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Last Updated: Sunday, 16 September 2007, 22:19 GMT 23:19 UK
How Hamilton drove Alonso to the edge
By Andrew Benson
at Spa-Francorchamps

Fernando Alonso
Alonso has begun to pile the pressure on title rival Hamilton
Fernando Alonso did not come out of the Belgian Grand Prix well, even if the world champion did nibble another point out of McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton's lead in this year's title chase.

Although he was on the receiving end of criticism from the Englishman for his driving at the first corner of the race, that was a storm in a teacup - as well as unfair criticism of a perfectly justifiable racing manoeuvre.

Far more worrying for Alonso and his public image was his involvement in the fall-out from the McLaren spy saga.

The Spaniard, 26, is perceived to have tried to blackmail team boss Ron Dennis at the Hungarian Grand Prix last month.

In the course of a heated row with Dennis over, among other things, his desire to have number one status over Hamilton, Alonso threatened to hand over e-mails incriminating his own team to Formula One's governing body, the FIA.

It is not possible to condone Alonso's behaviour on the morning of the race at the Hungaroring, but it has to be seen in the context of his battle with Hamilton this season.

All year Alonso has been uncomfortable at McLaren - and that is largely because he has been unexpectedly challenged by a driver in his first season in F1.

No racing driver likes to be beaten by his team-mate, but for a man previously regarded rightly as the best in the world it has been particularly difficult to stomach.

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Alonso seems only now to be beginning to deal with it.

For a long time this season he was trying bizarre strategies, off-the-wall tyre choices and even all-or-nothing moves at the first corner in an attempt to beat Hamilton.

And all the time he has been asking the team for more support - support he feels he deserves as a double world champion.

McLaren were never going to agree to that. Partly because it is not the way they go racing, but also because Hamilton is their protégé. That is the context within which the drama in Hungary unfolded.

It should not be forgotten that Hamilton was involved in the chain of events that led to Alonso's row with Dennis by repeatedly refusing orders to let his team-mate pass at the start of the final part of qualifying.

That might sound trivial, but it meant Hamilton had double-crossed Alonso by ensuring the Spaniard would have more fuel than him in the final shoot-out for pole at a track where grid position is vital because overtaking is so difficult.

With the title at stake, such a tactic is probably fair enough.

McLaren team boss Ron Dennis (left) and Fernando Alonso
Dennis (left) says he is not worried if his drivers don't "love" him

But if it was then so was Alonso's subsequent decision to seek revenge by staying in the pits just long enough to deny Hamilton a chance of a final lap, after which Alonso took pole himself.

It was not nice - of either of them - but then great racing drivers rarely are.

Most would regard this as an internal matter, what Dennis describes as "putting pressure on the system to try to find a competitive advantage". But then the race stewards got involved and penalised Alonso five grid places.

He will have felt that was unfair because he didn't see why it was any of their business. However, once they got involved, he would have wondered why he was singled out.

He had a row with Dennis that night, and another - the fateful one - when he arrived at the track the following morning.

You could say it was a failure of Dennis's management to allow Alonso to storm off in the wake of his threat.

You could say Dennis should have thrown Alonso out of the team on the spot.

You could equally say Dennis should have waited before telephoning FIA president Max Mosley to inform him of Alonso's threat, an action which triggered last week's punishment.

McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso
Alonso has never responded well on the few occasions a team-mate has beaten him - and he would not be the driver he is if he had

Whatever, Alonso immediately regretted his behaviour and apologised.

As Dennis said, who has not in the heat of the moment in an argument with his wife said something they regret?

That might seem an odd analogy to draw, but this is not a normal employer-employee relationship. This is one of the greatest racing drivers in history trying everything he can to maximise his position.

These people take the idea of competitiveness to extremes most of us can barely imagine. Alonso is not the first to do it and will certainly not be the last.

"When Fernando's manager came back, explained that Fernando had lost his temper, I accepted that," said Dennis, who has worked with more than his fair share of great drivers. "I also accepted Fernando's apology after the race.

"Why wasn't I more aggressive? My job is to win the world championship, not to be loved and hugged. If I have difficult relationships with people, so be it.

"You don't take your gun out every few seconds and shoot them. We're here to win races, not have a bloody love-in."

This was not, Dennis said, the worst behaviour he had ever had to deal with as a team boss. He had Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the same team, after all. It was just that, back then, this sort of stuff stayed behind closed doors.

Alonso has never responded well on the few occasions a team-mate has beaten him - and he would not be the driver he is if he had.

He arrived at McLaren as their saviour, the vanquisher of Michael Schumacher, the man who was to bring back the glory days to a struggling team.

And when he got there he found his team-mate was a man who drives like the reincarnation of Senna. Who, in his position, would find that easy to deal with?

Fernando Alonso in action at the Belgian Grand Prix
Alonso has been quicker than Hamilton in the last two races

For a long time, Alonso appeared to be doing everything he could to lose this championship - and it was all as a result of being unsettled by Hamilton's incredible speed.

But recently he seems to have taken a grip of himself, renewed his focus, and resolved simply to get on with his job. Whatever has happened, he is a greater force than he was.

Over the season, in the races where it has been possible to make a definitive judgment, Hamilton has had the edge on pace over Alonso a total of seven times while Alonso has been faster than Hamilton on six occasions.

But since Silverstone in July it is three-two in Alonso's favour - and he has been faster in both the last two races.

It could easily turn around again at the next race. Either could win the title.

But the sight of the two greatest racing drivers in the world going at it in the same car is one to be savoured. It may not happen again if the rumours of Alonso moving to Renault or Ferrari for 2008 are to be believed.

The last three races promise to be spectacular, but do not expect them to be pretty.

This is a hard game, played by hard men.

And, make no mistake, Hamilton is one of them, too.



SEE ALSO
Hamilton defiant over title race
17 Sep 07 |  Formula One
Hamilton fumes at Alonso tactics
16 Sep 07 |  Formula One
Raikkonen clinches Belgian GP win
16 Sep 07 |  Formula One
Ferrari dominate Spa qualifying
15 Sep 07 |  Formula One
Belgian GP qualifying as it happened
15 Sep 07 |  Formula One
Ferrari set the pace in Belgium
15 Sep 07 |  Formula One


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