Commentary

Alonso-Hamilton feud bubbled to surface, but is it over?

The McLaren Mercedes qualifying debacle -- and subsequent feud between drivers Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton -- is the talk of F1. Dan Knutson wonders if the row is over.

Updated: August 10, 2007, 5:20 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

So Lewis Hamilton says that McLaren's family feud is over and he and teammate Fernando Alonso are on speaking terms again.

Alonso and Hamilton
Bryn Lennon/Getty ImagesFernando Alonso, left, and McLaren Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton aren't on the best of terms after the Hungarian Grand Prix.

This comes just a few days after tensions within the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team boiled over in a sequence of events at the Hungarian Grand Prix that saw both drivers disobey team orders and resulted, among other things, with Alonso refusing to speak to Hamilton and a heavy penalty for McLaren.

Just how things unfolded is becoming clear, but the mystery of the "10 seconds" has yet to be fully explained.

Here's what happened.

In Hungary, Alonso and Hamilton both made the cuts to get through Qualifying 1 and Qualifying 2 and thus were among the 10 drivers in the final shootout of Qualifying 3.

The basic strategy in the 15-minute Q3 session is to burn off as much fuel as possible so that the car is as light as possible before you pit for one final set of tires and one last flying lap just as the session ends.

McLaren, like the other teams, plans things out to the second to give both drivers as much track time as possible and to get them both out for their final runs as late as possible but also free of traffic.

In Hungary, McLaren's plan called for Alonso to head out ahead of Hamilton at the start of Q3. However, Hamilton reached the end of pit lane first and was at the head of the line of cars waiting for the green light to come on.

"When I was at the end of the pit lane, they [McLaren] reminded me 'Lewis, let Fernando past,'" Hamilton said later, "and I saw that Fernando was sort of staggered to the right of me and Kimi [Raikkonen in a Ferrari] was very, very close behind that.

"So I immediately thought, 'OK, we can let Fernando past as long as we don't let Kimi past because that puts me out of sync and could ruin my qualifying run.' So I had to take a split-[second] decision. I got round the first corner, I thought 'OK, if Fernando keeps with me, we will both make it, we'll both have the pace.'

"So I pushed. I don't know why he didn't, but he dropped off quite a bit. I was told to let Fernando past later on, but he was miles behind so I just kept going."

Just why Alonso didn't hang on Hamilton's tail rather than lagging behind is unclear. But Alonso was now incensed because Hamilton had directly disobeyed a team order and that directly affected Alonso.

"What happened … was something new for the team," Alonso would later tell Spanish reporters. "Hamilton not listening, disobeying them, was something they hadn't experienced."

Indeed, Hamilton's golden boy image in the team -- he's been a McLaren protégé for over a decade -- took a serous knock in Hungary.

The Q3 session progressed with McLaren's fine-tuned strategy out of whack. Had Alonso gone out first, he should have been able to get in one extra lap of "fuel burn," but that wasn't possible anymore.

Now came the crucial final three minutes.

Alonso pitted first, and the team told Hamilton, who was on his "in" lap, to ease back because Fernando was in the pit stall. Remember, because F1 teams use up to 20 crewmembers on a pit stop, there is only room for one car at a time.

Alonso pulled into the pit stall with 2 minutes and 14 seconds remaining before the checkered flag would end qualifying.

Six seconds later the crew had changed his tires and removed the jacks.

In the meantime, Hamilton arrived and was lined up just a few feet behind Alonso waiting to get into the pit stall for his final set of tires.

The team told Alonso that it would hold him for 20 seconds to give him a gap in traffic for his final qualifying run. Alonso sat there for 20 seconds.

With 1 minute and 48 seconds remaining in the session a crewmember lifted the "lollipop," the signaling board on a pole, off the nose of the car. Normally, this is the signal for the driver to take off immediately.

Alonso, however, sat there for another 10 seconds.

