NASCAR & Auto Racing

Formula One tries to return focus to racing at Japanese Grand Prix

After two tumultuous months, Formula One is at the Japanese Grand Prix this week hoping to return its attention to the race track – someplace it hasn’t been since the beginning of August.

That’s when, heading into the Hungarian Grand Prix, things seemed relatively normal in F1. Lewis Hamilton, the rookie, had a two-point lead over McLaren teammate and two-time defending champion Fernando Alonso in an entertaining duel.

McLaren was seemingly on its way to the team title after having gotten away with a slap on the wrist for a dispute with Ferrari over how technical data about the Italian team’s cars ended up in the possession of McLaren’s chief designer.

Nearly two months later, McLaren is not only out of the title race, out of the team standings and fined $100 million, but team boss Ron Dennis isn’t talking with his champion driver, calling Alonso a recluse.

Ferrari has been named team champion for the 15th time and, oh yes, Hamilton leads Alonso by two points with three races left.

It has been a chaotic time in Formula One.

More than 150 reporters and cameramen were pushing and shoving last week in front of the Paris office of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), the series’ governing body, when the principals arrived for another meeting before the World Motor Sport Council.

Alonso hadn’t spoken to Dennis since the Hungarian Grand Prix. His relations also aren’t great with Hamilton, who had been labeled “Ron’s baby” by former McLaren driver Juan Pablo Montoya. Another former McLaren driver, Kimi Raikkonen, now of Ferrari, also piled on, talking about eavesdropping when he was with McLaren.

None of this would probably have happened if Alonso hadn’t taken extra time in his last pit stop during Saturday qualifying in Hungary. He had finished his wheel change and didn’t move for 30 seconds, including 10 after he was cleared to go by his team. That made Hamilton miss his final opportunity to beat Alonso’s time.

“In Fernando’s mind, there is the firm belief that our policy, whereby each driver receives equal treatment, does not properly reflect his status as world champion,” Dennis said in the meeting according to the transcripts released by FIA.

“He bases this assertion on the fact that his experience and knowledge, and what came to him from his former team (Renault), is such that he should receive an advantage.”

Sunday morning of the race in Hungary, Alonso and Dennis had an argument and the driver threatened to go to FIA with damaging e-mails containing information about the Ferrari case. Dennis immediately called FIA President Max Mosley and the resulting new evidence led to another meeting of the World Motor Sport Council and the fine and loss of points for the McLaren team. Both Hamilton and Alonso were spared penalties because they gave evidence.

Montoya, who drove two seasons for McLaren, told the Associated Press last week that he and his wife “immediately felt sorry for Fernando because Lewis is Ron’s baby. (Dennis) would rather see Lewis win, who is like his own child to Ron. Fernando is nothing to him.”

Last week McLaren dropped the chance to appeal and accepted the $100 million fine, which included the probable winnings of finishing first in the constructors race. McLaren will actually pay out about $30 million to $40 million.

“We believe the time has come to put this huge distraction behind us. McLaren wants to win races and world championships,” Dennis said.

That will be more challenging than usual.

“The relationship between Fernando and myself is extremely cold. That is an understatement,” Dennis told FIA. “We are not on speaking terms, but that does not matter.”

Montoya sympathizes with Alonso.

“They try to make them be equal, but Lewis is genuinely a really fast driver,” Montoya said. “And apart from being really fast, he’s Ron’s favorite. It’s just the truth, and it makes it bad for Fernando.”

Even so, Alonso has made things more interesting by having the upper hand recently on the track against Hamilton.

Hamilton had a 14-point lead after the French GP in July. In five of six races since then Alonso has finished ahead of Hamilton.

With three races left, it could come down to the season-ending Brazilian GP, where Alonso clinched his past two titles while driving for Renault.

Alonso has not been keen to express his feelings in public, not even for the sports authority where his answers were bound to become public.

“Mr. Alonso is not here because he does not want to be here. He does not speak to anyone much,” Dennis said at the meeting last week. “He is a remarkable recluse for a driver. He is not here by choice.”

Regardless of whether Alonso wins the title for McLaren, he could be elsewhere next season despite a multiyear deal with the team reportedly worth $22 million this year.