Hamilton vs Alonso, All Grown-Up Now
While Sebastian Vettel was streaking away into the distance with a commanding lead in the Canadian Grand Prix, another race was taking place on the same track. A race that was more exciting to watch and much more interesting, a race with a plot, a subplot, and lots of history.
It was a classic showdown between two drivers, both world champions, both with legions of fans that will argue which one is better than the other, and why. A showdown that had the extra context of a long history and intense rivalry. In many ways it is one of the only true rivalries currently in F1. Fernando Alonso vs Lewis Hamilton, equal in their ability to drive a car, any car, to victory, which makes them unique on the grid.
In case you need a refresher course on the 2007 showdown, I pulled this timeline from EnterF1.com:
2007 Australian Grand Prix
In his first ever Grand Prix at Melbourne, Lewis Hamilton overtook Alonso around the outside of the first corner. The move squeezed Alonso who later retook the position thanks to a more preferable fuel strategy.
2007 Monaco Grand Prix
Alonso claimed victory at Monaco GP ahead of Lewis Hamilton, but the young Brit was publicly upset with the result and felt the team had deliberately stopped him from winning by making him pit earlier than required. Lewis grumpily told reporters that “it is something I have to live with. I’ve number two on my car and I am the number two driver.’ The FIA investigated the possibility that McLaren had instigated illegal team orders but later cleared them of any wrong doing.
2007 Canadian Grand Prix
Hamilton took his first pole position in Montreal and emerged as a genuine championship contender. Alonso, feeling the pressure from his rookie teammate, ran off the road at the first corner whilst trying a desperate manoeuvre to overtake Hamilton.
2007 United States Grand Prix
Both McLaren drivers were on top of their game at Indianapolis and engaged in a close fight for the race lead. Hamilton firmly defended his position against Alonso whilst heading towards turn one, leaving Fernando to swerve at the McLaren pitwall a lap later in disgust.
2007 Hungarian Grand Prix
During qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso parked his McLaren in the team’s pit garage whilst Hamilton was trying to make a stop for tyres. Lewis was left waiting in the pitlane until Alonso moved, and the subsequent delay prevented him from completing his final qualifying lap. McLaren and Alonso claimed the hold up resulted from a delayed radio conversation, but the FIA did not agree and punished them both. Hamilton didn’t emerge unscathed from the incident either having conducted a fiery exchange with Ron Dennis over the radio.
2007 Belgian Grand Prix
Both McLaren drivers arrived at the first corner of the Grand Prix side by side. Alonso had the inside line but swung wide from the apex and pushed Lewis off the circuit. Hamilton used the tarmac run off area to his advantage but Alonso had made his point and held the position.
2007 Chinese Grand Prix
Alonso became so enraged with the speed of Lewis Hamilton’s last minute qualifying lap that he broke a door in McLaren’s motorhome during a tantrum. By now Fernando was convinced the team were tampering with his efforts to win the championship.
2007 Brazilian Grand Prix
In the tense 2007 World Championship finale, Lewis Hamilton ran off the road on the first lap whilst trying to overtake Alonso. Fernando was never going to make it easy.
It’s been six years since that fiery season that ended with Alonso’s departure from McLaren. Neither driver has won a title after Hamilton’s in 2008 and oddly enough we rarely seem to find them racing head to head although they’ve both raced in every Grand Prix since. But everything finally lined up in Montreal.
On that day, neither of our protagonists’ cars were the outright fastest, that honor went to the Red Bull in the capable hands of Vettel. Of the two that would battle for second, each had its advantages on Sunday afternoon around the circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Hamilton started higher up the grid but the Mercedes chassis had some race pace issues. Alonso on the other hand started four cars farther back but in race trim the Ferrari 138 was fast, very fast.
Before Alonso could battle with Hamilton for 2nd, he had to get from 6th to 3rd. The drive was classic Alonso, we’ve seen it over and over, we’ve come to expect it. At least I do. First in his sights was Nico Rosberg, who gave way without a whimper, heading for the pits. Immediately Alonso set out after Mark Webber and in ten laps that contender was also dispensed with.
Finally the duel could begin with Hamilton and what transpired was great racing no matter what your opinion is concerning this year’s spec tire. Alonso erased an eight second gap to the Mercedes in just sixteen laps. When the Ferrari showed up in Hamilton’s mirrors you knew that Hamilton was not going to give up easily. At one point it looked doubtful for Alonso. However, you could see the Ferrari inching closer and closer with each turn and lap. The two protagonists raced each other for another seven laps while Hamilton used all his skill to somehow keep Alonso at bay.
On lap sixty-three Alonso seemed to get an advantage. It is right here that F1 fans get that look on their face. A look of complete attention to the TV, or to the monitors if you are trackside. A look of anticipation and a bit of apprehension. So many things that you don’t want to see can happen in the act of passing another car. But when executed properly there is nothing better to watch. We saw some minor contact but no damage and Alonso takes the position. Well done.
