Race Weekend Central

Formula 1 Friday: The Champ Starts A War

team (n) – 1) a group of people organized to work together 2) a group of players forming one of the sides in a sporting contest

mate (n) – a friend

We mentioned in last week’s column about how we’d try and look in more depth this week at the various problems facing McLaren currently (and consistently over the past few years). However, when the weeks are split by races, there’s always the chance that some unsuspecting event will sneak up on us and send the best laid plans awry…….and so it has come about with this very column.

For those of you who have perhaps been on holiday, possibly nodded off under a rock, or have been stranded Tom Hanks style, on a desert island somewhere rather warm and pleasant like Fiji, a quick recap on what happened at the Malaysian Grand Prix –

Sebastian Vettel and teammate Mark Webber have never had a smooth relationship and Vettel snatching the win in Malaysia won’t help 2013 go any better.

With the ever threatening Ferrari of Alonso crashing with a broken front wing on the second lap of the race, and the initially looming presence of the two Mercedes beginning to fade somewhat, the Red Bull pairing of Mark Webber and reigning champion Sebastian Vettel looked all set for a relatively comfortable 1-2 finish. In that order. Mark Webber timed the switch from intermediate tires to slicks perfectly, and led the race after the fourth round of pit-stops from his more illustrious team-mate. With the fast degrading Pirelli tires remaining a cause for concern for the team (with the greater aerodynamic downforce generated by the Red Bull, they tend to eat their tires quicker) and with Webber having driven “to plan”, i.e. within himself in order to conserve the tires throughout the race, Red Bull asked their drivers to hold station, take no risks and bring the cars home. All good, sensible stuff. Unless of course your name is Sebastian Vettel. The headstrong German didn’t think this was a good course of action and, despite countless warnings from his team on his radio, decided to take the fight to Webber. After a series of ‘near-miss’ moves that risked both cars crashing out of the race and being told “Seb, this is silly” by team boss, Christian Horner, Vettel aggressively overtook his teammate, securing his 27th victory in the process, and leaving behind him a VERY angry Aussie who (rightfully) believed that the victory should have been his.

Despite countless apologies from the humble sounding Vettel following the race, amidst some rather dubious claims that he’d misunderstood the directive from the team, his rather Jekyll & Hyde nature was once again demonstrated to the wider world. Seb can come across as a happy-go-lucky joker, fond of Monty Python sketches and British humor, outside of the car. However, stick a crash helmet on him and he genuinely becomes a different creature with an unquenchable desire to win.

Surely a positive quality in a racing driver right?

Well no. Motor racing, despite the obvious inclination to see it as an individualistic endeavor is very much a team sport. Although the Driver’s Championship may be the one that externally seems laced with glamour, to the teams at the track and the hundreds of employees who slave away, often through the night to win, it’s the Constructor’s Championship that they chase after. Putting all of that at risk in order to sate a rampant ego is a road well travelled (and often with tragic consequences – see Pironi/Villeneuve 1982 for details) and something that never, ever sits well within a team environment. Whilst discussing it with a friend I drew comparison with a footballer (sorry, soccer player!?) refusing to be substituted. The parameters had been drawn for good reason – race until the final pit stop, then whoever is ahead at that point, lead the two cars home. It may not sit completely comfortably with the fans from an outright purist perspective, but importantly it is understood by the fans. The same sort of situation had developed with the third and fourth placed Mercedes, but in contrast Rosberg, though clearly frustrated, accepted the team decision, understood the reasoning and stayed put. In terms of enhancing reputations it was very much Rosberg 1-0 Vettel.

So it seems we have, if not all-out war within the Red Bull camp, at best there’s an incredibly uncomfortable impasse. Webber stated after the race that he’d use the three week gap now to catch some waves in Australia as “medicine” – whether that medicine would be enough though, he seemed to rather doubt. Harsh words indeed. The feisty Aussie has long felt undervalued by the Red Bull team in comparison to the golden boy Vettel. Whether or not this will change and have a pacifying effect we wait to see with interest. Let’s quickly look at the history between the two –

Japan 2007 – In horrendous conditions, Lewis Hamilton leads behind the safety car from Mark Webber, who at this stage is still searching for his first GP victory. After backing off slightly to prepare for his attack when the safety car comes in, Webber is rear-ended by an overenthusiastic 20 year old driving a Toro Rosso called……Sebastian Vettel. After the race, Webber describes him as “a kid with not enough experience to do a good job”.

Turkey 2010 – Similar to last weekend’s Malaysian race, we have Webber leading from a hard charging Vettel. Whilst attempting to overtake, Vettel hits Webber, ending his own race and any chance of Webber taking a victory. Various hand gestures are employed by the two drivers that would suggest a seriously undermined level of respect.

Silverstone 2010 – Webber is left infuriated as Vettel, following an off in practice resulting in damage to the new-spec aerodynamics, is given Webber’s front wing. Webber goes on to win the race and pithily comments on the radio “not bad for a number two….”

Brazil 2012 – During the crucial title decider, Webber fights Vettel for position a little too hard for either the team, or Vettel’s liking. Following the race, Webber is given a severe dressing down, and the suspicion remains that he’d wanted Fernando Alonso to take the title rather than his own team mate.

Make sure you keep watching this one – it’s going to run and run. As team boss Christian Horner was forced to admit “there has never been a great deal of trust between the two of them” – any trust there was has been fully eroded now. I wonder what will happen next time they’re running 1-2…….

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