Alonso has only one problem - Hamilton
Having pulled strings to play Long Island's most prestigious golf courses, Shinnecock Hills and Centennial, en route to Indianapolis, you could be forgiven for thinking that all in Ron Dennis's garden was rosy. The McLaren team principal is a meticulous man and can therefore afford to relax once in a while, but the coming months will test every last ounce of managerial skill gleaned from 40 years in the sport.
Three weeks ago, Dennis described Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton's one-two in Monte Carlo as "a perfect race". Last week in Montreal it was Hamilton's turn to deliver perfection, a debut victory of such composure that it mocked his inexperience. Yesterday at Indianapolis was an encore. Hamilton’s win at the home of American motor sport was as accomplished as his Canadian success. This time there were no safety car interruptions to spoil his rhythm. Instead he had to cope with the race-long presence of a double world champion teammate determined to impose himself.
With Hamilton caught up in traffic just after half-distance, Alonso got a run on him out of the banked Turn 13 and they raced flat-out down the main straight, inches apart. Alonso drew alongside but Hamilton fought his ground, braked at the last possible moment and forced Alonso to go the long way round. It was the closest that the Spaniard would get, and if he is to retain the title for a third time running he will have to race Hamilton like a man, with no special favors from his back-up team. Therefore, as the headline in Friday's Indianapolis Star pointed out, McLaren have "trouble in paradise". Alonso had mentioned to the Spanish media that he was "not totally comfortable" at the team; but he kept the detail to himself.
Speculation enjoyed free rein. What did Alonso want? Undisputed No1 status in a team renowned as an equal opportunity employer? Priority in matters of testing and race strategy? Unrestricted use of his team-mate's telemetry data and limited access to his own? Last week Dennis was switched into damage limitation mode.
All of the above have been requested, and granted, to champions of the not-so-distant past. But never have they been negotiable in a team managed by Dennis.
Alonso, a proud man, is unlikely to seek advantage via sleight of hand but he is feisty. When he left Renault for McLaren, Alonso talked about needing a new challenge, and he has it. Sages at Renault point out that changing team is a bit like changing tire supplier. You have all the data but the human relationships take time. Alonso worked with Renault for six years. He's been at McLaren six months. Hamilton may be a rookie but he has been in the family longer.
The media rumpus is time-consuming, Dennis admitted. And, more importantly, "other team principals see it as an opportunity to try to spring one of the drivers out of the system". Right on cue at Indy, the Italian media started with their Alonso-Ferrari stories. "When these things happen, innocently or deliberately, they are constructively spoken about. They just don't even get close to smoldering, let alone being a fire," Dennis retorted.
Dennis has seen it all before. And far worse. In the late 1980s McLaren coped with one of the sport's most intense rivalries, between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. "At Imola they made an agreement," Dennis recalled. "We were dominant and they agreed not to start racing until they'd gone through a particular corner. The guy in the lead [Prost] left the door open and the other guy jumped down the inside and won the race. Blatantly broke the agreement and then tried to justify it. That was a headache. But this is different. There just isn't an issue between these guys."
Only 12 months ago at Indianapolis, the McLaren drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen, another formidable pairing, collided. Dennis lost patience. It was the last race Montoya drove for McLaren.
Few doubted there would ever be a stronger driver combination than Senna and Prost but it appears that, in Alonso and Hamilton, McLaren might just have it. Both men present as entirely likeable and down-to-earth, and doubtless have a mutual respect, the sort engendered by common genius. But sports stars, particularly young ones, are fragile. For the common good it has been decided that McLaren's drivers will speak of each other only in each other's company.
And just in case there is any doubt on the practical side, McLaren's engineering director, Paddy Lowe, explained that, within 30 seconds of either car coming to rest in a practice session, its driver has his own data sheet, showing every engineering parameter available, and an overlay from his team-mate's car. They debrief at the same table, with engineers and strategists from both sides of the garage. Concealing information is impossible.
"There is a Britishness at McLaren, just as there would be a Frenchness or whatever in any other team," said Dennis. "It's going to take time for Fernando to totally believe it, but we are passionately supportive of both our drivers. Time is the only ingredient that can fix the very small issues that sit within the organization. And they should not be amplified. These situations inevitably emerge out of a competitive situation and that's always a nice challenge to have."
"Challenge", note. Dennis does not like the word "problem". The man with the problem is Alonso. A problem called Lewis Hamilton. The Guardian