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2007: The season of F1 in review

Published: 6:43AM Wednesday December 26, 2007 Source: Reuters

Lewis Hamilton was a rookie sensation this season. Unfortunately for his McLaren Formula One team, he was not the only revelation they had to deal with.

In a championship that was as thrilling and competitive on the track as it was bad-tempered and scandal-ridden off it, McLaren attracted controversy just as easily as their 22-year-old stepped into the limelight.

Spying revelations, a record US$100-million fine, in-fighting, feuds, points deductions and appeals meant the Mercedes-powered team were in the thick of it from start to finish.

They could have won everything. Instead, they went from one drama to another and a great team with one of the proudest records in the sport ended up beaten, humiliated and forced into an abject apology.

While Ferrari celebrated former McLaren driver Kimi Raikkonen's stunning first title, McLaren parted company with double world champion Fernando Alonso who headed back to a future with his first love Renault.

It was one of the best of championships, with Finland's Raikkonen clawing back a 17-point deficit to win a three-way battle in the final race to take the title by a single point, and the worst of advertisements for a sport beset by tawdry spy scandals and legal arguments.

Not that the powers-that-be, who could barely have scripted a more thrilling finale, were too troubled by the commotion.

"This world championship was a bit different to normal, with all the scandals and so on," said Formula One's commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone in a typically deadpan foreword to the official review of the season.

"The spy story kept people talking. I wish it hadn't happened, but it did and we lived with it. And that's what it's all about really, the public like to read about things like that."

Spy sagas

The irony was that McLaren started the season determined to shrug off their grey, aloof image and replace it with something livelier.

They had a dream pairing in Britain's Hamilton and Spain's Alonso, who expected to be hailed as the man to restore the fortunes of a team that failed to win a race in 2006.

By September, it was all in tatters.

The revelations had begun when an unnamed employee of a photocopy shop near McLaren's Woking factory told Ferrari in June that someone had come in seeking to copy a 780-page dossier of the Italian team's top-secret technical information.

That person turned out to be the wife of McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan.

Within months, McLaren had been fined and stripped of all their constructors' points.

Ferrari's Nigel Stepney, accused of sabotage and feeding secrets to his team's greatest rival, and Coughlan became the talk of the paddock for all the wrong reasons. Both remain subject to legal action by Ferrari.

Yet while McLaren suffered, Renault escaped sanction in a second spy hearing after the end of the season that found them guilty of having McLaren secrets.

That puzzled many but Max Mosley, president of the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA), doubted whether all the dramas would leave any lasting damage.

"In fact it has raised public awareness," he said in a recent interview.

"That's always the paradox. When there's some big row, it tends to gain the attention of a public that wouldn't normally follow F1. So in that sense it's been positive.

"What's very important is that people believe the spying has been stopped and will continue to be stopped. Then it does no harm at all."

Ferrari triumph

Even if Ferrari had to wait several weeks after the end of the season to be sure of both titles, thanks to a McLaren appeal that was ultimately thrown out, they had plenty to celebrate.

Raikkonen, with Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa allowed to race him freely, stepped into the shoes of retired seven-times champion Michael Schumacher and won more races than anyone else.

He even found time to take part in a powerboat race in Finland while disguised in a gorilla suit.

Those who suspected Ferrari would go into decline following the departure of Schumacher and technical director Ross Brawn were wrong. By mid-season, the great German was almost a distant memory while Brawn was preparing to return with Honda.

Hamilton, the first black Formula One driver, made sure Schumacher was not missed. The British youngster opened his career with an unprecedented rookie performance of nine podiums in a row and four wins.

Like Tiger Woods in golf before him, Hamilton showed a composure and maturity that made his talent the talking point rather than his race.

He led the championship from the third race to the last, his success reflected in his relationship with Alonso - who also had some electrifying races - becoming increasingly tense.

Never before in 58 years of the championship had a driver come as close as Hamilton did to winning the title at the first attempt. He still beat Alonso overall, despite finishing level on points.

If a combination of inexperience, over-confidence, bad luck and the mistakes of his team cost Hamilton the crown, then Alonso could argue that he was equally thwarted only by McLaren's refusal to focus their efforts on him.

The bad blood between the Spaniard and his team became another major talking point, with the two sides barely speaking to each other after a stand-up row in Hungary in August.

Nobody outside McLaren and Ferrari stood on top of the podium, with former champions Renault falling back down the pecking order while BMW Sauber emerged as a third force with Germany's Nick Heidfeld and Poland's Robert Kubica.

Kubica provided a reminder that, despite all the controversies and accusations, Formula One could have had it a lot worse in 2007.

The Pole speared into a concrete wall in Canada and, thanks to ever improving safety measures, emerged unscathed.