The day Fernando Alonso nearly got fired by McLaren

Sam Cooper
Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso came very close to be being fired during his first stint at McLarne.

It is the 5th of August, 2007. In an office in the F1 paddock at the Hungaroring stands two very ambitious men.

Over the course of their conversation, words would be shared which would account to mutiny, to treason, and very nearly handed the reigning World Champion the sack.

Fernando Alonso and Ron Dennis’ relationship did not sour overnight.

The Spaniard arrived at McLaren in 2007 as the freshly minted two-time World Champion and with Kimi Raikkonen departing, Alonso thought he would have clear number one status within the team. The only problem with that was a young driver named Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton debuted in F1 in 2007 but his promise had long been tracked by McLaren. A part of their junior academy, the young Briton’s arrival into F1 was a matter of when, not if, but no one could have foreseen the start he would make to the season.

From the off, it was clear Hamilton was not there just to gain experience but was a bona fide title contender, the greatest rookie in decades. For Alonso, that did not sit well.

2007 was an extremely uncomfortable year for Alonso and as he campaigned for greater assistance from the team, the request fell on deaf ears.

Hamilton was their golden goose, their protege and their future. Alonso felt he deserved more respect with his status as a two-time World Champion but both drivers would come away with their reputations dented.

The year turned into a petulant one with underhand tactics by the pair of them in an attempt to get one over their rival, but events went to DEFCON 1 when a set of documents arrived at a Woking-based photocopier.

The Spygate scandal is so outrageous that if it were made into a movie, it would be criticised for being unrealistic.

Ferrari employee Nigel Stepney, frustrated by his lack of progression at the team, sought to hurt the Maranello outfit by handing confidential documents to his good friend, Mike Coughlan, a senior engineer at McLaren.

Wanting to have a copy of the documents, Coughlan asked his wife Trudy to go to a local photocopier and their plan may well have worked had it not been for a particularly switched on employee. Seeing the 780 pages of technical data, the employee contacted Ferrari and the metaphorical fuse was lit.

The resulting events are written in F1 history with McLaren being handed the most severe penalty ever issued to a sporting intuition – but the affair was particularly impactful on the relationship between Alonso and Dennis.

At the time, McLaren were maintaining their innocence – something Ron Dennis claims to this day – but Alonso, frustrated by how the season had transpired, threatened to go nuclear.

Having lost out on pole in Hungary due to a row with his team-mate, Alonso arranged a meeting with Dennis on the morning of the race demanding that he be given number one status within the team, a plea made as he trailed Hamilton by two points.

When Alonso’s request was again denied, he threatened to send what he said were incriminating documents about Spygate to the FIA, a threat Dennis did not take lightly.

Dennis, seething, went and fetched Martin Whitmarsh and asked Alonso to repeat the threat which the Spanaird duly did. After Alonso left, Whitmarsh and Dennis were clear in what needed to happen next – Alonso needed to be fired immediately.

The only person that saved Alonso that day was Max Mosley.

“He said things that he subsequently and fully retracted,” Dennis said years later.

“Within the passage of material, he made a specific reference to e-mails from a McLaren engineer. When he made this statement, I said, ‘Stop’. I went out, brought Mr Whitmarsh in, and Fernando said everything again, in front of his manager.

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“When he had finished, I turned to Martin Whitmarsh, asking what we should do with this particular part of the conversation. Martin said we should find Max.

“After Martin and Fernando left, that is exactly what he did. I recounted the entire conversation to Max. I was upset and angry, but mainly upset. Max calmed me down.

“He said that I should do nothing. I started to calm down. Then, prior to the race, Fernando’s manager came and said that he had lost his temper and completely retracted everything he said. When I phoned Max, Max was understanding and said things to me that are irrelevant here, though I would be more than comfortable sharing them.

“He was completely understanding and said that, on the basis of what I told him, if he felt there was any real validity in what Fernando had said, he would contact me prior to taking any action.

“I, however, on the basis that this was an engineering matter, I asked Martin whether he thought something was amiss in that area. He told me, ‘We have been too thorough in talking to the engineers; he cannot have been telling the truth.’ We subsequently had a reasonable Grand Prix.

“Fernando came to me. He had come in third. He apologised for the outburst and I put it down to the heat of the moment, in which he was angry. That is how I took it.”

Alonso survived by a whisker but was closer than any driver, let alone the reigning World Champion, has ever come to getting sacked the day of a race.

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