During his career, uber-driver Michael Schumacher has often been accused of being ruthless and ethically suspect. Witness his deliberate nudge into Damon Hill in 1994, causing the retirement of both, but handing Schumi the world title; his duplication of that maneuver against Jacques Villeneuve in 1997, causing only Schumi’s retirement, and ceding the title to the Canadian; his turning his Ferrari into a roadblock at Monaco in 2006 during qualifying; and his nearly running former team mate Rubens Barrichello into a wall at high speed last year, in Hnugary.
Schumacher’s personal idol as he cut his teeth in the sport was Ayrton Senna (as a boy, he watched the brilliant Brazilian race karts, and followed his career avidly from that point onward), and certainly there is nothing in Schumacher’s repertoire of moves that would’ve offended Senna (who deliberately crashed into rival Alain Prost at the end of the main straight at Suzuka in 1990, at approximately 150 mph, sidelining both of them, and thereby handing the title to Senna). But never mind that, times change, as does acceptable driver’s etiquette.
My point here is that Schumacher’s questionable tactics have largely been confined to his antics on the track. While he has been adept at making himself the focal point of his teams’ efforts during his career, no one has ever suggested there has been anything tainted or underhanded in this. I say this as a basis of comparison. Another driver, who also been extremely successful in this latter attribute (i.e. intra-team politics) is Fernando Alonso.
A taint of scandal seems to follow Alonso wherever he goes. On track, he’s a clean driver, for the most part (never mind how he balked Lewis Hamilton in the pit box at Hungary in 1997). He doesn’t deliberately crash into other drivers nor do much else that would raise stewards’ hackles. On the other hand, he’s shown himself to be a canny, if not ruthless, in-fighter.
During his years at Renault, Flavio Briatore, who “discovered” Alonso, and gave him his entree into the sport, was happy to allow Alonso to be the team’s D.D. (designated diva). When Alonso jumped ship to McLaren for an ill-advised year, he found himself to be a foreigner in a strange culture. Going in, he had no reason to fear that his de facto number one status (as a recent double-title winner) might be undermined by the rookie Lewis Hamilton.
If he’d done his homework a bit better, Alonso might have realized that Hamilton was McLaren’s favorite son. He’d been nurtured by the team since his karting days, and Ron Dennis certainly had no intention of letting that investment go to waste by turning Hamilton into Alonso’s water-carrier.
Also, McLaren has a long history of not conferring number one status on their drivers. This alone should have caused consternation in Alonso. Was he not aware of the titanic feud between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, both of whom fought for dominance during their years together at McLaren? Prost finally quit the team (in a move that would be echoed by Alonso himself at the end of 2007) rather than face another year partnering Senna.
Of course, McLaren’s equal-status policy was not without internal contradictions. Ron Dennis, equal status aside, was notorious for favoring certain drivers: Prost over Lauda; Senna over Prost; Hakkinen over Coultard; Raikkonen over Montoya; and, finally, Hamilton over Alonso. Dennis’s blatant tendency to accord one driver a tactical number one status (rather than a designated one) should have set alarm bells off in the Spaniard’s head.
During his year at McLaren, Alonso became embroiled in the Stepneygate scandal. Nigel Stepney, in a fit of pique at being passed over for promotion, gave a 700-page binder, filled with Ferrari’s technical secrets that year, to his counterpart at McLaren. McLaren claimed they never made use of the treasure-trove of data, but it later came to light that tester Pedro de la Rosa and Alonso conferred with one another during early test sessions on how useful the stolen data had been in the team’s efforts to adapt to the new Bridgestone tires. (McLaren had swtiched back to Bridgestones after the departure of Michelin at the end of the previous year.)
It’s also been alleged that Alonso tried to use his knowledge of the stolen data to blackmail Ron Dennis into giving him official number one status. This has not been substantiated. Once again, it’s a case of he said/he said. Unlike Michael Schumacher, who always commits his sins in full view of the main grandstands, if and when Alonso plays dirty, he manages to do so when there are no corroborating witnesses.
Ultimately, Alonso found his position in McLaren to be untenable. At the end of the day, politics aside, he was confronted with a driver who, though only a rookie, was as quick or quicker than the Spaniard himself, and very determined not to settle for being number two.
In 2008, Alonso returned to the squad that he knew would be, in effect, Team Alonso. The car was a pig, but at least the team focused their efforts on the Spaniard, and rookie Nelson Piquet, Jr became the D.W.B. (designated whipping boy). That year, at Singapore, Piquet deliberately crashed, which brought out a safety car, and by a fortuitous (or ingenious, depending on your point of view) stroke of timing, ultimately handed the race win to Alonso.
In the scandal that ensued, all guilty parties protected Alonso’s name. Briatore and co-conspirator Pat Symonds insisted the Spaniard was ignorant of the plot. Felipe Massa, who lost the race and the title that year because of the incident, was not so sure. Even while Alonso was in the process leaving Renault to join Ferrari, Massa was still making noises that Alonso was a cheat. He has since quieted down. No doubt the Ferrari brass, who prefer to show a united front to the world, told him to stuff a sock in it.
What does all this mean? Is Alonso a dirty in-fighter? Or merely skillful at galvanizing the team around him (which is just what he’s done at Ferrari, in short order, in a way that Kimi Raikkonen was unable to do during his three years with the team).
I raise the question, as the new book on el Supremo Bernie Ecclestone (No Angel: The Secret Life of Bernie Ecclestone, by Tom Bowers) apparently alleges that in 2007, at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Alonso asked Dennis to have mechanics short-fuel Hamilton’s car so that the then-rookie would either run out of fuel during the race, or be forced to make adjustments from the cockpit (e.g. lowering revs or leaning the air-fuel mixture) that would hobble the performance of the car.
No doubt, this allegation will receive additional air play once the season proper begins this year. It will give Felipe Massa (who is still smarting from last year’s German Grand Prix, when he received orders to move over for Alonso), and Hamilton (who professes to get on well with Alonso these days) something to think about.
As for the truth of the allegation, it’s difficult to judge. It’s likely that only two people would have been privy to such a conversation, Alonso and Dennis, and I’d venture to say that neither one of them is a particularly reliable source. Ever since the Stepneygate episode, which more or less forced Dennis to hand over team leadership to Martin Whitmarsh, Dennis has generally portrayed himself as the victim in the fiasco of the 2007 season.
However, had it not been for the Stepneygate issue (which Dennis might or might not have had culpable knowledge of at the time), which created a major distraction for the team, and Dennis’s mismanagement of his two prima dona drivers, McLaren probably would have won the title that year. Conclusion? McLaren didn’t need Alonso as a saboteur in 2007. They already had Ron Dennis for that job.