/ 18 December 2007

Excitement, scandal back in Formula One

The 2007 Formula One season went down as one of the most thrilling to date, with a three-way race for the title that ended with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen edging McLaren teammates Fernando Alonso and Lewis

In the first season without the great Michael Schumacher, there was plenty of drama both on and off the track.

”The Iceman” Raikkonen, replacing Schumacher at Ferrari, put an end to his notorious string of bad luck, finally hoisting the champion’s trophy after erasing a seven-point deficit in the last race of the season.

Hamilton — the first black driver in F1 — broke several rookie records and nearly became F1’s youngest champion, leading the championship most of the season before fading in the deciding Brazilian Grand Prix.

Intrigue and infighting marked Alonso’s much-anticipated debut season with McLaren, prompting a short-lived stint with the British team and a quick move back to Renault after a third-place finish in the drivers’ standings.

The public rift — sparked by Alonso’s complaints he didn’t get the respect he deserved from the team as a two-time world champion — was framed by a spying scandal that led to a record $100-million fine for McLaren for allegedly obtaining and using confidential data from Ferrari.

The scandal dominated the headlines the entire second half of the season, ultimately leading to Alonso’s move to Renault in the most significant driver change ahead of the 2008 season.

The transfer almost automatically makes Renault a top contender, along with Ferrari and McLaren and adds even more excitement to next year’s season.

”Renault had a difficult year in 2007, but I know that the team has real strength in depth,” Alonso said in a statement after signing with Renault on December 10. ”I am confident they can produce a fast and competitive car and be back at the top in 2008.”

Renault — third in this year’s constructors’ championship — also was involved in a spying scandal after possessing confidential information about McLaren, but it eventually escaped punishment from FIA.

Alonso — F1’s most successful active driver — will try to replicate the titles he won with the team in 2005 and 2006.

Alonso’s hopes for a third straight title in 2007 were dampened by Raikkonen’s dramatic comeback at the Brazilian GP. Runner-up for the title in 2003 and 2005, the Finn won the race to rally from third in the standings and beat Hamilton and Alonso by a single point.

”This has always been my goal and I am particularly pleased to have achieved it in my first year with Ferrari,” Raikkonen said at FIA’s awards ceremony earlier this month. ”This victory is the result of the efforts of a group that never threw in the towel, even when all seemed lost.”

Alonso had a shot at the title in Interlagos, but finished only third after a disappointing run.

Hamilton needed a fifth-place finish, but he made a mistake on the first lap and later had to deal with a gearbox problem that kept him from finishing better than seventh.

It was the first time since 1986 that three drivers reached the final race in contention for the title — when Alain Prost edged Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet to win the championship.

Raikkonen had to wait almost a month to have the title confirmed, however, because of a McLaren appeal into fuel irregularities during the Brazilian GP that was later rejected by FIA.

Ferrari will be back with Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, hoping to follow up on a solid season that resulted in nine victories — six for Raikkonen and three for Massa — in addition to the constructors’ title.

McLaren, which won eight races but was removed from the constructors’ championship because of the spying scandal, will rely on Hamilton again, but the team’s second driver was yet to be announced.

”[Next season] is going to be a blast,” Hamilton said recently on his website. ”I am going to work even harder to do a better job.”

McLaren apologised profusely for the spy scandal this month, acknowleding that the Ferrari information was spread more widely through the team than originally believed. McLaren could face further sanctions from FIA if its 2008 car is found to include material obtained from Ferrari.

Alonso’s teammate at Renault next year will be Brazilian Nelson Piquet Jr — son of three-time F1 champion Nelson Piquet and a former test driver with the team.

BMW Sauber, runner-up to Ferrari in the 2007 constructor’s championship, will be back with the same lineup — Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica. Fourth-placed finisher Williams also will have the same two drivers it finished this season — Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima.

Honda, coming one of its most disappointing seasons, will keep veteran drivers Ruben Barrichello and Jenson Button, but it will welcome the addition of team principal Ross Brawn, who previously spent 10 successful years with Ferrari.

Three-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais will debut in F1 for the Toro Rosso team, marking the Frenchman’s much-anticipated move back to Europe.

F1 will still have only 11 teams next year, but Spyker will be renamed Force India after being bought by Indian businessman Vijay Mallya and Dutch entrepreneur Michiel Mol.

There will be few changes to the 2008 calendar, but they include F1’s first night race on a street circuit in Singapore and a street race in Valencia, Spain.

One of the most significant technical changes will be the elimination of traction control, putting more emphasis on the drivers’ skills. – Sapa-AP