Perhaps it’s a reflection of the current off-track obligations and constant public scrutiny that today’s Formula 1 drivers are faced with, but ask anyone what is the greatest rivalry in Formula 1 today, or for that matter in the last 10 years, and it’s surprisingly hard to find an answer.
This may be largely attributable to the greatest rivalry of them all, the battle between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna through the late 80s and early 90s. Two drivers with sublime talent, one hell bent on convincing the captivated audience (of which there were many) that the other was comparatively ordinary. Were Senna to prove it, and on occasion he did, the result was the kind of motor sports moment that leaves men speechless and boys forever hooked. The rivalry was sublime. The rest of the Formula 1 field could have been driving boxes for all the audience cared, as the Senna and Prost show rolled into town in 1988, the two greatest drivers each with the world’s greatest car, at times wheel to wheel, always on the limit, but never personal.
That was, at least from a public perspective, until the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix, a race largely remembered for the horrendous accident that befell Gerhard Berger at the infamous Tamburello corner, and less so for the failure of Ayrton Senna to honour a pre-race pact between himself and Prost, that the first driver to the first corner would not be challenged for the win by his teammate. An agreement, if ever there was one, that belied the immense confidence between the McLaren double-act. At the start, Prost had got the jump and led the race into the first turn. However Berger’s accident brought out the red flag and a race restart. It’s at this moment that a Formula 1 driver, ever aware that his perceived lightning reflexes are attributable to a finely honed sense of perception, should have seen the opportunity this afforded to Senna. As it was, Prost never clarified the agreement before the restart, and like any guilty man Senna kept his helmet and interpretation firmly to himself. At the restart Prost led, but through the fearsome flat out Tamburello left and Villeneuve right, Senna closed, and under breaking for the haripin, took the lead and began to pull away. As they say in the classics the rest is history…
Flash forward to the incorrectly declared 15th anniversary (rather than 15th running) of the Malaysian Grand Prix, and despite all the efforts over the past four seasons to maintain control, has the working relationship between Sebastien Vettel and Mark Webber been irrepairably damaged? and are we on the verge of the fiercest rivalry in Formula 1 since Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher?
Webber v Vettel
When Mark Webber emerged from the pit lane on lap 44 following his final pit stop of the Malaysian Grand Prix, the race was well and truly on, as it had been for the preceding 43 laps which had begun with Webber behind the Heppenheim kid. Tyre strategy had seen Webber pinch the lead from his teammate in the opening round pit stops, Webber opting for the hard compound tyre, his driving style yet again going through tyres like a fat man through chips. Finding himself behind Webber after the first stops, Vettel voiced his annoyance over the team radio “Mark is too slow. Get him out of the way”. In the third and final round of pit stops the super smooth Vettel pitted and fitted mediums while Webber took another set of the harder compound, displaying an addiction the likes of which may appear to ensure his survival, but may ultimately prove to be his demise. These differing strategies provided an interesting dilemma that has rarely been raised, for not only did Vettel have the warmer tyres when Webber emerged from the pits, he also had the superior compound in which to contest the Red Bull hot-shoe shuffle… and shuffle they did. In fact it seemed only fitting that in the 15th running of the Malaysian Grand Prix, two drivers would finally show what Hermann Tilke was trying to achieve when he designed the Sepang circuit, because the first five corners provided a text book on defensive driving that Webber was known to teach and Vettel known not to read. Into the first series of turns and Webber gave room to Vettel where he didn’t want it, countering each attack and counter-attack from his stable mate. Defensive driving is a true skill in motor racing and more than simply blocking the car behind. Instead, it requires a driver to take alternate lines into corners, continually being aware of the corners to come, in a bid to stall the momentum of the car behind. According to the plan, once the pursuing car has tried to get past his teammate the strategies are seen to have been played out, at which point team orders are enforced and the cars complete the final ten laps in formation finish. Whether through frustration, an overwhelming desire to win or a belief that his strategy deserved more than one lap to be proven superior, Vettel parted ways with the plan and like Rowdy Burns and Cole Trickle, on lap 45, they went at it again!!
Gaining the DRS down the front straight Vettel got on the inside of Webber who moved the German out to the pit wall in a move reminiscent to that adopted by Schumacher on Barrichello at Hungary in 2010. Following the extent of outrage following that move it’s somewhat curious to note the absence of criticism labelled at Webber. Still Vettel was through, but not for long, Webber remaining wide round turn 1 and throwing the car up the inside on the switch-back into turn 2. Around turn 3 and Webber clung to the inside line in anticipation of the approaching right-hand turn 4. Webber had the inside line but Vettel had the better momentum going around the outside of Webber and through to the lead, which he would hold to the flag.
