Only in the final two races, when Felipe Massa had fallen too far behind, could one driver count on the support of his team mate.
But while driver equality seemed to cause no major problems for Ferrari, McLaren’s drivers were at war for much of the season and the resulting conflict arguably lost the team both world championships.
For 13 years at Benetton and then Ferrari Michael Schumacher gave the watching world lessons in how to win world championships.
It’s not enough merely to build a fast, reliable car and give it to the world’s best driver. No, he must also have the unquestioning support of a loyal number two, who will sacrifice access to the spare car, forfeit any claim to preferential equipment or strategies, get in the way of the opposition and even hand over a well-earned victory for the greater good.
Neither Ferrari nor McLaren heeded that lesson this year.
Die hard purists may be foaming at the mouths that the ‘number one’ setup has apparently fallen out of fashion. But fans of real racing may rejoice – because when a driver’s beaten a competitive team mate to win a race, you know he’s earned his crust.
Besides which, if every team ran a lead number one and a subservient number two we’d be forever watching drivers hold each other up – precisely the kind of dismal antics that have caused an outcry in the DTM this year.
However there are disadvantages to the policy of equality. And ironically they became most apparent not at Ferrari but McLaren.
A lot of speculation is involved in working out exactly what went wrong between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso this year.
Was Alonso rattled by the competitiveness of his team mate? Or did he join McLaren in 2005 expecting to be number one, and became angry when that wasn’t the case? Was he misled by Ron Dennis?
Alonso said the treatment he received was fit for, “Not a double champion, but a normal person.” He gave further insight into what he thought about the notion of equality during the press conference before the Chinese Grand Prix when he refused to deny that McLaren might deliberately change the settings on his car to favour Hamilton.
Later on he justified the claim:
It’s better to be silent than to lie, that’s for sure. And that’s something [Ron Dennis] should do more often and I think the team would do better. Many of the scandals McLaren have been involved in off the track this year have been created by his things.
[Dennis] didn’t promise me anything. You are always hearing about that so called equality in the team, but tell me what you brag about and I’ll tell you what you are lacking.
It’s impossible to have equality in a Formula One team, there’s always a better engine, a better lap to stop in, there’s always a better option.
His last remark – that there is always a preferential timing for pit stops, and that there will often be one component that appears better than another – is certainly correct. But McLaren’s approach is to share the preferences between their drivers. To an extent, Alonso acknowledged that:
I’m not saying it’s not equality, because sometimes it’s one driver’s turn and other times it’s the other’s, but you always hear him talk about that or promising things, and it’s not like that.
So what exactly was Alonso’s complaint about the situation at McLaren? Surely he felt he was not getting a fair share of the ‘preferential’ decisions and that as a result he felt the team were favouring Hamilton.
And that is not something that anyone outside the team can prove one way or another. But when the FIA installed an observer in the pits for qualifying at Interlagos he found nothing untoward, and (not for the first time this year) Hamilton out-qualified Alonso despite having to stop later for fuel on race day.
Perhaps the real reason for Alonso’s displeasure was that he found the team too open. He had no way of keeping beneficial information from Hamilton, and vice-versa, as engineering director Paddy Lowe remarked on halfway through the season:
Within 30 seconds of either McLaren coming to a halt in either practice or qualifying, the driver has a data sheet of information covering every engineering parameter.
He also has a data overlay from the other car. All team debriefs are conducted together. The guys sit feet apart, with engineers and strategists from both sides of the garage.
Discussion, information and planning are free and open. Even if they wanted to hide information, it would be impossible.
There were complaints at some points that Hamilton was ‘stealing’ Alonso’s setups. Perhaps this is the crux of the matter – if at Renault Alonso was used to being able to keep his setup decisions private, but found that was not an option at McLaren, he might well have been infuriated by having to hand them over to a team mate who could then use them to beat him.
Writing in November’s F1 Racing, Peter Windsor lends some credence to the idea that Alonso’s insistence that McLaren were not giving him equal equipment was all in his head. After qualifying in Fuji, Alonso said: “again in qualifying three fuel-burn, Lewis was able to have the extra lap.” The data showed this was not true.
Although Alonso complained long and loud about the situation at McLaren, Hamilton voiced a few complaints of his own. He confessed surprise at the team’s decision to pit him early at Monte-Carlo, effectively handing the race win to Alonso. It later transpired that the team made the call to prevent Hamilton being vulnerable should the safety car have been called for – something that caused Alonso to receive a penalty in the very next race.
Before the season started Jean Todt said:
There will be healthy competition between our drivers. But we will be very careful to make sue that this internal rivalry does not become counter productive. Raikkonen and Massa know this law very well.
Raikkonen, like Alonso, had to come to terms with a new car and an unfamiliar team. Yet even as his races in Catalunya and N??rburgring were hit by car failure, or when he lagged behind Massa early in the season, he never suggested the team were trying to disadvantage him.
The most unusual thing about Ferrari’s adoption of equality (apart from the fact they had shunned it for 12 years) was Luca di Montezemolo’s remarks afterwards:
The difference between us and McLaren is that we’re a team and in the last race our drivers helped each other.
This brazenly myopic remark conveniently ignored two crucial facts: that the Ferrari duo took almost as many points off each other as the McLaren pair did in 2007; and that both McLaren drivers were still able to win the championship at the last round.
But it reveals the greatest irony about Ferrari and McLaren adopting equal team practices in 2007.
In the end, one driver finally had to sacrifice a win for his team mate, and that went a long way towards making him champion. Had Alonso or Hamilton been in Massa’s position in Interlagos, it is hard to imagine they would have leant their team mate a hand in quite the same way.