From the very start of his rookie season in 2007 Lewis Hamilton signalled that he meant business, taking a string of podium finishes in his early traces, and keeping McLaren teammate Fernando Alonso on his toes.
At the fifth event in Monaco tensions bubbled over when Hamilton became frustrated by the team’s strategy, which he felt had favoured Alonso.
He’d been given a higher fuel load in qualifying, taking a performance penalty as a result, but with an eye on reaping the rewards in the race. However come Sunday he was pitted early, leaving Alonso free to win. That prompted his infamous “I’m a number two” comments.
The 9kg qualifying fuel load discrepancy between the two McLaren drivers that day was a direct result of the first major shake-up in the safety car rules since its original introduction, which had given the teams much to think about over the winter.
The FIA had been looking for a way to stop drivers racing back to the pits, potentially putting marshals at risk. The solution was to have a closed pit lane to allow the cars to be bunched up, and in effect “released” into the pits in a controlled manner.
There was an obvious issue for those drivers who were about to run out of fuel when the safety car emerged. They would be allowed to break the closed pitlane rule if they had no choice, but would pay the price with a 10 second stop and go penalty.
When the teams pointed out that this could be unfair, FIA race director Charlie Whiting made the not unreasonable observation that they could maintain a safety margin in terms of a lap or two of fuel in the car at every planned stop. But fuel means weight, so that didn’t go down very well with most teams, although some adhered to that policy.
Thus from the start of the 2007 season the prospect of a safety car that coincided with a fuel window had made teams a little nervous. Against the usual form, there was no intervention in either Melbourne or Monaco, and in Bahrain one came on the first lap, so it had no impact.
Some teams (including McLaren) had consistently ensured that their drivers were not pitting a single lap apart, in order to guarantee that a safety car wouldn’t ruin both drivers' races.
The downside of that was that one driver had a more significant weight penalty in qualifying relative to his teammate than he would have had previously, which is exactly what happened in Monaco.
Heading to the next race in Montreal, Hamilton was determined to make amends for his Monaco frustration, and he duly beat Alonso to pole in great style. This time there was a less significant fuel discrepancy between the two cars, with Alonso basically a lap heavier.
At the start the apparently rattled Spaniard ran wide across the grass at Turn One as he attempted to redress the balance. He dropped behind Nick Heidfeld’s BMW Sauber, and in effect, the race was now Hamilton’s to lose.
The Briton was comfortably ahead when he made his first stop on lap 22. Alonso was due to stop on the next lap, but then Adrian Sutil went off. The Spyker driver’s impact with the wall triggered a safety car, and so commenced an extraordinary chain of events that turned the race on its head.
When Sutil crashed, Alonso still had some fuel in the tank. However, with no way of knowing how long it would take to get the field together and for the FIA to declare the pit lane open, staying out was not a gamble worth taking for McLaren.
So along with equally ill-starred Williams driver Nico Rosberg he headed straight into the pit lane knowing that he would later face a compulsory 10 second stop and go penalty for breaking the closed pit rule.
“Running one of our cars out of fuel behind the safety car didn’t seem much of an option,” McLaren boss Ron Dennis explained later. “We had less than a lap’s fuel when the safety car was deployed.
“What you have to then work out very quickly is how much fuel are you actually going to be able to conserve behind the safety car, and we worked it quickly as a little over two laps, which we thought was too marginal.
“So we knew we were going to be penalised, but that was better than running out of fuel. As it happens we probably would have had an egg cup full left, and made it, so with the benefit of hindsight the wrong call, which is why some of us don’t feel great, because it effectively made his race very difficult…”
Alonso and Rosberg were not the only ones to suffer problems, however. When the pitlane was eventually declared open, Felipe Massa led the charge in for fuel.
When he got to the end of the pitlane the Ferrari driver failed to notice the red light. It was on because the queue was making its way past the pit exit, which in this case was down at the first turn complex. Renault’s Giancarlo Fisichella also followed him out, and eventually, both drivers were black flagged and excluded.
“He did not pay attention,” said Ferrari boss Jean Todt of his driver. “He was concentrated on going out, and not having any car passing him. And we did not tell him anything…”
The actual decisions didn’t come for some time, because officials were soon preoccupied with something that was rather more urgent.
At the restart Hamilton made his escape up front, leaving others fighting to make up for lost ground. Among them was Robert Kubica.
After pitting the BMW Sauber driver had dutifully waited at the red light, despite the temptation to follow Massa and Fisichella out. However, when it turned green he was overtaken by Toyota’s Jarno Trulli, who was still moving, and thus had momentum on his side.
Losing a place by obeying the rules would not have pleased Kubica, who was well aware that he was much quicker than the Toyota, and had to get back past it as quickly as possible – and the best chance would be the first lap of the restart.
And that was why he was urgently trying to find a way past on the approach to the hairpin. The TV pictures didn’t show the immediate build-up to the contact, but Trulli said he wasn’t aware of the BMW Sauber’s presence on his right.
