It has been a bittersweet year for Mclaren. It began with the explosive debut of Lewis Hamilton whose unexpected speed fostered progressive competition in the team. Both drivers were getting the best out of a good car and by mid-season Mclaren were looking clear favourites to take the driver’s title. But it was a weary Mclaren machine that returned to Woking at the end of the season. The team had left Interlagos with a $50 million tab and no silver wear to show for it. And a few weeks later, the news everyone expected was confirmed; Fernando Alonso was packing his bags.
So where did it all go wrong? How on earth did Mclaren let the drivers’ championship slip through their fingers?
It is tempting to attribute Mclaren’s downfall in 2007 to the very public row over intellectual property and the internal tension that this exacerbated. True, it cost them the constructor’s championship whether or not you agree with the FIA’s conclusions. But can it really explain the way they threw away the drivers championship? Lewis Hamilton arrived at the penultimate Grand Prix with a 12 point lead, does not some of the blame rest with him and his engineers for the tactical mistakes in Shanghai and Brazil?
You could argue that the intense rivalry between Hamilton and Alonso – made worse by the spy scandal and claims of driver favouritism – had adverse effects on the team’s campaign. Had the two drivers not been racing each for the title, or had Mclaren backed a single driver, the mistakes of Alonso and Hamilton at Fuji and Shanghai could have been avoided. Indeed, these two DNF’s proved absolutely fatal for Mclaren. They allowed Raikkonen to bring himself right back into contention.
While the off-track politics did not help the team’s campaign I don’t think it is fair to say that it was the only reason why Mclaren left Interlagos empty-handed.
Personally I think a lot of the blame – and this is not quite the right word – lies with Hamilton, after all it was he who had the 12 point lead heading into Shanghai. But in something of a paradox I don’t think blame should actually be ascribed.
What we saw in Shanghai when Hamilton was doggedly fending off Raikkonen on a delamanting tyre, and again in Interlagos when he ruthlessly tried to retake his position from Alonso, was a quality not a weakness. It is one thing to be so callously aggressive at the start of the season when the pressure is off, quite another to have the same confidence and determination to do so in the heat of a championship decider.
Yes, Hamilton’s actions may not have been the right things to do in the context and unquestionably helped Raikkonen win the championship. But it was precisely that aggressive approach and refusal to settle for anything other than first which got him into a championship fighting position in the first place. It is a quality that made Michael Schumacher so exciting to watch. He too often fell victim to his racing instinct, most notably at Hungary 2006 when, having been left an open goal from Alonso, he refused to settle for fifth place and ended up colliding with Heidfeld in a bid to make up ground.
Ron Dennis should not be disheartened with the outcome of 2007. He should avoid trying to change his protégé’s approach to racing. Hamilton’s aggressive style is a quality which in the long run, as with Schumacher, will win him more championships than he will lose.
Above all Dennis must resist the temptation to pair Hamilton with a lesser driver. Hamilton still needs to develop as a driver and allowing him to slip into a comfort zone would not be the best way to maximise his potential. He needs to be constantly pushed as he was this year. Contractual obligations permitting, Nico Rosberg would be my first choice for the second Mclaren seat.
There is another reason for Dennis to smile. History has shown an almost formulaic tendency amongst world champions. When a driver has successfully wrapped up two world championships for the same team it is as if a little warning light turns on in his brain: “I need a new challenge; I need to prove I can win in a different and or lesser car.” Ron Dennis must know that he cannot hold on to Hamilton forever however many clauses and stipulations he puts in the Englishman’s contract. Hamilton’s failure to take the 2007 championship may have just extended his stay at Mclaren.