This is the latest in my continuing series of posts reviewing the 2007 Formula 1 season. You can check out the other posts in the nifty new table of contents on the right (thanks to the In-Series WP plugin). This post will look at my top five constructors of the season.
5 — Ferrari
As always, Ferrari proved themselves to be among the very best on the track. They took a bit of a risk with their long wheelbase which clearly disadvantaged them at several circuits — most notably Monaco, Hungaroring and Monza. Maybe there should be a rethink on that front, but they won the Constructors’ Championship which shows something.
There were some really uncharacteristic mistakes in the pit lane as well. You could tell they were missing Ross Brawn. When they started the Japanese Grand Prix on intermediates instead of full wet tyres, it was not only going against an order from Charlie Whiting, but it was also completely barking mad. Even behind the safety car the Ferraris were struggling to keep it on the island (if you could call a circuit that wet an island) and could have completely ruined their race.
Then there was that time in Hungary when they sent Felipe Massa out to qualify without any fuel in his car. I don’t know how they managed that. Quite shocking for what is supposed to be the best outfit in the pit lane.
However, the big story of Ferrari’s year was — surprise, surprise — not on the track. Yet again Ferrari’s distasteful actions off the track left a sour taste in the mouth. When a rogue employee of theirs, Nigel Stepney, started to cause them bother, Ferrari managed to leverage it so that it was all somehow Ron Dennis’s fault.
Knowing full well that the FIA would take their side, Ferrari got McLaren thrown out of the Constructors Championship. This was even though it was a Ferrari employee who instigated the entire sorry episode.
Throughout the season Luca di Montezemolo and Jean Todt (the personification of wee man syndrome) made a series of ridiculous remarks that made Ferrari come across as desperate and underhand. Di Montezemolo’s constant claims that McLaren cars had “a lot of Ferrari” in them were especially childish because there has never been a shred of evidence that this was the case.
Ferrari even contradicted themselves with their nonsensical claims. It wasn’t a surprise when they said that they would be happy to win the title in court because this is the normal way for Ferrari to go about things.
Of course, when the boot is on the other foot it’s all a different story and winning the title in court is “grubby manoeuvring”. If this is true (which it is), then Ferrari is a pig that loves to swim in its own shit.
Putting aside the honking court cases, Ferrari also appear to be embroiled in a period of nasty internal politics. The management restructuring has obviously disillusioned a lot of people. It is widely seen as one of the reasons that led Nigel Stepney to say “psst!” to Mike Coughlan. It has also led to the permanent departure of Ross Brawn. Even Jean Todt seems quite indifferent these days. What a mess.
And why have they extended Felipe Massa’s contract until 2010? Especially with the traction control ban coming into force, this has ‘disaster’ written all over it (not to mention ‘nepotism’).
4 — Red Bull–Renault
2007 must have been disappointing for the Red Bull team and they will be looking to treat it as a transition year. The Adrian Newey-designed chassis was reasonably quick, but one may have expected more to come from such a highly-regarded designer.
More worrying will be the fact that the reliability of the Red Bull car was so awful. Given the reliability problems McLaren suffered when Adrian Newey was working for them, this is beginning to look a bit like Newey’s Achilles’ heel.
However, I doubt the problems with the seamless shift gearbox — Red Bull’s biggest problem — can be blamed on Newey’s tight, uncompromising chassis designs, as some do. Whatever, there were an unacceptable number of mechanical failures this year for Red Bull. In this era of super-reliability, it’s not enough. Red Bull went away from an astonishing 11 races pointless.
Overall, 2007 was more successful than 2006, but they must have been expecting better results by now. Mark Webber in particular has been let down time and again by the car’s poor reliability. But they also lack the speed to regularly compete with the front runners.
They have hired ex-Honda designer Geoff Willis which bodes well for the future. If they had a bit more speed, Red Bull’s only weakness would be reliability. If this is ironed out, it surely won’t be long before they win a race.
3 — McLaren–Mercedes
I am normally quite sympathetic to McLaren (admittedly this is mostly because I can’t stand Ferrari, but hey). But it was difficult to defend some of the things that happened in the McLaren team this season.
It is difficult to know where to begin, as so many things went wrong for McLaren this year. So I’ll start with the good points.
First of all, they built the best car. And no, Mr. di Montezemolo, it was not because of Ferrari documents. In fact, I struggle to remember a time when two front-running teams had such obviously divergent designs to the point where McLaren could have a 1.5s advantage on one circuit and a 1.5s deficit on the next.
The height of their season — (just) before any hint of internal strife became apparent — came at Monaco. It was such a dominant performance from McLaren. I was utterly in awe. They lapped everyone bar Felipe Massa who was 69s behind. It was probably the most dominant outing for a team since Australia 1998.
Before I go onto post-Monaco shenanigans, there is one other thing that went well for McLaren. They had the best driver line-up imaginable. This caused its own problems which we all now know about, but you have to say it. Fernando Alonso’s skill — as a double World Champion and the most successful rival of Michael Schumacher ever — is not in doubt.
What was in doubt was Lewis Hamilton. We knew he had pace from GP2, but no-one could have expected him to achieve what he did. He still has a few rough edges, but you can’t expect anything else. Hamilton was astonishingly quick. So full credit to McLaren for investing in that talent for all those years.
Now the downsides. And since I’ve just alluded to it, I might as well dive straight into the trouble between Alonso and Hamilton. McLaren’s equality stance has always been admirable. But in this post-Schumacher era it is probably now, sadly, a relic. Michael Schumacher has set the bar on this so when a driver has a Schumacher-sized ego he will demand Schumacher-style treatment. After all, seven World Championships don’t lie.
