will behave in the upcoming 2008 world championship. Not only did the squad answer questions about the distractions of the Stepneygate saga, but also about how Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen will be treated during the season. In 2007, Fernando Alonso felt that McLaren favoured Hamilton, and the Spaniard made his thoughts very public. However, he did retract his words towards the end of the year, perhaps feeling safe in the knowledge that he had made the decision to leave. But of course, the mere hint of favouritism caught the media’s attention and now the Woking team are defending their policies yet again.
Fixing races (subtle or not) is prohibited in the rules set out by the FIA. The organisation monitor radio traffic during the race weekend and will hand out severe penalties to any team that has breached these regulations. But at times, team orders will come into play. You may not agree with it, but when a championship could be ruined by one hitch, a multiple-million pound company can lose out in a very big way. To be honest, it is expected that the teams will pre-orchestrate a result in their favour should it get to crunch time, normally at the very end of the year. That doesn’t mean blatant position changes, hiccups in the pitlane or mythical throttle problems. It means that the whole weekend will likely be shaped towards the leading driver should the second placed man be out of the championship.
This is pretty much how I believe McLaren would have played 2007 out had they been in the position to do so. As it happens, their final race of the year in Brazil went a little wrong and Ferrari trounced all over them. But is this approach wise? Is allowing both team mates to race each other during the season, sharing wins and champagne and ultimately points, a good thing?
Ferrari famously backed Michael Schumacher during his tenure at Maranello. It was even rumoured to have been mentioned in the contracts of both drivers. With more relaxed rules back in the pre-2002 seasons, Schumacher received full support not only from the team, but also from his team mate, initially Eddie Irvine and later Rubens Barrichello before Felipe Massa. With this support Michael romped to three world titles and contributed to four constructors between 1996 and 2002. The team won, Michael won. Quite simply, from the teams perspective, it worked.
Conversely, during the same time period (’96 – ’02), McLaren claimed two drivers titles for Mika Hakkinen and one constructors. From looking at these statistics alone, it surely favours putting weight behind one of the drivers.
However, Heikki Kovalainen has insisted since signing for McLaren that he will have equal status with Lewis Hamilton, saying that the team will work for both drivers and give each a chance to perform to their maximum.
I would not have come to a team if I did not think I had an equal chance to fight for the championship. With McLaren, I have that. You do not know how the season is going to go, but at least to start with I have exactly the same opportunity as Lewis has, and it is up to me to build a relationship with the team and to make it as strong as I can. And we will see what happens. Heikki Kovalainen.
Heikki’s quote suggests that should one driver pull out an impenetrable margin over the other, the team would shift focus, but my question to you is should McLaren start out with supporting one for the title. History favours that tactic, even if the fans don’t. For now, I’m a fan and will prefer the team to continue the way they are. But if I owned a team, owed several million dollars to the FIA and hadn’t won a title in a fair few years, I might be thinking about other approaches.