Fernando: A new challenge
The arrival of Fernando Alonso at McLaren in 2007 was celebrated with one of the biggest and most extravagant new car launches Formula 1 had ever seen. More than 100,000 spectators lined the streets of Valencia – an ancient Mediterranean city made impressively modern through a massive construction programme – to witness a floodlit F1 street demonstration with Spaniard Fernando Alonso and rookie Lewis Hamilton at the wheel of two McLaren F1 cars.
Accompanied by a huge firework display and a Cirque du Soleil performance, the lavish launch was bankrolled by the team’s new title sponsor Vodafone, and the city authorities. Alonso’s arrival underlined the team’s ambitious plans to reclaim world title glory.
Alonso spoke of his desire to build on his double championship success and added that McLaren, with their eye for detail and an utter determination to win, was the perfect team at which to achieve that.
“I actually call it a ‘new McLaren’ team because with all the sponsors arriving it does feel like a new team,” said Fernando during pre-season testing. “All the people are so excited about this new year, this new project. After not having success in the past, they feel that this is the year to come back.”
Accompanying Alonso in this fresh chapter of his career was the 22-year-old rookie Lewis Hamilton. The British driver had performed brilliantly in his GP2 campaign the previous season, but was suddenly thrust into a front-line grand prix team with no Formula 1 experience.
“I think Lewis will be a help,” said Alonso at the beginning of 2007. “I think that because he’s young and quick he can add some fresh ideas to the squad, as sometimes F1 teams get stuck into a traditional way of operating.”
The season started promisingly with Alonso taking the runners-up spot in Australia and winning his second race for McLaren with a dominant drive in Malaysia. Two races later he won the Monaco Grand Prix for the second time, underlining his credentials as one the most gifted drivers in the world. The Spaniard was clearly delighted with his start to 2007.
“I’m very, very happy to be winning races because my personal target for the whole season was to win a race,” said Alonso at the time.
“Last year McLaren were not so competitive and I thought it’d be tough when I came here. Maybe it’s lucky or maybe it’s just a good job from everybody in the team to be so competitive in such a short time.”
Fernando’s fearless approach to racing came to the fore at the Nürburgring when he passed Ferrari’s Felipe Massa around the outside of Turn Five – banging wheels en route to victory – prompting an Massa to shout at him on the pair’s way to the podium.
It was the first of many arguments that year. As the season developed, so did Lewis Hamilton’s confidence, and he started to close the gap between himself and his illustrious team-mate.
Following Fernando’s Monaco win, Hamilton complained that team orders prevented him from challenging for victory, and it was clear that an intra-team battle was having an destabilising effect. It’s nothing new in Formula 1 that while the ultimate goal is to triumph for the team, there is also a personal rivalry to beat your team-mate.
“It’s always been a close fight between me and my team-mates, and this year it’s the same with Lewis,” said Fernando during 2007. “I think it helps the team to develop the car because we can both fight for big things. Hamilton has done a very good job so far, for sure. But I’ve been pushed very hard all my career, especially at the start of the season. With Jarno [Trulli] in 2004 I was nine points behind after 10 races.”
After Lewis took victories in Montréal and Indianapolis, the pair became embroiled in a duel that would influence the outcome of that year’s drivers’ world championship. In the background, their on-track competition was also become increasingly overshadowed by political drama.
The media relished the rivalry between the two team-mates – both on and off the track – as the world championship went down to the wire. In reality, however, the pair always maintained a healthy does of admiration for the other.
“We do have respect for each other,” said Alonso a couple of years later. “During 2007 we used to say, ‘hey, we’re racing each other, we’re fighting for the championship. You want to win, I want to win, and this is the way it is.’ It was very fair and we had no problems. My problems with the team were different, but they weren’t with Lewis.”
And when subsequently asked about Fernando, Lewis agreed with the sentiment: “No joking, he is probably the best driver I’ve driven against. You go out in practice, you do a good lap, you come back in and you find he’s gone two-tenths quicker. You’re like, ‘Jesus, man, that was a damn good lap!”
At the end of the year Alonso had accrued four wins, eight more podium finishes, two poles and three fastest laps. He was third in the world championship and, in the end, his battle between his team-mate was so close, they tied together on points. Frustratingly, the pair of them finished just a single point behind the eventual champion, Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen.
“I learned many things that year,” said Alonso, who was set to return to Renault for 2008. “Especially technical things regarding the car, the set-up and how to approach a grand prix. The McLaren engineers have a different philosophy for developing the car. At Renault, we were always working in the same area, whereas McLaren tried other areas. I’m a better driver now, after my time at McLaren, because I have much more experience.”
On his return to Renault he took a handful of wins, but the cars over the next two seasons lacked pace and coincided with the French manufacturer’s withdrawal from Formula 1. That left Alonso looking for another seat.
Back in 2004, Ferrari’s chairman Luca di Montezemolo had spotted Fernando and spoke glowingly: “He is a candidate for the future. He is a fantastic talent, but for now he must be given time…”
After two world titles, a near miss with McLaren and subsequent victories in a recalcitrant chassis at Renault, the time felt right. And Fernando donned a pair of famous red overalls in a bid to try and claim that elusive third world title.