Ron Dennis’s complete inability to manage the tensions that Alonso was feeling has probably delivered the final nail in the coffin of the ‘equality’ policy in every F1 team’s book. It would have been so much easier if Lewis Hamilton began the season as a number 2 to Fernando Alonso. Then, without a shadow of a doubt, we would be sitting here talking about three times World Champion Alonso and sure-fire champion of tomorrow Lewis Hamilton. Instead, we are sitting here today talking about a McLaren team reeling from the year’s events, finding itself having to sack the best driver on the grid, and Ron Dennis licking his wounds.
Of course, Alonso’s behaviour was not the only reason why McLaren find themselves on the back foot. There is the small matter of Stepneygate (I still refuse to call it “spygate” because no spying was involved).
Sure, the whole thing was Max Mosley making an example of Ron Dennis. But ultimately, there is no getting away from the fact that a McLaren employee was caught red-handed with Ferrari documents. Either you believe that Ron Dennis knew about it all along, in which case he is a liar, or Ron Dennis is telling the truth and it exposes flaws in the management of the team.
On top of all that, the season was just generally a PR disaster for McLaren. You could see this in just about everything that happened to them this year. It started off with a row that somehow built up out of nothing after the Monaco Grand Prix. McLaren were unable to explain Lewis Hamilton’s comments about not being allowed to pass Fernando Alonso, and a row in the press about team orders duly ensued.
Stepneygate and the Alonso problem were also both horrifically badly handled. Even after the season was over they made a complete hash of appealing the Brazilian Grand Prix result. McLaren tied themselves in knots on all of these issues. For all of Ron Dennis’s supposed honesty and integrity, I was often left with the impression that he was not telling the whole truth at points during this season. I have been disillusioned by McLaren this year.
This PR problem is a downside of having Lewis Hamilton in their team. Being a Brit, and the British press being what it is, the magnifying glass is on McLaren like never before. This is going to happen on a regular basis from now on. It’s no wonder they’ve hired Matt Bishop to try and keep them on the right track PR-wise from now on.
What a horrible irony though. At last, after too many years to bear thinking about, McLaren had produced a car capable of winning the World Championship. But their season fell apart in every single other respect.
2 — Williams–Toyota
Believe me. I never thought I would rank Williams so highly. I am not usually a fan of Williams, and I don’t really understand the appeal. But now, with this customer car issue, I think I finally get it.
Williams is a proudly independent grand prix team. It is clinging onto the traditional way of doing things — entering Formula 1 out of a love for motor racing, and not as a platform to advertise your business. All of the other teams are either heavily tied to manufacturers or outright owned by manufacturers, soft drinks companies or Vijay Mallya and Michel Mol (who, in fairness, both at least seem to have a real interest in the sport).
It is a tough environment for a team like Williams nowadays. It is difficult to envisage a team like Williams achieving domination in the way they did in the mid-1990s.
Their subsequent history has been patchy at best. A brief flirtation with BMW ended in tears. Williams tumbled down the timing sheets and — just to rub salt into the wound — BMW climbed up them. After coming close to winning the Championship in 2003, they produced a mediocre car in 2004, a dog in 2005 and a shitbox in 2006. It looked like Williams had completely lost the knack of winning or even regularly scoring points.
This year saw Williams in the ascendancy for a change and I would say they look strong for the future. There are also signs that Williams are learning from old mistakes.
Williams’s usual approach to drivers is to unceremoniously dump them. But they obviously see something completely different in Nico Rosberg, whom they seem determined to hang on to. It was perhaps a mistake to give Alexander Wurz that race drive, as he was a little bit rusty (although delivered in Canada with an astonishing drive to the podium from plum last). There is a big question mark over their decision to hire Kazuki Nakajima… but that’s for next year’s list.
Second place might seem a bit high. In terms of out-and-out on-the-track performance, Williams shouldn’t be this high. But given the woes that have faced McLaren and Ferrari, Renault’s fall from grace, Red Bull’s chronic unreliability and the mediocrity of the lower-down teams, Williams is just about the only team that can look on the 2007 season and be proud of what it has achieved. But there is one team that can perhaps feel prouder…
1 — BMW-Sauber
I think that what BMW achieved this year was astonishing. When BMW bought the Sauber team, they were hoping to win races within three years. And it looks like they might just manage that.
Under the expert leadership of
Super Mario Theissen (pictured), BMW are going from strength to strength. They might have only had the third-best car this year, but they also comprehensively outperformed last year’s World Champions. With the turmoil that both Ferrari and McLaren have been facing, who’s to say BMW won’t improve further next season?
BMW are also helped by the fact that their championship position was tied up easily. Second place was theirs, so they concentrated on their 2008 car.
I say second place, but BMW still maintain that they were actually third. This is true, because McLaren were only thrown out of the championship on rather dubious grounds. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the fact that BMW are not going around beating their chest about this dubious second place speaks volumes about their grounded attitude. They had the third-best car and they know it.
The car was great. Not the fastest, but comfortably the ‘best of the rest’. The other teams know it, because BMW personnel have been lured away. I doubt this will deter BMW though. Mario Theissen seems to know exactly what he’s doing.
Theissen also has a good eye for great drivers as well. Robert Kubica, Sebastian Vettel and Timo Glock have all been given a helping hand by BMW in the past couple of years, so it’s well worth looking at whatever drivers BMW brings on board as test drivers.
All-in-all, I was thoroughly impressed with BMW. Notice to Toyota: this is how a manufacturer should run a Formula 1 team. The team has been pulled out of the terminal mediocrity of the Sauber days and looks set to begin winning races any time now. I’ll be celebrating when they do.