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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 October 2007, 18:14 GMT 19:14 UK
Formula One hits new heights
By Andrew Benson

Fernando Alonso holds up Lewis Hamilton in the pits in qualifying at Hungary
The F1 season was about politics as much as it was about racing
This will go down as a defining year in Formula One history - and the gripping, final-race, three-way title decider is only part of the reason why.

In Lewis Hamilton, the sport has a new superstar, and his combination of sublime talent, striking good looks, freshness, eloquence and willingness to speak his mind has driven F1 to new heights of popularity.

But the 22-year-old's emergence has dragged into the spotlight aspects of F1 that are less appealing - the shadowy politics that are inescapable in a sport in which the pursuit of money is as important as success on the track.

Those politics have rarely been more central than in 2007, and certainly never been more publicly exposed, not least because Hamilton himself has been central to the story.

This has only added depth and complexity to a compelling narrative that has gripped both long-time fans of the sport and those attracted to it by its fresh new face.

Hamilton is so good, in fact, that even luminaries such as Stirling Moss are saying he could well be the greatest racing driver in history

That narrative has had a number of themes, but all of them involved Hamilton in one way or another.

There was the emergence of Hamilton as a brilliant new star, and one whose impact goes far beyond his exploits on the track.

But there were also the intertwined tales of his relationships with team-mate Fernando Alonso and McLaren, Alonso's with the McLaren team, and McLaren's with the powers that be.

F1 has for too long been a conservative environment that was the preserve of the white, middle-classes, whichever country they were from. And Hamilton's mixed race represents a shift from which F1 can never go back.

He has introduced a whole new demographic to the sport, and it seems impossible to imagine that the doors he has forced open can now ever be closed - although it has to be borne in mind that Tiger Woods' dominance of golf has yet to produce the expected surge of players from similar backgrounds.

Of course, Hamilton's impact as the first F1 driver of Afro-Caribbean origin would have been minimal if he had not been any good.

Lewis Hamilton arrives at the FIA World Council hearing in Paris in September
Hamilton joined McLaren at their spy-scandal hearing in Paris
But he is. He may have missed out on the title by a tiny margin, but his talent is unquestionable. So good, in fact, that even luminaries such as Stirling Moss are saying he could well be the greatest racing driver in history.

It is his astonishing talent that enabled him to fight for the title in his first season in the sport against two rivals of the highest quality.

For that, Hamilton owes Alonso and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen a debt.

The Spaniard, a double world champion, is one of the finest racing drivers of all time. And the Finn is arguably the out-and-out fastest of the modern era.

Hamilton's battle on the track with these two titans has allowed the Englishman's talent to be viewed in a true perspective.

But equally important has been his relationship with Alonso off it.

606: DEBATE
V700DYS
Hamilton started the season as the wide-eyed novice, eager to learn from the master. But it soon became clear he could go nose-to-nose with the world champion, a fact that quickly introduced tension into their relationship.

Before long, Alonso was demanding elevated status in the team - status he felt he deserved as a double world champion.

And the tensions burst out into the open when McLaren stopped the two men fighting for victory when Alonso was in the lead at Monaco, a decision about which Hamilton wasted no time in voicing his displeasure.

Two weeks later, Alonso went public for the first time with his feelings of discomfort within McLaren. The team, he said, were behind Hamilton, as an Englishman they had nurtured since he was a schoolboy, far stronger than they ever would be behind him.

Those tensions were exacerbated at the British Grand Prix, at which the spying row that was to cloud what should have been a triumphant summer for McLaren first emerged.

McLaren's chief designer, it was revealed, was in the possession of 780 pages of confidential Ferrari technical documents.

Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton
Kovalainen was another impressive rookie in 2007
The team were ordered to appear before a hearing of the sport's governing body, the FIA, which - initially - cleared them on the basis of a lack of evidence that they had used the information.

While that scandal swirled around McLaren at Silverstone, tensions were ramping up within the team, too.

Alonso appeared to feel too much attention was focused on Hamilton's attempt to win pole position when he claimed - correctly as it turned out - that he was the team's best hope of stopping the Raikkonen victory that did happen on Sunday afternoon.

