2007 was a polemical season for Formula 1 in every possible way. It was the year of a new superstar to replace the recently-departed Michael Schumacher, the fall from grace of a double world champion, intrigue, ill-feeling and espionage - and the crowning, after years of seeing his title chances torpedoed by poor reliability, of the 'nearly man'.

Indeed, so much happened over the course of just seven months it is difficult to know exactly where to begin, but given he made the most startling and successful debut of any rookie in the sport's long history, Lewis Hamilton would seem to be as good a place as any.

The 22-year-old arrived onto the F1 scene as the reigning GP2 champion, but as GP2 champions go, he was incomparably well-prepared. Having been groomed by McLaren-Mercedes from the age of just ten - stretching all the way back to his early karting forays - team boss Ron Dennis knew he was not so much taking a risk with Lewis, as finally allowing his young prot?g?'s immense potential to be realised.

That much was evident right from the opening grand prix of the campaign in Melbourne, when Hamilton finished third behind Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso. That, though, failed to tell the whole story, as Lewis had in fact led Fernando for much of the race, and paddock whispers suggested the team had deliberately lengthened his second pit-stop so as to allow the Spaniard past, thereby saving face and avoiding the embarrassment of having a double world champion being beaten by a man starting his very first race in the top flight.

It may have calmed the waters briefly, but ultimately there would be no stopping Lewis, as McLaren was involuntarily forced to revisit the 'immovable object meets irresistible force' atmosphere it had endured during the Ayrton Senna-Alain Prost era of the late 1980s.

Hamilton secured a rostrum finish in each of the opening nine races, and back-to-back breakthrough victories on F1's North American leg in Montreal and Indianapolis, but even before that the strain was beginning to show, and thus began the chain of events that would eventually lead to Alonso and McLaren's messy and premature divorce come season's end. Tensions first came to a head in round five at Monaco when Hamilton was told to hold station behind Alonso, a catalyst which saw the young Briton refuse to toe the party line and uncharacteristically speak out against what he felt was 'number two' treatment.

Somewhat ironically, it would be the Spaniard decrying what he perceived to be the lack of equal treatment within the squad later on in the summer, most notably in the wake of the Hungarian Grand Prix, when his and Hamilton's increasingly personal, tit-for-tat tussle for supremacy during qualifying caused controversial pit-lane tactics and led to McLaren being made ineligible to score any points over the weekend.

Following that encounter, Alonso's 'robust' opening lap driving at Spa-Francorchamps just over a month later and the much-publicised bitter rows between both men and Dennis, battle lines were drawn and all bets were off. In a scene eerily reminiscent of the Prost-Senna saga, there seemed to be no limits to what the two drivers would do in order to gain the upper hand.

Ultimately, of course, all their internecine in-fighting would serve neither Alonso nor Hamilton, as the latter suffered a run of bad luck in the last two grands prix which permitted Kimi Raikkonen to take them both by surprise in the final race of the season in Brazil and pinch the drivers' laurels by just a single point. The Finn may have triumphed in the opening race of the campaign - often seen as a good barometer for championship success - but he then went on to suffer a mid-season lull as he, like Alonso, struggled to get properly to grips with Bridgestone's new-for-2008 Potenza rubber.

Indeed, for the first two-thirds of the year it looked rather more likely to be Felipe Massa who would take the fight to the two runaway Silver Arrows, as the Brazilian revelled in the support of former team-mate Schumacher, but as the German's presence at races became less and less noticeable, so Massa's challenge faded. In the end a costly suspension failure on Ferrari's home turf of Monza in September saw the balance swing irreversibly in Raikkonen's favour, as the team henceforth placed all their eggs into the Finn's basket and Felipe was reduced to the subservient role of having to support his title-challenging team-mate.

Raikkonen's eventual success, whilst somewhat of a surprise given he had headed into the final meeting some seven points adrift of Hamilton in the standings, was no less well-merited after he had twice finished as runner-up for McLaren, in both 2003 and 2005.

The constructors' honours also went the way of Ferrari, but only after the most contentious and perhaps defining issue of the season, the 'Spygate' saga. As Formula 1 scandals go, this was a fairly substantial one, and the press leapt on it with apparent glee as first Ferrari, then McLaren and finally Renault all found themselves embroiled in an espionage row that threatened to steal all the attention away from the real action - that taking place on the race track.

McLaren was sensationally fined a sporting record $100 million USD and excluded from the constructors' championship for its part in the affair - having been deemed by the FIA, the sport's governing body, to have been in possession of illegal Ferrari data - whilst after facing a similar charge after the season had concluded, Renault was let off without penalty, the World Motor Sport Council stating it could find no proof McLaren data had ever found its way onto the French manufacturer's car. Many, though, believe the only reason the FIA did not punish Renault in the same way as it had McLaren was because it knew if it had done, the R?gie would simply have bid adieu and walked away which, given its position as one of F1's major participants, the sport could ill afford.

That, though, was the only real good news for Renault in a season that began badly and never really improved. Solid points-scoring finishes from the experienced Giancarlo Fisichella in the early races, and the emergence of team-mate - and newly-signed Alonso replacement at McLaren - Heikki Kovalainen as a genuine future star later on, particularly in the light of the young Finn's superb drive to second place in the rain-lashed Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji, were the only real bright spots of a generally dispiriting campaign. Alonso will return to Enstone in 2008 and, given his double world champion status, will clearly be hoping for rather more...

Part 2 to follow tomorrow...

 

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