“I didn’t move, I kept my line,” said Trulli. “The last time I saw Robert he was on the left-hand side, and apparently he turned to the right hand side, so I have no idea what he has done.
“I just know that I kept my line and I haven’t done anything. Honestly, I spent my race with my head thinking about this accident. I know that I am a driver, but I am also a human being, so obviously I was shocked…”
Kubica hit the Toyota’s right rear tyre at full tilt, and that pushed the front of the BMW up. Losing part of the front wing at such a speed didn’t do much for aero stability, and tyre marks showed that the front wheels bounced twice on the tarmac before he headed onto the grass, where an access road again caused the front to rear up again, and air to get under the car.
At this point there was a gap in the wall to allow retired cars to be retrieved, and indeed Scott Speed’s Toro Rosso was parked there. The second part of the wall was thus at a much sharper angle to the track than would be normally be the case on the outside of a fast bend.
Kubica first clipped the very end of the first part of the wall with the right front wheel. Thankfully, this first impact caused the front to drop down, but it also appeared to flick the car a little tighter to the right, meaning he hit the second wall a little earlier and squarer at the point where it was curving round.
We’ll never know what would have happened had that first impact not lowered the front, but without it there was at least some chance that he would have hit the second wall with the bottom of the car rather than the nose, and the result might have been much worse.
Had the chassis itself or large items such as wheels cleared the wall, they might have bounced across to the cars leaving the hairpin on the other side. As it was Red Bull’s Mark Webber reported that he saw a piece of debris flying across.
“When I was exiting the hairpin I saw the impact on the wall and part of the car came over,” he said. “Then I saw it on the big screen. The next few laps round there you’re just making sure that the extraction is going OK, and hope that he’s all right…”
The tumble that the car suffered after the initial impacts looked horrific, but all the while the car was dissipating energy. The fortunate thing was that Kubica did not suffer a further heavy front-end impact, because his feet were extremely vulnerable by that stage.
Right at the end of the incident, the foam headrest came out of the car.
Nevertheless, it had done its job, as had the HANS device and the new generation lightweight composite helmet, all things that had been mandated by the FIA in recent years.
It was a great testament to the incessant push for safety, and especially more stringent crash testing. Indeed, the forces involved in the impact were far greater than those prescribed by the rules of the time. Some 30cms of the chassis, behind the nosebox, was destroyed.
It took a while to clean up the mess, and it can’t have been easy for the drivers to pass the scene for lap after lap.
“I didn’t know who it was,” said Rosberg. “And I just tried to switch it off, so from that point of view. It’s pretty worrying that that’s able to happen, because all he did really was in a corner, go out straight, and then he hits a concrete wall like that. It’s not great.”
After the restart Hamilton again opened up a lead on Heidfeld, and he managed his race perfectly. Further safety car periods after incidents involving Christijan Albers and Vitantonio Liuzzi failed to derail him.
In an ironic twist McLaren guaranteed Hamilton’s win by pulling the same trick that so frustrated the Brit – and created a media furore – in Monaco. He made his second stop with a significant amount of fuel still in the car, as he had nothing to gain by staying out.
“We were covering Heidfeld,” said Dennis. “We had a lot more fuel, we could have gone another six laps, I think. But if the safety car had come out in a situation where we were penalised as we were with Fernando, he would have lost the race.
“The only thing that could lose us the race was the safety car in respect of Heidfeld, so we just covered Heidfeld, which was the logical thing to do. We could have gone much further, and then you think, ‘The only way we can lose this race is a safety car.’
“The problem was that stopping that early, you’re then on the option tyre, so we then had the fuel to optimise the tyre use, but we couldn’t use it because of the safety car. So Lewis really had to look after his tyres, and he really did that well.”
The big factor at play in strategy choice was the need to use both types of tyres at some point in the race. Nobody wanted to get on the supersoft because of graining issues, but they had to find a time to use them.
Hamilton reeled off the laps to score a majestic first win, with the safety cars ensuring that Heidfeld wasn’t far behind at the flag.
Further back Takuma Sato earned an amazing sixth for Super Aguri. Right at the end the Japanese driver had the temerity to pass Alonso, who had dropped back after his pit penalty, and was by now struggling on the supersofts.
“Fernando was super quick,” said Dennis. “But what you needed to be was under that to hold the tyres in good condition. As soon as you pushed, you grained the tyres you got monster understeer.
“That was the problem. He fought well, and it was disappointing at the end that his tyres were completely finished, because he’d pushed so hard, which is why he was a sitting duck.”
It was a great day for Hamilton, and a career landmark. However the real story was Kubica’s accident. By the end of the race word had gone round the paddock that he had got away with a broken leg, the result of an erroneous report to race control from a local circuit doctor.
It was only later that after speaking direct to the hospital that BMW team boss Mario Theissen was able to report the astonishing news that his driver had no serious injuries, although he would be forced to miss the next race at Indianapolis, handing a first start to reserve driver Sebastian Vettel.
It was a truly miraculous escape – and exactly a year later the circuit was to repay Kubica with a maiden grand prix victory.