I believe Lewis Hamilton has the potential to be the first rookie in Formula 1 history to win the World Championship in his first year. But only if Ron Dennis doesn’t continue to give Alonso the best strategy, a lighter car, and team orders to stop Lewis challenging him.
I’m not alone in believing Lewis Hamilton to be the best Brit since Mansell – at Monaco, three times World Champion (1969, 1971, 1973) Sir Jackie Stewart said Lewis was “probably the brightest young star that had entered Formula 1 – ever”; Sir Stirling Moss, the “best racing driver never to have won a World Championship” (coming second four times in a row) who raced against and once beat the great Fangio and so knows a thing or two said much the same thing.
I don’t believe Ron Dennis is coping with this phenomenon very well though. At every race this year, McLaren have started Lewis in a car with more fuel than Alonso. Extra fuel means extra weight. Extra weight knocks fractions of a second off each laptime. It’s like the system of weight handicaps in horse racing. Not only does this weight slow the car in the race itself, it also means the qualifying times are slowed down as well.
“1- Barcelona track has a consumption of about 3 kilos of fuel per lap.
2- The penaly per fuel load is about 0.4 seconds per 10 kilos of fuel. This means about 0.11 seconds per lap of fuel overloaded.”
Clearly these figures are different at each circuit, but the principle applies everywhere. If we bear in mind Hamilton’s remark that he expected to be out for five or six laps longer than Alonso and extrapolate the Barcelona figures by multiplying the 0.11 secs per lap handicap by this 5 laps, this translates to a quicker pole time for Hamilton by over half a second. That would have put Hamilton on pole, into the lead at Ste. Devote, and leading the GP all the way to the flag.
But let’s go with what actually happened. Hamilton had a heavier fuel load, that’s a fact. Hamilton says this, and James Allen, the ITV commentator who has access to the engineers (although I’m not convinced he always understands what they say to him, he makes that many mistakes) also said that Hamilton’s fuel load was enough to take him about 4 laps further than would Alonso’s lighter load. Allen seemed to contradict himself later when he wrote in his piece on the ITV website later that “…Hamilton’s car was only 5kg heavier than Alonso’s, less than 1/10th of a second per lap round here.”
It should be noted that car weight and fuel load are not the same thing as ballast is used to make up light cars to the minimum FIA regulation weight of 605 Kg – Article 4.1, FIA Technical Regulations 2007 (pdf). If cars use 3 Kg of fuel per lap at Barcelona, they are hardly going to use only 1 Kg of fuel per lap at Monaco, a circuit where cars use their lowest gear ratios of the season and are constantly accelerating or breaking, never cruising efficiently – if F1 cars ever take it easy that is (incidentally, the long pit straight at Barcelona gives the drivers one of the longest rests on any circuit as they reach a constant speed, so fuel economy may be better there).
Anyway, during these four laps, Hamilton’s nearly empty car would be much faster than Alonso’s nearly full and much heavier one, and this should have enabled Hamilton to gain the lead during the pit stops – if he’d have been allowed to drive them.
The problem for Ron though has been that despite the constant extra weight handicap that Lewis has had to deal with, Alonso has simply not been able to deliver and so it was Lewis that entered this race as the World Championship leader, despite always having had the theoretically slower car. Theoretically, because perhaps even more than Schumacher and Senna before him, Lewis Hamilton can get more out of a poor car than practically anyone else. At one point before a pit stop Hamilton was close behind Alonso and gaining, which Alonso later admitted worried him. He knew Lewis could go further and thereby gain the lead by so doing.
Whether Alonso radioed the pits for help, or whether Ron Dennis arbitrarily made the decision, Lewis was called in to the pits two or even three laps earlier than his fuel load called for. Of course teams can change strategies during races, and one hopes they do when they need to beat the next man. It appears though that in this instance they did it to beat their own man.
Lewis has raced three times before at Monaco, and won every time such is his mastery of the course and the different cars he has driven there. It was widely accepted that after finishing the first 4 races of the season 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd it was time for that very special first first at a very special race track. David Coulthard said it is the “only track that scares him” such is its challenge.
It is now clear that as if the extra weight and earlier pit stop were not enough, Ron Dennis imposed even more obvious team orders after the first pit stops and told Hamilton not to pressure Alonso.
Ron clearly understands Mediterranean tempered Alonso can’t take the pressure and would drive to destruction to stay in front, only to have Hamilton effortlessly pass him, followed a minute later by Massa’s Ferrari and the rest of the pack. That would mean that Alonso would lose points, McLaren would lose points, while Hamilton, Ferrari and Massa would gain them. Let’s face it, Alonso only had scaredy-cat Fisichella to deal with at Renault, and that was no competition at all as in a direct confrontation Fisi always backs down (eg in that famous race at Interlagos where Schumacher overtook him at the end of the pit straight, cutting right across his nose making Fisi back off).
Now, it might seem logical to manipulate the eventual result as McLaren clearly have done, but it’s also completely illegal – Rule 152, FIA Sporting Regulations “Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited” (pdf) . It has been for five years since Ferrari was messing up Eddie Irvine and other Ferrari drivers in favour of Schumacher. At the time I am sure Ron Dennis was quite happy to see Ferrari penalised for their team orders. Which makes it even stranger that yesterday in a post race interview on ITV Ron actually admitted that team orders had been in place from after the first pit stops.
McLaren’s team principal clearly said the same thing in many other places too, since a variety of remarks have been attributed to him, the gist of which all come down to one thing: Ron Dennis has publically admitted breaking the FIA rulebook in order to ensure Alonso won the Monaco GP.
So, Alonso, are you happy with that? You didn’t beat Hamilton Mano e Mano – you beat a man with one hand tied behind his back and with a ball and chain around his leg. In a fair fight, Hamilton is the better of you.
Talking of Hamilton, his idealistic dream of Formula One at McLaren is swiftly becoming tarnished. If Ron Dennis isn’t careful his machinations will end up completely demotivating and disillusioning young Lewis so that he either moves to another team – or gives up Formula One entirely and goes Ocean racing, mountain biking, or…? My guess is that he’ll grow up a little bit and learn a lot about McLaren. As Nietsch said “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Whatever happens at McLaren though, it is no longer an internal matter as the FIA have announced they will be investigating McLaren’s win at Monaco.
Ron Dennis has opened his mouth and said rather too much this time. We wait to find out what sanctions will be applied… the FIA has to do something because of the Ferrari precedent which Ron Dennis was quite happy about and the Italian team will be screaming and shouting about this one. Unfortunately, they will be in the right to do so. No wonder they’re red cars: they always have the luck of the devil!