Tuesday, 23 October 2007

F1 2007 Season: What a cracker of a season it was!

The story actually begins on October 22, 2006. A clear blue sky marked the start of the season finale FORMULA 1™ Grande Prêmio do Brasil 2006 (Sao Paulo), or simply put the Brazilian GP. The generally sodden track (remember 2003 Brazilian GP?) at Interlagos was unusually dry, the weather gods had been kind. There was something else too which was unusual about this race. It was going to mark an end to an era. An era of decimating opposition (which sometimes became controversial), controlled aggression, razor-sharp precision, colossal achievements and ruthless dominance. The person in question was the ‘Red Baron’, the greatest F1 driver ever, the German ace, Michael Schumacher. The 2006 Brazilian GP was to be his farewell race. After a nail-biting finish to the season wherein Alonso fought off Michael’s daring bid to win his record eighth Championship title, cynics had predicted that the best phase of F1 was over. That interest of fans worldwide may now plummet. That ticket sales and TRPs (which play a governing role in the business of F1) were bound do decline.

Red Baron bids adieu: Schumacher accepting a special trophy marking his retirement, from Pele.

They would soon be proven incorrect …

A young prolific driver was awaiting his chance to hit the F1 track after an accomplished pre-Formula One career in which he won the British Formula Renault, European Formula Three and GP2 championships. Born in Hertfordshire, England, Lewis Carl Hamilton, a protégé to McLaren Team boss Ron Dennis, was announced as the second driver for the McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 team on November 24, 2006. The sport was about to get its new prodigy …

Come March, 2007 and the F1 season opened to the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. Although it was won by Ferrari’s Kimi “The Iceman” Raikkonen, it was Hamilton who stole the limelight after finishing his debut race on podium at a more-than-decent third position. He backed it up with two more consecutive podium finishes to become the first ever driver to finish all his first three races on the podium. The Spanish GP at Circuit de Catalunya saw Massa throw his hat into the ring followed by Alonso who led from the pole to finish on top of the podium at one of F1’s most glamorous event, the Monaco GP. The driver’s championship scene was heating up.

This is where things started going awry when after winning the Canadian GP, F1’s new found darling, Hamilton complained that team orders forced him to let Alonso win the race at Monaco. This could have well been brushed-off as a one off event but the worst was yet to come…

Four races later, with Raikkonen and Hamilton having won two of them apiece, the fact that there’s infighting amongst the McLaren drivers was spilled out in the media along the sidelines of the Hungarian GP, when Alonso was penalized for obstructing Hamilton’s qualifying effort.

To make matters even more interesting, the season saw the espionage controversy and the kind of drama that unfolded, mostly off-track, could have easily qualified for a Hollywood script. The formidable contenders of the Constructor’s Championship, Ferrari alleged that a senior McLaren engineer (Mike Coughlan) had bribed a member of their Senior Technical staff (Nigel Stepney) and were thus in possession of some classified information which gave them an undue advantage over Ferrari. Initially it was perceived that Ferrari would not be able to prove the charge against McLaren but thanks to the skullduggery shown by Alonso, McLaren was brought to justice, stripped of all its championship points and a fine of $100 million was imposed on them by the FIA (Federation International dé Automobilé , the sport’s governing body). As a result of this Ferrari sealed victory over their record 15th Constructor’s Championship title, well before the season ended.

While politics was going on off the track, Hamilton was burning rubber on track after clinching two more wins at the German GP (Nurburgring) and the Japanese GP with his blistering pace. The other challengers were putting up an equally brilliant front. That is what added to the excitement of the entire season so much so that the title race was taken down to the wire.

Now it all came down to equations. Just before the season ender Brazilian GP, Hamilton had 107 point to Alonso’s 103 and Raikkonen’s 100 points. Massa was unfortunately out of contention (this would later help Ferrari in a big way). It was first time in 21 years that a troika of drivers would fight it out for the driver’s title.

Before that it happened in 1986, when the legendary Nigel Mansell was leading the championship, seven points ahead of Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet. Alain Prost went on to win this one and quoting this the betters were putting their money on Alonso as odds were in his favour. But the reigning world champion after having won the last two consecutive seasons with Renault would not be proved third time lucky …

The troika was keeping it cool before the final showdown and each one had hopes of creating history. If Hamilton won, he’d become the youngest and first F1 champ to have won in his rookie season. Alonso had his third consecutive title at stake; moreover he’d become the only driver after Juan Manuel Fangio to win two seasons back-to-back with different constructors. Raikkonen could win his first championship and become the third Finn after Keke Rosberg and Mika Hakkinen to win the driver’s crown. Destiny would favour only one of them …

So the big day came, Oct 21, 2007. Again a clear blue sky, no sign of rains, 11 teams, 22 drivers, and a huge crowd supporting their heroes. The home hero Massa had already secured the pole to the delight of his fans.

Grid girls before the start of the race.

The race began with Massa edging out Hamilton to let Raikkonnen join immediately behind him, thus helping out in his championship contender teammate’s winning efforts right from the start. Ferrari teamwork was at display yet again. Hamilton had a difficult start and a rather unexpected race with the car giving him trouble on one occasion where it almost stopped dead. The race thus continued and what an electrifying race it was. At the end of it the unthinkable had happened. Raikkonen emerged victorious to clinch his first ever Formula 1 driver’s championship. Everybody was happy, even Alonso, having prevented his ‘rival teammate’ from winning the championship!

Kimi Raikkonen, victory at last!

Looking back, this season gave F1 more than it had asked for – a new world champion, an accomplished rookie, lots of media frenzy, renewed interest the world over and of course a whopping increase in TRPs and ticket sales. It also helped wipe off the tears left by Schumacher’s departure from the scene as during this season he was Ferrari’s technical consultant so you had him on screen now and then but of course without displaying his race antics.

The new season looks more promising than any of its predecessors and fans world over have lots to watch out for, especially the Indians. As was recently announced the newly purchased Spykar F1 team would be rechristened to “Force India” subject to FIA’a approval. Of course we Indians would prefer that Dr. Mallya invest in getting good racing talent on board along with having a decent machine setup so that we don’t always see the Indian team at the bottom of the leaderboards (that’s how Spykar has been hitherto). Besides that there is the all new Singapore GP, the first night racing event in the F1 calendar. And who knows, when 2010 comes India’s ambitions of having a home GP could well materialize!