While Vettel may have won the race it was Webber who stole the show, venting his fury both in the car and after the race. It’s somewhat understandable that after nearly two hours spent over-dressed in a super heated bath of fluids previously absent, Webber fought to keep his cool. In the car it had been anything but, Webber quick to let his feelings known to Vettel with the obligatory F$@* You!! gesture, a creative interpretation of Vettel’s victory salute. It didn’t end there though with Webber crossing the line on the side of the circuit furthest from the pit wall, in what appeared to be a symbolic message of his displeasure with the team. Out of the car in parc ferme and Webber wasted no time fitting his cockpit surround back into place, intending not to take part in the podium ceremony. With Webber heading for the showers and out of the media eye it was left to Vettel to celebrate in albeit in a very reserved manner. Arriving into the green room and Vettel was greeted by Adrian Newey who’s questions belied a greater interest in the performance of the RB9 than that of its driver, all the while watched by the elephant standing behind them both who motioned to ask a question but thought better of it. For 20 seconds the viewing audience were left in suspense, wondering if Webber would appear and just how blunt he would be towards his teammate. Through the threshold Webber emerged, walked past Vettel, grabbed a towel and took a seat in the corner of the room at which point he put his hands to the side, raising his eyebrows ans saying “Multi 21 Seb? Yeah Multi 21!!” Red Bull code for car number 2 to remain ahead of car number 1. With team orders now permitted in Formula 1 it’s strange that a code is used at all, it surely being in Red Bull’s interest to inform other teams that they were losing to a team that wasn’t even trying. The cameraman swung the camera to Vettel who was drinking water, an action that prevents a response and assists in giving the drinker time to come up with an excuse. For Vettel that time came just before the drivers stepped out on to the podium, an apology that Webber may well have interpreted as, “I’m sorry Mark I didn’t know of the team order, now just let me take the applause of the crowd, accept the oversized winner’s trophy, and we can discuss this later” Vettel once again showing that his timing off-track was comparatively lacking to that of his timing on it.
If Vettel’s actions were stupid, his apology afterwards was positively strange, the triple world champion claiming “he wasn’t aware of it [the order from the team]” despite the fact that Christian Horner confirmed to Sky Sports that both drivers had been told to maintain position, which was confirmed by Helmut Marko. So unless Vettel’s explanation can be put down to a poor command of the English language, there is little credibility in the suggestion that he didn’t know of the order. Behind closed doors Vettel’s apology may have been worded quite differently but it does little to assist when Vettel appears incapable of conceding that the urge to win overcame his desire to maintain unity in the team, an excuse that would be more than accepted by the purists of the sport.
In the post-race wash up one question that was quick to arise was why Vettel would disobey the orders of his team? After all, Vettel has out-scored Webber in every facet of the sport and has received a great deal of support from within the team and this is with good reason, Vettel having claimed the teams first pole position and win (China 2009) and drivers world championship (2010). What Vettel may quickly come to appreciate is the dangers of a vengeful and hostile Australian teammate, one with everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Webber v Red Bull
For Webber the events of the weekend could well serve as a watershed moment in determining just where he stands in the Red Bull Racing outfit for both the rest of 2013 and in the years to come. Contrary to what is written in the Australian media, few in Formula 1, including Webber himself, would deny that both drivers receive the same equipment, however Webber has been quick to voice his frustration in circumstances where he felt the young German had received preferential treatment. At the 2010 British Grand Prix Webber was left incensed when a new front wing was removed from his car and fitted to Vettel’s after the German’s failed in practice. When Vettel subsequently grabbed pole by a tenth of a second Webber was quick to display his annoyance, slamming a glass of water down on a table at the post-qualifying press-conference and stating “I think the team is happy with the result today”. Webber would have the ultimate revenge that weekend, claiming the win and celebrating with the immortal words “Not bad for a number two driver. Cheers.”
Then as on the weekend, Webber was quick to voice his lack of trust with the management of the Red Bull team who he has seen as being protective of the German ace, Vettel having been on the books for the Austrian energy drink company since he was a teenager. Speaking to Martin Brundle on the podium after the race Webber stated that “In the end Seb made his own decisions today and will have protection as usual and that’s the way it goes.” It is this tension and distrust that simmers underneath that makes Webber’s presence at Red Bull all the more intriguing.
What Webber would not have heard during the race were the multiple instructions going out to Vettel informing him of the team’s displeasure with his continued harassing of Webber. At Britain in 2010 the team had informed Webber that they had given Vettel the new front wing because he was ahead in the drivers championship, an excuse that Webber accepted and would hold against the team in the future. In the fall out from the Malaysian Grand Prix, the team principles have not shied away from the fact that Vettel ignored team orders however there anger does appear qualified, almost frustrated by a decision from Vettel that has forced them to punish the very source of their overwhelming success.