A month later all this burst out into public view in the most dramatic fashion in Hungary.

First, Hamilton double-crossed Alonso at the start of the final qualifying period in a way that would have given him a decisive advantage in the shoot-out for pole position at a circuit where overtaking is all but impossible.

Alonso returned the favour, holding up Hamilton in the pits for just long enough to stop him getting out in time to complete a final flying lap.

Lewis Hamilton follows the safety car during the Japanese Grand Prix
Hamilton's driving behind the safety car in Japan was criticised
Alonso was penalised by the stewards and demoted five places on the grid. Furious, he rowed with team boss Ron Dennis, his displeasure focusing, as ever, on his status within the team.

As part of that row, he threatened to reveal what he said were incriminating e-mails about the spy scandal to the FIA.

Although he withdrew the threat, Dennis had already phoned FIA president Max Mosley to tell him about it, a move that ultimately led to McLaren being called back before the world motorsport council, this time with more painful consequences.

The FIA decided that this time there was enough evidence to punish McLaren - a decision with which many in F1 still disagree - and they were thrown out of the constructors' championship and fined an unprecedented 49.2m.

Alonso was quickly painted as the bad boy, even though the picture was more complicated than that, and Hamilton wasted no opportunity to twist the knife.

He would, he said, rather Alonso was not in the team in 2008, and called into question his team-mate's integrity in the context of the spy scandal.

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone
F1 boss Ecclestone knows Hamilton is commercial gold dust
A week later, Hamilton found himself at the heart of a different controversy after being accused of dangerous driving while leading the field behind the safety car on his way to victory in Japan.

For 24 hours, it appeared he might be hit with a penalty in the very race in which he hoped he would clinch the title. His response was to complain about the politics in F1, saying that if it was going to be like this, he was not sure he wanted to be involved.

That could have been the frustrations of an innocent coming to the surface. But it was not taken that way. Instead, many viewed it as a man well aware of his new-found status finding a not-very-subtle way of flexing his muscles.

And all the time the issue of how McLaren regarded Alonso simmered away.

Dennis insisted the two drivers were being treated equally, but his true feelings were revealed by a Freudian slip after Hamilton and the team had thrown away their chance to clinch the drivers' title in the penultimate race.

Hamilton had stayed out too long on worn tyres, and slid out of the race on his way into the pits to change them, having already been passed by Raikkonen and lost a huge amount of time to Alonso.

Trying to justify McLaren's decision to keep Hamilton out, Dennis said: "We weren't racing Kimi, we were basically racing Alonso."

Fernando Alonso feels the pressure of media questioning
It was not an easy year for Alonso, whose reputation was damaged
If Hamilton, Alonso or Dennis wanted to project an image as nice guys, this incredibly intense season has done them no favours.

But in an environment as tough as F1, nice guys tend not to flourish.

This is no secret to those well versed in the sport. What 2007 has ensured is that a huge number of those who were not are now well aware of what a murky, Machiavellian world it is.

It is likely a few more twists will come even after the end of the season.

Few see how Alonso can stay at McLaren, notwithstanding the two remaining years he has on his contract.

He is expected to move back to his former team Renault, where he could partner the rising Finnish star Heikki Kovalainen, whose impressive season would have attracted more attention had it not been for Hamilton.

Alternatively, Kovalainen may be swapped with Alonso, putting him up against Hamilton at McLaren.

Either way, it would set up the almost perfect scenario for F1's wise old commercial director Bernie Ecclestone - the three best drivers in the world racing each other in the three best teams.

And that, almost certainly, would draw in even more fans to add to those already attracted by one of the most fascinating years in Grand Prix racing's long and colourful history.



SEE ALSO
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Raikkonen pips Hamilton to title
21 Oct 07 |  Formula One
Hamilton stays upbeat for future
21 Oct 07 |  Formula One
Raikkonen the playboy king
21 Oct 07 |  Formula One
Raikkonen hails Ferrari teamwork
21 Oct 07 |  Formula One
F1's new star - and it's not the champ
21 Oct 07 |  Formula One
Brazilian Grand Prix photos
19 Oct 07 |  Formula One
How Hamilton drove Alonso to the edge
16 Sep 07 |  Formula One


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