The 2017 season will mark 10 years since Fernando Alonso’s infamous first stint at McLaren. Again, Alonso will be paired up at the Woking-based team against a hotly-tipped GP2 champion bearing the ‘number 2’ on his car. However, the sort of fireworks seen between Alonso and Lewis Hamilton should not occur between the Spaniard and Stoffel Vandoorne in the McLaren 2017 intra-team battle.
Why the McLaren 2017 Intra-team Battle Likely Won’t be a 2007 Repeat
2007 to 2017
Alonso entered McLaren in 2007 as the only World Champion on the grid, following Michael Schumacher’s first retirement. He had the coveted ‘number 1’ on his car, whilst his team mate – reigning GP2 series champion Hamilton was expected to not challenge Alonso at all in his first year at the top level. Very few, if anybody could anticipate what would happen over the following 17 races as McLaren would endure ‘Spygate’, team order debacles and Alonso ending his contract very early.
The racing between the two drivers on the track would often be just as fierce, with Hamilton on top in wheel-to-wheel combat more often than not. At the end of the year, both drivers ended up on 109 points, with Hamilton being ahead of Alonso through having more second places. They were pipped to the championship by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen by a solitary point.
And so fast-forward ten years to what will be March in 2017 and Alonso will again face off against a GP2 champion. However, Alonso should have the edge over his much younger team mate this time around – not because Vandoorne is a bad driver, no far from it, but because Alonso is a much more refined and complete driver than he was ten years ago.
Alonso is often credited more for his performances with Ferrari than for his drives when he won the World Championship twice with Renault. He rates his seasons with the Scuderia, as well as the season just gone which saw him drag results from the car whenever the opportunity came, as better than when he raced with Renault. He must also surely be mentally more prepared for the challenge of Vandoorne than the challenge he faced in 2007.
2007 was a dire year by Alonso’s standards. It was his equivalent to Hamilton’s 2011, or Sebastian Vettel’s 2016, where he just often seemed flustered, and would make uncharacteristic mistakes. That should not downplay Hamilton’s hugely impressive first year though, as he stepped in at the highest level and managed to catch Alonso off guard.
Regulation changes were not drastic for 2007, but the one change which was noticeable was a lack of a tyre war. It was to be Alonso’s first season using Bridgestone tyres and he struggled to adapt to them.
Vandoorne may not be quite as ready as Hamilton was in 2007 as well. Whilst it is true that Vandoorne has more experience in GP2 machinery than Hamilton had prior to his F1 debut, and that he already has one start (in place of Alonso, coincidentally) to his name, the Belgian is entering the series in an era where unlimited testing is no longer allowed.
That is not to say that Vandoorne may not be as impressive as Hamilton was back then, or may potentially be as good as Hamilton has become because that is not guaranteed to be the case either. Vandoorne is the most successful GP2 driver of all time, arguably the greatest GP2 driver of all time and has been tipped for very good things. Whilst his year in Japan has been largely pointless, he has at least kept racing, unlike his predecessor Kevin Magnussen.
The 24-year old (who will celebrate his 25th birthday on the morning of the Australian Grand Prix) is entering the series a few years older than Hamilton, and will arguably be more mentally prepared for the task at hand. A lack of a title battle which is expected from McLaren in 2017 will take any pressure away from Vandoorne as well, although he has never seemed to fall into that trap at any point in his career to date.
The battle at McLaren in 2017 will be very interesting regardless. Vandoorne and Alonso are both fantastic drivers, but will both be at very different points in their careers. Should Vandoorne fail to beat Alonso at the first (and possibly only) attempt, then that should not mean that the Belgian should be written off. If Alonso does produce a season similar to 2016, not many drivers in the world would be able to topple him. Either way, it will be one of many fascinating stories which will develop throughout 2017, whilst McLaren continue their journey back through to the front of the field.