“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…Unless you fail to make the turn.”
It was the penultimate round of the 2007 Formula One season. Lewis Hamilton had extended his lead over his rivals at the previous race demonstrating his superb skills in the wild and wet conditions in Japan, while Fernando Alonso had slid into the barriers, further helping to widen Hamilton’s advantage. Expectation in the paddock was palpable among the British press that Hamilton would be crowned the 9th British world champion after the race. To triumph, all he had to do was take the chequered flag ahead of Fernando Alonso.
During qualifying Hamilton was calm, Alonso ruffled. In the qualifying shootout Kimi Raikkonen was quick, but Hamilton electric, putting his car on pole while his World Champion teammate was eating his dust back in fourth. Alonso threw his helmet to the ground in frustration, his aspiration of a third world championship becoming increasingly remote.
The morning of the race dawned cloudy, brisk showers sweeping across the circuit prior to the race with alternate soaking then drying of the track. Jackie Stewart said of Lewis Hamilton, “The changing conditions are going to make it difficult but I’d love him to win the World Championship in his rookie year.” It had been a difficult season for McLaren with their disqualification for the Constructor’s Championship but now the Driver’s Championship was within their grasp.
The rain moved in again as the cars prepared for the start. The grassy viewing points overlooking the track were bejewelled with a kaleidoscope of umbrellas. The numerous Ferrari and Finnish flags in the stands were being blown about by the wind gusting across the track.
Hamilton led the pack off the line with Raikkonen right behind him. Massa and Alonso fought it out side by side through the first two corners with Alonso initially gaining the ascendance. This only lasted until the next corner when Massa took third place back again. The two Ferrari’s were now in the middle of a McLaren sandwich. Everyone was driving cautiously – after all, to finish first, you first must finish.
Hamilton’s McLaren was showing its superiority, pulling away from Raikkonen by up to one second a lap. The McLaren had the advantage of having better mechanical grip on the wet track while the Ferrari’s superior aerodynamics was of little benefit in the changeable conditions. There was also the possibility that Hamilton was on a light fuel load, helping him to open the gap to Raikkonen early. The rain had now stopped and the track began to dry and everyone started to look for the water on the track to cool their tyres. By one quarter race distance Hamilton was 7 seconds ahead of Raikkonen and 15 seconds ahead of Alonso.
On lap 14 it started to rain again and it was Hamilton who pitted first on Lap 15, two laps earlier than was expected which appeared to confirm suspicions about his light fuel load. He was given fuel and his tyres were checked but not replaced. The weather was still changeable and it was hoped that the intermediate tyres would gradually wear down and become similar to slicks as the track dried. This was seen to be less of a risk than putting on the dry tyres now as rain was still falling.
One by one the remaining top three pitted: Massa on lap 17, Alonso on lap 18 and finally Raikkonen on lap 19, setting a fastest lap before doing so and halving the gap to Hamilton to only four seconds. Raikkonen’s out-lap after his pit-stop was 2 seconds faster than Hamilton’s had been due to the again rapidly drying track.
Raikkonen now proceeded to quickly catch up to Hamilton. Their intermediate tyres were now so bald that they were almost slicks, and as Hamilton went around the last corner he went wide, all four tyres on the grassy verge. He and Raikkonen flashed down the main straight side by side. Despite this Hamilton managed to sweep into Turn One first and retain his minuscule gap. Despite not needing to win the race to become World Championship he was fighting desperately to keep ahead of Raikkonen.
It was on lap 28 that Hamilton went too deep into turn 9 and eventually had to yield to the much faster Raikkonen. Hamilton couldn’t afford to take risks and potentially spin his car but he had to keep in front of Alonso who was 17 seconds behind. Within two laps Raikkonen had built a margin of eight seconds
By now Hamilton was losing significant amounts of time to Alonso and when he was eventually called into the pits his right rear tyre was worn down to the canvas and starting to delaminate. While approaching the corner going into pit lane he failed to make the turn and went straight ahead into the gravel, and unable to sustain his momentum became beached.
Despite the arrival of the Marshalls, it was obvious that only a tow-truck would be able to extricate him. Ron Dennis put his hands on his head in disbelief as he watched his World Champion hope climb out of his car and walk back to the pits, ensconced in his helmet, refusing to acknowledge the surrounding media. His prospect of becoming World Champion that day had evaporated like mist on a hot summer morning.
For the next few laps, it looked like Raikkonen was at risk at being caught by Alonso who was closing by up to one second a lap, but with 11 laps to go the gap stabilised at ten seconds for the remainder of the race with no further change to the podium positions. It was Raikkonen’s 5th win of the season but he was still third in the championship behind Hamilton and Alonso.
It was Hamilton’s first retirement of his career and after the race he said, “Obviously when I got out of the car I was just gutted. Because I haven’t made a mistake all year and to do it on the way into the pit, is not something I usually do, but you can’t go through life without making mistakes. I’m over it. Now we’re going to look onto Brazil. We still have points in the bag.”
Kimi’s comment on his race was that “You want to really keep pushing because you never know if it rains a little bit it might change the whole picture again so I was happy to have a little bit of breathing space, and like I said, all went well, we’re back in the championship and it will be interesting in the last race.”
It was Ferrari’s 200th race win and there were two Ferrari drivers on the podium. Kimi was smiling, Jean Todd was smiling, even Alonso was smiling. He hadn’t looked this cheerful in a long time. Now there was just Interlagos to come.
It was after the race that Ron Dennis threw oil on the flames already threatening the demise of his team’s unity when he said, “The problem was rain and [Hamilton’s] tyres were in the worst condition. But we weren’t at all fazed about Kimi. We weren’t racing Kimi, we were basically racing Fernando. Kimi winning and Lewis coming second was adequate. It just didn’t quite work out that way.”
It wasn’t quite clear from his statement if the whole McLaren team was working for Hamilton’s victory or only Hamilton’s side of the garage. Alonso later admitted, “What my team boss stated in China, saying that they weren’t racing against Raikkonen but against me, was a declaration of intent.” The FIA bowed to Alonso’s demands and appointed a steward at Interlagos to keep an eye on the McLaren pit during qualifying. He found nothing.