It wasn’t just the on-track temperatures that were scorching hot during the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend of 2007. Tempers also hit boiling point as a chain of events occurred that shaped the rest of the season, and quite possibly changed the fate of the World Championship. Lewis Hamilton came into the weekend leading the title race by two points from McLaren-Mercedes teammate Fernando Alonso, and eleven ahead of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Alonso and Hamilton had been embroiled in a fierce battle all season long, the pair exchanging harsh words on a few occasions already in the few months they had worked together. Hungary was about to deal this particular pairing a rather devastating blow.
For most of the weekend Alonso had the upper hand on Hamilton for pace, leading him in all three practice sessions ahead of qualifying. On the Saturday afternoon however, Hamilton seemed to have turned the tables on the reigning double world champion by besting him in the first two qualifying sessions and handing the rookie Brit the psychological advantage going into the all important Q3.
Tension in the McLaren garage had already been high due to a war of words between their drivers after Monaco, during which Hamilton felt the team had deliberately compromised his race strategy to help Alonso and ensure a 1-2 finish. Alonso claimed just before the U.S Grand Prix that he didn’t feel comfortable with the team yet because they would ‘naturally favour Lewis’, a claim the team rebuked, and Alonso had to clarify as meaning Hamilton had simply been with the McLaren family longer than he had, and therefore was more at ease with them.
The squabble continued as Q3 began with Hamilton leading Alonso out on to the track to battle it out for pole position. Alonso visibly became frustrated on the out-lap and began gesticulating towards Hamilton in front of him while arguing with Ron Dennis over the team radio. An agreement had apparently been made prior to qualifying that Alonso would get priority in Q3 in order to get one more lap, Hamilton left the pits ahead but was told to move over for his team-mate in order to satisfy the agreement. Hamilton refused and chaos ensued.
Despite appearing upset with Hamilton’s refusal to move over for him Alonso didn’t let that get in the way of him taking provisional pole. Alonso was ahead of Hamilton on the race track by this stage and so was the first of the two to enter the pits to take on a fresh set of tyres and a fuel top-up. It was common to see teams hold drivers in the pit boxes for an extra few seconds after they had finished working on the cars to allow them to get back onto the track into some clear air and it appeared like McLaren had chosen to do this with Alonso. They held Alonso stationary for around twenty seconds, Hamilton by this time had caught up and was queuing behind the Spaniard.
McLaren raised the lollipop to signal for Alonso to leave the pit box but he remained quite still for another ten seconds while the mechanics around seemed impatient to get him going, due to timing being very tight for Hamilton to be serviced and sent out to do another run. Alonso made it to the start-finish line with just two seconds to spare but Hamilton missed out by just under four seconds, leaving the young Englishman furious. Questions were already being asked about Alonso’s reluctance to leave the pits – had he blocked Hamilton on purpose?
Ron Dennis was fuming at the display from both his drivers and had slammed his headphones down in disgust at the end of the session, before rushing off to have words with Alonso’s personal trainer. As it was Alonso remained on pole.
By evening it was becoming clear the stewards didn’t believe McLaren’s explanation, that they held Alonso in such a way on purpose, and Dennis had confirmed to the media that Hamilton was supposed to have let Alonso through at the start of the session. Trouble was brewing fast for McLaren as Alonso and Dennis left a meeting with the stewards, with Fernando choosing to walk away from Dennis, and the car waiting to take them back to the paddock; instead he walked back through on his own in silence.
Dennis was visibly annoyed by the public snub and refused to answer any questions from the waiting media. The reason why Alonso and Dennis were so agitated became clear within hours as Alonso was handed a five place grid penalty for deliberately blocking Hamilton, and McLaren were told they would no longer score any constructers’ championship points for the weekend.
The stewards didn’t believe the team when they said Alonso was held for such a long time to give him clear air on track: there were only four cars circulating at the time, including both McLarens. As such McLaren were seen as withholding the truth from the stewards about what really happened. The team said they would appeal the result but the damage between the teammates had already been done, and Alonso would still have to start down in sixth place on Sunday.
The race itself was a rather dull affair with Hamilton leading it from start to finish from the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen. Alonso had a dreadful getaway from the line and spent a chunk of the race stuck behind the slower Toyota of Ralf Schumacher. He eventually got by to finish in fourth, behind the BMW-Sauber of Nick Heidfeld.
The events of the previous day would not rest easy however, and it began a series of events that saw McLaren not only lose both titles but be hit with a record breaking $100million fine for being caught in possession of documents and designs belonging to Ferrari. Alonso would leave McLaren at the end of the year with his tail between his legs to return to Renault, while Hamilton became McLaren’s golden child by becoming the world champion the following year.
At the time you would have laid down an awful lot of money to say Alonso would never again drive a McLaren and that Hamilton may never drive anything but one of the Woking made machines. How times have changed.