The history books show that Kimi Raikkonen won the 2007 Formula One World Championship by a single point, but that really doesn’t tell the whole story. That year, Lewis Hamilton came agonisingly close to making history by being crowned world champion in his debut year.
With just two races remaining of the 2007 Formula One season, rookie sensation Lewis Hamilton was leading the championship by 12 points. He simply had to finish the Chinese Grand Prix ahead of his teammate, Fernando Alonso, and the championship was all but his.
His task was made a little easier on Saturday afternoon, when he secured pole position – his sixth of the year – with teammate and main rival Alonso back in fourth.
The race began in wet conditions, with all 22 drivers opting for the intermediate tyre. Hamilton had a clean getaway and lead the field round, with the top four running in the same order that they had qualified.
In the early stages of the race, everything appeared to be going to plan for Hamilton as he began to edge away from the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.
Hamilton’s lead was increasing by around 0.5 seconds per lap, but there was a problem, his eagerness to build a gap meant he was taking too much out of his tyres, and once the track began to dry, the tyre wear was getting worse.
With the first round of pit stops approaching, McLaren discussed with Hamilton the idea of staying on the same set of tyres as they felt the part-worn intermediates would be quicker than a brand new set.
It was a risk, as Raikkonen was now eating into Hamilton’s lead at an alarming rate. By lap 26, the rain began to fall again and Hamilton’s pace dropped yet further. He just couldn’t live with the Ferraris on his worn intermediate tyres, and Raikkonen was now lapping four seconds a lap quicker.
A couple of laps later, Hamilton ran wide and Raikkonen seized the opportunity to take the lead. Hamilton’s rear right tyre was now visibly worn through to the canvas. The sensible, and perhaps only real option at that moment, was have been to pit immediately for fresh tyres, but McLaren hesitated.
McLaren’s weather experts were telling them that the rain shower would last only a few more minutes, but could they take the risk in the position they were in? If the shower continued, Hamilton would lose yet more time, and Alonso, fuelled for three more laps, could pit with the benefit of seeing for himself.
As McLaren continued to hesitate, Hamilton’s tyres were getting worse and it seemed to many that McLaren were taking a huge risk in leaving Hamilton out – but after what seemed like an eternity, the call finally came on lap 31.
Box! Box! Box!
Hamilton entered the pit lane, took the sharp left-hand corner, braked, and immediately found that he had no grip. It seemed as if we were being shown a slow motion replay, but in fact, Hamilton had slid helplessly into the gravel at little more than 20mph.
Hamilton frantically signalled to the Chinese marshals to push him back onto the track, but there was nothing they could do. He was beached. His championship hopes had taken a catastrophic blow, and the embarrassment on the McLaren pit wall was clear to see.
Raikkonen went on to win the race, and in the process, closed to within seven points of Hamilton at the top of the standings. A weekend that had started so promisingly for Hamilton, had ended as an unmitigated disaster.
After the race, Ron Dennis was philosophical about the error: “I don’t think we did anything dramatically wrong and neither did Lewis. It’s easy to say we could have stopped earlier, but would it have made a difference?”
The fact is that Hamilton’s side of the garage were too focused on getting one up on Alonso. Had McLaren have pitted Hamilton, he would probably have ended up second that day – thus becoming (at the time) the youngest driver ever to win the Formula One World Championship.
The 2007 Chinese Grand Prix pretty much summed up McLaren’s year. Instead of focusing on their objectives, the rivalry between Hamilton and Alonso had got out of hand and they ended up beating themselves. Ron Dennis’s comments after the race summed it up when he said: “We weren’t racing Kimi, we were basically racing Alonso.”
With Raikkonen winning in Brazil two weeks later, he completed one of the most unlikeliest of comebacks to win the championship by a single point. For McLaren, and for Lewis Hamilton, the 2007 Chinese Grand Prix will always be a cruel reminder of what might have been.