We have reached the halfway stage of the story of 2010, and things are looking good for McLaren. After Round 10 of 19 at Silverstone, Lewis Hamilton had 145 points, and a comfortable lead over team-mate Jenson Button, who was second with 133. Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel were had just 128 and 121 points respectively, despite having the best car on the grid. Fernando Alonso, who was in grave danger of becoming an also-ran in this title race, languished behind the pace-setters with just 98 points to his name.
But Alonso hadn't given up on a third title. His comments after the British Grand Prix – insisting that he could still win the championship – sounded like hopeless bravado to most observers, but the Spaniard genuinely believed he could do it. The comeback started – in very controversial style – at the next race in Germany.
The weekend began in the usual way as Sebastian Vettel took pole position, much to the delight of the home fans. Alonso though, was just two thousandths of a second slower than the German's pole position time, and he started on the front row, with team-mate Felipe Massa third. On race day, Vettel tried to cover Alonso off the line, allowing Massa to drive round the pair of them and take the lead at the first corner. Alonso failed to get ahead of his team-mate as the front-runners made their mandatory pit stops, and so needed to overtake Massa on track if he was going to claim his second victory of 2010.
The situation was thus: Alonso was faster than his team-mate but could not get past him. Vettel, who was in third place, was getting closer to the back on the Spaniard, but presented no immediate threat. Alonso was getting more and more frustrated by the situation, complaining to his race engineer about Massa. This had the desired effect and on Lap 48 the whole world heard the now infamous communication between Massa and Rob Smedley: “Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?”
It sounded like a team-order and, sure enough, Massa gifted his team-mate the race lead on the very next lap. He did it in an obvious way, slowing on a straight, in order to show the world that it was deliberate. Ferrari claimed after the race that it had been Massa's decision, and that Smedley's message was not a team order. This defence was rather weak considering that Smedley had felt it necessary to apologise to his driver straight after the event: “Ok mate, good lad. Just stick with it nowâ€¦ Sorry”
Almost everybody recognised it as a blatant team-order and a breach of the rules (specifically Article 39.1 which clearly states that “team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited”). The stewards handed Ferrari a $100,000 fine, and referred the issue to the World Motor Sport Council. They met in September, upheld the punishment of the stewards, but issued no further sanctions to the team. Alonso kept the result and the 25 points, and was beginning to re-emerge as a championship contender.
Eddie Jordan summed up the attitude of onlookers well. “It was unlawful and it was theft,” said the BBC pundit. “They stole from us the chance to have a wheel-to-wheel contest. Ferrari should be ashamed.” Christian Horner and Martin Whitmarsh, the team principals of Red Bull and McLaren respectively, condemned the use of team-orders, and both men insisted that they would not resort to such tactics, even if such a stoic stance deprived them of title glory.
The team-order debate prompted a few pieces on this site at the time (here, here, and here) and what Ferrari did in Germany was referred to frequently throughout the rest of the season. However, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo defended his team's actions and from that point on it was clear: Ferrari would be focusing all of their efforts on Fernando Alonso's championship battle, giving him a huge advantage over the rest of the contenders, who also had to battle against their team-mates.
The team-order debacle also had a detrimental effect on Felipe Massa. Race day in Germany was exactly a one year on from Massa's accident during qualifying in the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, and it would have been a great boost for him to celebrate this poignant anniversary with a win. Instead, the Brazilian public criticised him for sacrificing the victory.
It was suggested in Part One that leading the championship after Malaysia was probably the highest point of Massa's year, and the events of Hockenheim no doubt had some bearing on that. His confidence seemed to be destroyed by the arrival of Alonso at Ferrari, he didn't win a race all season, and the race in Germany was the place he appeared to have the measure of his new team-mate.
The Hungarian Grand Prix followed just one week later, the last grand prix before the four week summer break. Sebastian Vettel claimed yet another pole position and, once again, failed to convert it into victory. In the early stages of the race, victory looked almost inevitable for the German, but a mistake behind the safety car earned him a drive-through penalty and he had to settle for third.
Mark Webber took the victory in Hungary and, Alonso, buoyed from the 'win' in Germany, was second. Lewis Hamilton missed out on a decent haul of points when his gearbox failed, whilst Button limped home in eighth. McLaren blamed unfavourable characteristics of the Hungaroring for their lack of pace over the weekend, whilst Red Bull headed into the summer break showing that they still had the fastest car.
In fact, the reason for their superior speed was beginning to be questioned by rivals. Slow-motion television replays showed that the Red Bull front wings were running very close to the ground and McLaren, in particular, argued that they were flexing illegally. The FIA increased the weights used in the load deflection tests, but still the RB6 was found to be perfectly legitimate.