In that moment I thought back to that horrible year and what both of these drivers endured back in 2007. I remember the venomous comments all over the web about Alonso. The continental divide, literally, between Lewis fans and Fernando fans. I remember the bizarre racism that Lewis had to deal with while in Spain and from the Spanish Media. It was not F1’s finest moment to be sure. I don’t think any single person is to blame for the problems that occurred when these two were teammates at McLaren. The truth of the matter is there was quite a bit of blame to go around.
Hamilton shouldn’t have disobeyed the pre-arranged qualifying fuel burn plan in Hungary, that stunt set everything in motion. Alonso shouldn’t have acted entitled to his #1 status considering Lewis’ amazing rookie performance. Even if he was promised #1 status, he should have acted more professionally, he should not have overreacted in Hungary, he should have risen above and carried on. Lastly, Ron Dennis is to blame for allowing his drivers to cause too many distractions and lose focus on the prize: the championships.
It is hard to say with any certainty which of the McLaren drivers would have taken the championship that year had they concentrated on driving and not on each other and the politics involved. What I am most certain of is that Kimi Raikkonen and Ferrari benefited from the lack of discipline at team McLaren and that falls squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Dennis.
As I watched these two champions duke it out in in Montreal, I also thought about how both of these drivers have matured as well. To hear Hamilton and Alonso compliment each other in the past two years, you would think their memories have been wiped clean and the past never existed. And they proved it with the racing in Montreal which was tough but fair and never ugly or unsportsmanlike.
Of course when Alonso passed Hamilton it wasn’t quite over. As if to say to Alonso, yes you got me, but not so fast, Hamilton attempted his signature move: get passed and then repass the passer. Had the Mercedes chassis been a little bit better it would have worked, but on this day Hamilton’s tires just didn’t have anything left.
It must pain every driver on the grid from Sebastian Vettel to Jules Bianchi to be passed on track. It must pain the likes of Hamilton even more to be passed by Alonso given all they have been through. On that day in Montreal, discretion was the better part of valor as the saying goes, and neither was going to let an old rivalry get out of hand. Today was about a new rivalry. A rivalry where two racers now see each other as equals.
I suspect Fernando no longer sees Hamilton as an out-of-control rookie stealing his thunder. Instead the Ferrari driver has on several occasions mentioned that of all the drivers he competes against, Lewis is his most worthy adversary. This is in no way a dig at Vettel, Raikkonen, Webber, Massa, etc. But Hamilton is the driver that got the best of Alonso when he did not expect it. That was quite a wake up call for the two-time champion. Undoubtedly it made Alonso a better driver and in my opinion the best driver currently, despite Vettel’s championships and incredible records.
For Hamilton’s part, after being in F1 now for 5+ years it would seem he now sees Fernando not as the guy sharing the garage that he needed to beat, but as a complete driver and worthy champion. After witnessing first hand what Fernando has accomplished at Ferrari with machinery far below par, you can’t help but be impressed. Two out of three years he’s driven that car far beyond it’s true competitiveness and stayed in the championship right up until the end. Lewis knows well how hard that is. As far as fairness goes between the two, here is what Lewis had to say after the race.
The 28-year-old Hamilton, who has won three races in Montreal, admits he enjoyed going head-to-head with Alonso. “I have a great time here every year,” he said. “I think a small part of the wing came off it was really close, we had a great battle, he [Alonso] is a fair driver and had a great drive. We just have to keep pushing so we can get closer to these guys.”
There will always be race winners in F1, but only a very few become world champions. you know all the names but for the sake of it, let’s have a roll call. Lauda, Senna, Prost, Mansell, Pique, Hill, Hakkinon, Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel, and of course Schumacher, there are many more. And with these champions, there have been and will always be rivalries. They go back further yet. Jim Clark vs. Graham Hill, Gilles Villeneuve vs. Didier Pironi and the soon to be dramatized James Hunt and Niki Lauda. It is what we live for as F1 fans, truly.
Here in the States one thinks of the Dodgers and Giants, or the Yankees and the Red Sox. How about basketball, the Celtics vs. the Lakers. Too many rivalries to count in American football, but here are two of the most intense: the Packers and Vikings, the Cowboys and Redskins. Don’t even get me started on American college football, where students throw paint on the others mascots. In golf you have Woods and Michelson, Woods and Duval some years back, Woods and just about everyone at one time or another. Rivalries create tension. Tension between players, teams, cities, and countries. And with tension you create attention.
Nothing gets my attention in F1 like two drivers that go at it tong and hammer against each other each Sunday. Some will be nasty a la Senna and Prost, Pique and Mansell, and others will be civil like Hakkinen and Schumacher, but no less intense. You can add one more to the civil column now, that of Alonso vs Hamilton.
-jp- (now if the red car was as fast as the blue and purple car, we could see another rivalry)