Lewis Hamilton
As Fernando said, he was told to stop and wait. His wheels were on, his [tire] blankets were off and he was told to wait. I imagine that I probably lost half a minute I would say from my in lap coming in to waiting behind Fernando. At least 30 seconds, so it definitely needs a good explanation.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton was fuming now because time was running out for him to get his final lap in.

"As Fernando said, he was told to stop and wait," Hamilton said in the post-qualifying news conference. "His wheels were on, his [tire] blankets were off and he was told to wait. I imagine that I probably lost half a minute I would say from my in lap coming in to waiting behind Fernando. At least 30 seconds, so it definitely needs a good explanation."

In the same news conference, Alonso said that his engineer was giving him a countdown when to leave, and it was this radio message, not the lollipop, that he was using as his signal to leave.

Alonso finally left the pit stall, did a fast warm-up lap and crossed the start/finish line with less than a second to spare. Alonso was able to get in the final magical lap that won him pole position. Hamilton crossed the line about four seconds later and thus couldn't get his lap in. Still, Hamilton's previous run was good enough for second place on the grid.

Hamilton and McLaren boss Ron Dennis then had what Dennis described as a very "firm" conversation over the radio.

The British newspapers said that the terse exchange was littered with four-letter swear words, but McLaren has since put out a statement in which Hamilton says he did not swear. No mention was made of Dennis' choice of words in the McLaren statement.

If you watched the qualifying session on TV, you saw Dennis grab a McLaren team member on the pit wall, pull off his headset and then walk with him down to the entry to the pits where the drivers, pulling off the track, park their cars for post-qualifying tech inspection.

The guy in a McLaren uniform whom Dennis grabbed was Alonso's personal trainer, Fabrizio Borra. This immediately sparked rumors that Borra had been secretly signaling Alonso when to leave the pits. But that was all nonsense. Dennis knew that he had two very irate drivers down at impound, and he took Borra along to calm down Alonso while he would calm down Hamilton.

In the post-qualifying news conference and then later at a McLaren team news conference, the media pushed for answers. Why the 20-second delay and then the further 10-second delay for Alonso after the "lollipop" had been lifted?

Dennis: "He [Alonso] is under the control of his engineer. He determined when he goes. That's the sequence. And if you think that was a deliberate thing, then you can think what you want."

Alonso: "Four times! I told you four times already: We have had 11 races. If you watch qualifying, both cars stop and go out when the team say to go out. They count down over the radio, and when they get to zero you release the clutch and you go."

The race officials also wanted to know what was going on, and Dennis was summoned to see the stewards at 4:30 p.m. local time after Saturday's qualifying session. Then, at 6:30 p.m. the officials summoned Dennis, both drivers, their engineers and other team members to a hearing.

The officials deliberated long and hard. At 11:30 p.m. they signed off on a two-page verdict. That statement did not reach the pressroom until 15 minutes past midnight.

It was a stunning ruling. Alonso was stripped of pole position and dropped to sixth place on the grid. That moved Hamilton up to the pole.

Because it is so hard to pass on the twisting Hungarian track, starting from the pole is almost a guarantee that you will win the race. And Hamilton subsequently did.

The ruling also deemed that while the McLaren drivers would be allowed to score points for the drivers' championship, McLaren would not be eligible for points in the constructors' points. This was the first time ever in F1 that a team has been docked points before a Grand Prix.

Fernando Alonso
What happened … was something new for the team. Hamilton not listening, disobeying them, was something they hadn't experienced.

Fernando Alonso

Why did officials get involved in what was basically an inner-team squabble? Because the rules state that one driver is not allowed to impede another driver's qualifying lap. Penalties have been handed out for this before, but this was the first time what happened between two teammates resulted in a penalty.

Why did officials penalize McLaren as well? First, they were not satisfied with the team's explanation for why Alonso was held for the 20 seconds. The actions of the McLaren team prevented a driver from making his final qualifying run. It just happened to be another McLaren driver. If McLaren's actions had prevented a rival team's driver from getting in a qualifying lap, nobody would question the penalty.

Second, insiders tell ESPN.com that the officials were upset because they thought that McLaren did not reveal all the facts that occurred.

