Monaco '24 shows Hamilton/Alonso paranoia alive and well – like 2007


Competitive paranoia told Lewis Hamilton that he could have secured sixth at the 2024 Monaco GP — had Mercedes told him so. But as Mark Hughes remembers, the Briton had seen a similar scenario before

Lewis Hamilton Fernando Alonso

A war of few words at the 2007 Monaco GP

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Monaco 2007 is when Ron Dennis first began losing control of the Fernando AlonsoLewis Hamilton pairing he’d put together.

This was the race won by Alonso after Hamilton was effectively called off him, prevented from using a fuel load advantage to attempt to overcut himself ahead at the pit stops.

He was in no way willing to accept that and was furious after the race. This was at the time of race fuel qualifying – i.e. you chose your first stint fuel load and did Q3 with that fuel level. This put in place the conditions for the conflict.

McLaren wanted to differentiate the fuel level of the drivers – and thus the time they made their first stops – so as to give maximum cover for any safety cars. They’d decided that Hamilton would run 10kg heavier than Alonso, potentially giving him an extra five laps to the pit stops.

Theoretically that should have made pole a formality for Alonso, as the McLarens were by far the fastest cars around here. But all weekend the rookie Hamilton had held a decisive pace advantage, one which had carried through into Q1 and Q2, the sessions where they ran conventional low fuel. In Q2, his initial time was 0.6sec clear of Alonso’s and Hamilton parked it, knowing he was comfortably through to Q3. Alonso needed another run and on a track which was now quicker shaded Hamilton’s earlier time.

Monaco Grand Prix Lewis Hamilton 2007

A flash of brilliance: Lewis Hamilton’s first Monaco GP

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Into Q3 with their offset fuel levels Hamilton was initially still quicker despite carrying around 0.3sec-worth more fuel. They had three runs each. On the second, with the track getting ever-quicker, Hamilton brushed the wall at Casino and didn’t improve.

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Alonso improved but was still behind Hamilton’s first run. Alonso went out first for the final runs and finally managed to beat Hamilton’s initial time to be on a provisional pole. But as Hamilton went through the Sector 1 timing beam he was already 0.35sec faster. He then encountered Mark Webber’s Red Bull for several corners and pole was gone. But allowing for the fuel difference, even that Webber-compromised lap of Hamilton’s was faster than Alonso. He’d been set for a lap around 0.5sec faster despite carrying 0.3sec-worth more fuel!

It was a disappointment for Hamilton not to be on pole when he was clearly faster on the day. But he had the consolation of those potentially five extra low-fuel laps up to the first pit stops. All he had to do was tail Alonso, wait for him to pit then let rip with the low-fuel laps and he should have comfortably overcut Alonso’s fuel-heavy car.

But it didn’t happen that way. Unbeknown to Hamilton, once he had failed to take pole, he’d lost his priority. Team boss Ron Dennis’ only concern was to ensure a 1-2 finish for the team. He was not in the least bit interested in letting them fight for track space. So as soon as Alonso and Hamilton got down to Saint Devote in that order, that was always going to be how they finished.

Monaco Grand Prix 2007

Alonso leads Hamilton through Turn 1

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As the pit stop window opened Alonso pushed hard and Hamilton – his front tyres graining from being in Alonso’s turbulent air – initially couldn’t respond and fell back. But as the graining phase completed, so he began to cut back into Alonso’s gap. It was at 4.2sec as Alonso pitted. With Alonso fuelled for 29 laps up to the second stops, he was heavier to the tune of 1.2sec. Even allowing for some tyre deg, five laps should comfortably have been enough for Hamilton to have overcut himself into the lead. But he was pulled in after just three laps – and came out still behind.

It made sense for the team not only to keep them from fighting for track space but also to get both stops completed before any safety car appeared. But Hamilton was already beginning to feel the competitive paranoia that is there with any top driver. Why had they not let him have his five laps? Why had he carried all that extra fuel if they weren’t going to allow him to have the benefit of it? Was there a plan to win Alonso this race despite Hamilton’s greater speed here?

But there were still the second stops. Perhaps that’s when he’d get to use his extra fuel. So he chased after Alonso and, noting this, Alonso stepped up the pace. They were each breaking and re-breaking the lap record (Hamilton still with around 10kg more fuel in his car). This was of deep concern to the McLaren pitwall because what they, but not the outside world, knew was that its chosen brake material was very marginal. A 1-2 was in serious danger of going up in a cloud of brake dust.

Fernando Alonso 2007 Monaco Grand Prix

Alonso picks up the pace

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Lewis Hamilton Monaco Grand Prix 2007

But Hamilton goes faster...

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Both drivers were instructed to back off. Hamilton ignored the call and kept pushing. Alonso replied with words to the effect of, ‘Get him to back off and then I will’. Dennis took matters into his own hands and radioed Hamilton directly – and in no uncertain terms – to back off now. He complied and reduced his pace by around 0.6sec. Alonso pressed on flat-out for another four laps just to be sure, before then backing off. Hamilton then upped his pace again – and Alonso responded again.

Alonso’s lead was out to 10sec as he was brought in three laps early for the second stop (again covering the safety car possibility). Hamilton was brought in two laps later (despite having fuel for six laps more) – and McLaren got its 1-2, Alonso ahead.

At that time, the fuel loads were not published beforehand. But I had a way of finding out what they were. I cannot say more. The fuel consumption and the weight effect numbers were available if you asked around. So it was simple maths then to join up what the actual dynamics were. So as Hamilton was brought in for his first stop, I could see it was earlier than his fuel load allowed for even if to the onlooking world it was just a routine stop from second position.

So as they sat in the press conference I asked Lewis how come he was brought in so many laps earlier than he had fuel for. “I don’t know,” he replied. “It says number two on my car, I guess I’m the number two driver.” This was dynamite. He’d confirmed it and let it be known he was deeply hacked off about it – and the British newspaper guys there to write a story on Hamilton, who’d had no idea about the respective fuel levels or strategies of the race until this moment, suddenly had a golden story. Down they all piled to question Dennis.

Ron Dennis 2007 Monaco Grand Prix

Plenty of questions for Ron…

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Ron explained the logic of it all from the team’s perspective. That it wasn’t a ploy to deny Hamilton, that the only objective was a 1-2 and the first corner determined what the order between the drivers would be at the flag, and that the pit stop timings were purely to minimise the threat to the 1-2 by a safety car. He then asked the journalists not to be too hard on Hamilton as he’d had fantastic performance all weekend.

Upon hearing this, Alonso became furious. It sounded to him like Dennis was suggesting Alonso had only won because Dennis had orchestrated it. This was taken as a serious affront. From there, Alonso’s war on Dennis began.

Last weekend, 17 years on, Hamilton and Alonso were remarkably still pounding around Monaco. Hamilton raged over the radio to Mercedes that they’d not informed him it was ‘out lap critical’ (code for ‘forget the tyres, just get the position’) to undercut Max Verstappen rather than ‘push’ (code for don’t hang about but don’t destroy the tyres). That competitive paranoia is still there. Alonso meanwhile, from a Q1 exit in his Aston Martin, did a commendable team job in holding the field up behind him so Lance Stroll ahead could get a big enough gap to make a pit stop without losing position.

The complexities of strategy and psychology are always particularly fascinating at Monaco.