Hungary was also the scene of some extraordinary pit-lane events. When the safety car appeared, virtually everybody decided to make their mandatory tyre stop, and the pit lane became very crowded with a lot of mid-field runners all jostling for track position. The intense competitiveness led to Robert Kubica being released into the path of Adrian Sutil. The Force India driver was out of the race, and Kubica later received a 10-second stop/go penalty for the mistake of the Renault lollipop man.
As this drama was unfolding, Mercedes added to the problems in the pit lane when Nico Rosberg's right-rear tyre came off the car as he exited his pit box. The escaped Bridgestone tyre headed towards the Sauber pit crew, who miraculously all managed to avoid it before attending to their own car. It instead hit a member of the Williams pit crew, who thankfully escaped with only a few bruises. Rosberg parked his three-wheeled MGP-01 at the end of the pit lane and retired from the race.
The Hungary drama didn't finish here. A battle between Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher for tenth place towards the end of the race resulted in Schumacher's most questionable move of the season. Barrichello had a good slipstream coming down the start/finish straight, and looked destined to overtake his old Ferrari team-mate easily. Schumacher, unwilling to admit that the fight was lost, pushed Barrichello over to the right-hand side of the track, and the Wiliams missed colliding with the pit wall by only a matter of millimetres. The move earned Schumacher universal condemnation, and he still lost the tenth position. The seven-time world champion was also given a grid penalty by the stewards to carry forward to the next grand prix.
As the factories shut-down for the summer holidays it was Mark Webber's turn to lead the championship, becoming the fifth person to do so. Despite his DNF in Hungary, Hamilton was still second, just four points behind the Aussie. Despite picking up 43 points in two racers, Alonso was still only fifth in the championship standings, but had now narrowed his point deficit from the leader to just 20.
Alonso's resurgence was put on hold briefly when F1 returned from its summer holidays. Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium was the destination for Round 13, and the damp race proved unlucky for three of the five championship contenders.
Jenson Button was taken out of the race by Sebastian Vettel, who drove his Red Bull into the side of the McLaren as he chased Button down a straight. It was an extraordinary shunt, and very unlucky for the victimless Button. The Brit was running second when Vettel's RB6 did terminal damage to the radiator in his left side-pod on what Button described as a bone-dry section of track.
Vettel required a new nose and was also given a drive-through penalty for causing the accident. He also tangled with Tonio Liuzzi later in the race, and required another trip through the pit lane to replace a punctured tyre. The German eventually finished a lap down in fifteenth place.
As for Alonso, he had an early collision with Rubens Barrichello which – surprisingly, given the force of the impact – his Ferrari F10 survived relatively unscathed. The accident and subsequent pit stops dropped Alonso to the back of the field, but the Spaniard rallied stoically, and looked on course to score points before he spun out as conditions worsened.
Lewis Hamilton collected his third victory of 2010, and his first at Spa. Webber, who had qualified on pole, took advantage of a poor pit stop from Robert Kubica late in the race to jump from third to second. This podium finish for Webber did his championship hopes no harm, considering the misfortune of most of his fellow challengers.
With his Belgian victory, Hamilton now led Webber in the championship standings by three points. There were suggestions that this was now turning into a two-way title race as Vettel was now 28 points behind his team-mate, with Button and Alonso even further behind. However, as F1 headed into Ferrari's home country, Alonso had other ideas.
The World Motor Sport Council meeting – which decided not to hand out any additional punishments to Alonso and Ferrari over the team-orders in Germany – took place on the Wednesday before the Italian Grand Prix. Alonso, knowing that the seven extra points gleaned from Hockenheim would remain his, then increased his tally at Monza by taking only the second non-Red Bull pole position of the season, and then going on to win his first race in Italy as a Ferrari driver.
Jenson Button came second in the race, Massa third, Vettel fourth – after completing the virtually the entire race on soft tyres – and Webber sixth. It was the grand prix that marked the beginning of a fallow spell for Lewis Hamilton that lost him the championship. He missed out on valuable points in Italy after tagging Felipe Massa while negotiating the opening corners of the race, breaking the steering arm of his McLaren, and retiring without completing a single lap.
Mark Webber left Monza leading the championship again but, with just five races to go, there were five drivers at the top of the standings, separated by only 25 points. In such a topsy-turvy season, all five were in with a chance of taking the crown, and nobody could predict who would be the eventual victor.
With the title race nicely poised, Formula 1 said goodbye to Europe for another year and headed back to the Far East. Hamilton's woes continued, Alonso continued his fight-back, and a young German finally found some consistency. The story of 2010 reaches its conclusion in Part 4.