Regarding the 20- and 10-second delays, the official statement read:

"The team stated that they frequently give estimates as to duration of pit stop to their drivers before they pit and that the reason the car was in fact held for 20 seconds was that it was being counted down prior to release at a beneficial time regard being given to other cars on the track.

"Alonso was asked why he waited for some 10 seconds before leaving the pits after being given the signal to leave. His response was that he was enquiring as to whether the correct set of tires had been fitted to his car.

"When asked why this conversation did not take place during the 20-second period when his car sat stationary all work on it having been completed, it was stated that it was not possible to communicate by radio because of the countdown being given to him.

"Reference to the circuit map shows that at the time Alonso was told he would be held for 20 seconds there were but 4 cars on the circuit, his own and those of Fisichella, Hamilton and Raikkonen. All but Raikkonen entered the pits such that there can have been no necessity to keep Alonso in the pits for 20 seconds waiting for a convenient gap in traffic in which to leave."

McLaren ended up "losing" 15 points after Hamilton finished first and Alonso fourth, and it has filed an appeal. McLaren's defense will be that, yes, there was only one car on the track when Alonso was held for 20 seconds, but the team was projecting ahead to the final minute or so when all 10 cars would be on the track.

Just why Alonso hung around for 10 more seconds has not been adequately explained. At first, Hamilton thought the team did it on purpose to teach him a lesson for disobeying team orders.

"I thought that because of the argument I had with Ron [Dennis] over the radio, he was obviously angry, I thought that perhaps he was just teaching me a lesson," Hamilton said after winning the race. "So I just took it on the chin. That is why when I went to the [qualifying] press conference I said I wouldn't have thought Fernando would do something like that, but I have reasons to believe otherwise."

Translation: Hamilton believed that Alonso purposely delayed him by those 10 seconds in retaliation for Hamilton messing up Alonso right at the start of the final qualifying session.

It was indeed Hamilton's fault because his actions initiated the whole mess. He definitely had a frosty reception from the team after qualifying and tried to repair the situation.

"You didn't know whether the team hated you," he said, "whether they just hated the situation or who they blamed. So it was difficult but I just tried to come here with a smile on my face and tried to remain positive for everyone and do the same procedure as always.

"So I did go around to the whole team [before the race] and said, 'Come on let's do this, good luck.' There was only one person that [I] didn't [talk to], but you know that didn't really affect me. I got in and did my job."

The one person Hamilton didn't talk to was, of course, Alonso.

"He doesn't seem to have been speaking to me since yesterday," Hamilton said after the race in Hungary, "so I don't know if he has a problem. In terms of speaking to the team, I spoke to everyone, I have told everyone the situation, apologized if they feel I have done something against them, but this is the way it is."

Alonso was deeply upset, and after the race he told Spanish reporters he wasn't sure if he would remain with the team to see out his three-year contract.

Dennis and the McLaren team as a whole go to extraordinary lengths to try to give Alonso and Hamilton absolutely equal and fair treatment.

"They are both very competitive," Dennis said of his drivers, "and they both want to win, and we are trying our very hardest to balance those pressures. [In qualifying] we were part of a process where it didn't work, and the end result is more pressure on the team."

Understandably, the drivers sometimes feel that they are getting the short end of the stick.

"We appreciate the pressures and difficulties and level of competitiveness that the drivers have to each other," Dennis said. "We understand that there are always moments of indecision and a feeling of the trust being stretched to the limit. But our team principles were not compromised [in qualifying] in the sense that we made every effort as a team to generate equality. And this is a time when for a variety of reasons we step outside the comfort zone that we wish to operate the team within."

Hamilton and Alonso are both very nice, personable guys. They lack the mean, Machiavellian streak that some drivers have. They are talking again and they plan to meet to iron out their differences.

Yet you have to wonder if their relationship and level of trust will ever be the same. Will Hamilton's disobeying team orders and Alonso's mysterious 10-second delay leave a veil of suspicion? Or will Dennis and the team be able to end the family feud?

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

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