Having moved to Red Bull in 2007 after two unsuccessful season with Williams, largely attributable to the impending departure of BMW (a fact unknown to Webber at the time of signing), Webber was instrumental in giving the team credibility in the Adrian Newey designed cars, claiming the teams first podium at the Nurburgring in 2007. These performances endeared him with the team and Red Bull’s reclusive owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who has remained an ardent Webber supporter despite his presence making a mockery of the best laid plans of those in charge of the Red Bull Junior Team headed by former Formula 1 driver Helmut Marko aka “Sugar Free Red Bull” or just “Sugar Free”. The program seeks to blood young talent by supporting them through the junior ranks. However, since 2001, only one driver from the team has graduated to the Red Bull Racing team and it is here that the plot thickens…
Webber v Marko
Even on paper the relationship between Webber and Marko was never going to be written in the stars. Marko is to Red Bull Racing what Wall Street was during the Reagan administration, an entity with little to no public presence in the team hierarchy but a king maker behind the scenes. Marko’s anonymity was blown amidst the wreckage of the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix where both Webber and Vettel collided while contesting the lead, in an incident that replays clearly revealed was the fault of the German. This failed to deter Marko who revealed his true colours for all to see, lambasting Webber for not conceding the corner to Vettel, in a moment of ill-placed loyalty in the presence of the world’s media. The Helmut cover was blown and the lines were drawn, Webber may have been on equal terms, but all was not as it seemed behind the scenes.
In an interview with Sky Sports following the Malaysian Grand Prix, Webber provided a cryptic insight into the ramifications arising out of Vettel’s insubordination revealing that “It’s very hard for everybody to understand the whole scenario, you know there’s are a lot of people that think they know the whole situation but unfortunately it’s not possible for them to understand everything.”, “It put’s a lot of heat on certain people for sure but inevitably it does”, “the scenario is a bit more challenging for certain people”. Whether Webber is referring to team boss Christian Horner, Mateschitz, Marko or even himself is not certain, but it reveals the complexity of relationships within the Red Bull Racing squad and the tenuous link that has endured through the previous four seasons.
Does Webber have a foot to stand on?
While Webber has every right to feel aggrieved at the actions of Vettel, it is hard not to ignore the events of the 2011 British Grand Prix a race where on that occasion Vettel had led after the final pit stops, only to be challenged by Webber. While one could argue that Webber did not get past Vettel, it was not for lack of trying, the Australian visibly annoyed at the end of the race after having been told by the team to “maintain the gap”. In an interview following the race with the BBC Webber does concede that he tried hard to pass Vettel, suggesting that he may well have been prepared to ignore the very orders that Vettel ignored in Malaysia. Were Sebastian forced to explain his actions, this would be his best argument.
Where To Now?
Following the Malaysian Grand Prix Webber revealed that he would be heading back to Australia during the three-week break before the Chinese Grand Prix to consider his future within Red Bull Racing and the sport. While some were quick to suggest Webber was considering his immediate future, it would be hard to see Webber leaving Red Bull before the season was finished, after all the greatest revenge can only come from a championship victory and Webber has never been one to shy away from a fight. So if he is to stay at Red Bull for the rest of the season he would appear to have two clear options:
1. Accept that in this instance his critique of the team was misplaced, accept the punishment handed down to Vettel and carry on obeying the instructions of the team with the hope of renewing a contract for 2014.
2. Conclude his time is up and instruct his management team to start looking to other teams for possible interest in a drive for 2014 (preferably in the red corner) and declare that all bets are off between himself and Vettel for the rest of the season, under the knowledge he will not be in the purple and blue for 2014.
Growing speculation has linked Webber with a lead role in the return of a works Porsche team at Le Mans in 2014, Webber having driven in sportscar racing for Mercedes-Benz from 1997 to 1999. The strength of these stories appears somewhat limited at present particularly considering they contain no comment from Porsche representatives and provide prominent photos of Webber picking up his GT2RS from a UK dealership. Put simply, if Webber’s enquiries find an available seat at Ferrari for 2014 he would take this above a decision to go to Porsche, after all Webber is disillusioned with Red Bull Racing more so than with the sport and an offer from Porsche will remain available for many years to come.
Fans of the sport around the world will no doubt be hoping that Webber chooses to stay in Formula 1 and my guesses are he will, but not with Red Bull. However, one gets the feeling the answer will only be revealed when the Bulls resume battle again, something that can’t come soon enough.