Sunday, June 06, 2010

Civil War?

If I'd been asked to pick out the most explosive driver pairing at the beginning of the year, I might have singled out Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. Could Mclaren cope with the combined egos of the two most recent World Champions in the same team? And then there was the question of how Fernando Alonso would settle in alongside Felipe Massa at Ferrari. Massa, after all, had established himself as the de facto number one at Ferrari before his injury in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. But it is hard to imagine that Alonso moved there thinking he would be playing a mere supporting role, or at the Scuderia hired him for that purpose. Come to that, the combination of aging returning 7-time champion Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, a man who has got his hands on a potentially race-winning car for the first time and has everything to prove. But right now, in the aftermath of the Turkish Grand Prix, it is the Red Bull pairing of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel which looks the most troubled because they have been the first pairing to break that cardinal rule of motor racing, "don't collide with your team mate".

Let's not get things out of proportion. Team mates have collided with each other before now, without it resulting in what divorce lawyers might call "irreconcilable differences" and really serious feuds between team mates at the front of the F1 grid are really not as common as is sometimes made out. That's not to say that F1 drivers have always necessarily got on especially well with their team mates but the real swords-at-dawn grudge matches? There was Senna and Prost at Mclaren and, infamously, the tragically brief war between Didier Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve at Ferrari in 1982. But beyond that, I struggle to think of others.

Interestingly, the roots of the feuds between both Senna and Prost and Pironi and Villeneuve lay not in on-track collisions between the drivers, but in what one driver perceived to be the reneging on a deal not to race each other. At the San Marino Grand Prix of 1982, which, like the US Grand Prix some twenty four years later, had a greatly reduced grid because of the withdrawal of the FOCA teams (barring Tyrrell, who in deference to their Italian sponsor, ignored FOCA's boycott of the race), there was little chance of anyone other than Ferrari winning, once the Renaults had gone out. On the final lap, Villeneuve claimed that both drivers had been told to hold station. Pironi claimed otherwise, and dived down the inside of his team mate and into the lead at Tosa to win the race. Afterwards, Villeneuve claimed to have been cheated of a win that was rightly his and was quoted as saying "I'll never speak to Pironi again in my life." Two weeks later, he was killed in an accident in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix.

Seven years later, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost found themselves on the front row for the second round of the 1989 World Championship, again at Imola. After Senna had been eliminated in a first corner accident at the opening round at Jacerapagua, he apparentl approached Prost and suggested a deal by which they didn't race each other into the first corner at Tosa on the opening lap. Prost agreed and, at the start, Senna duly got away from pole and into the lead. On the fourth lap, however, came Gerhard Berger's horrific fiery accident at Tamburello which caused the race to be stopped. At the restart, it was Prost who got away from the line better and led through Tamburello. Senna, however, dived out of his slipstream and snatched a lead he would never lose. Later, he would claim that the original deal had covered only the first start, and not the restart. Prost considered this a fundamentally dishonest claim, and relations between the two were never really the same again, reaching their nadir with their collision at the Casio Chicane while fighting for the title at Suzuka later in the year.

One might point to the rivalry between Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet at Williams in the late eighties, more recently, the intense battle between Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton in their year together at Mclaren in 2007. However, these always struck me as first and foremost a battle between one of those drivers and their team, rather than a grudge-match between the two drivers. Both Alonso and Piquet has assumed that, as double world champions, they had implicit number one status when they moved to Mclaren and Williams respectively, and neither appreciated it when they found that their less fancied team mates were not only being allowed to take the fight to them, but appeared to have the support of at least a faction within their team. While I don't doubt that Piquet and Mansell, in particular, would certainly never be friends - their background and outlook on life was far, far too difficult (and Piquet's childish comments to Brazilian Playboy about Mansell's wife didn't help).

So where might the Webber/Vettel falling-out fit into this picture? I would argue it has more in common with the latter two examples, than with the all-out war between Senna and Prost. Where Senna and Prost were clearly the two stand-out drivers of their era, two men who knew that, in equal machinery, nobody else was much of a threat, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel are merely two of perhaps seven or eight really first-rate drivers in Formula 1 at the moment. Likewise, until the collision last Sunday, they had largely avoided causing each other trouble, and appear to have a fair degree of mutual respect for each other. Whether that can survive their accident at the Otodrom Istanbul remains to be seen, but neither strikes me as the sort of person to pursue a vendetta against a team mate.

No, the far bigger problem is likely to be the relationship between Mark Webber and his team. For in my eyes, and indeed, those of the great majority of observers, the plain truth of the matter is that Sebastian Vettel made a mistake while trying to pass Webber and drove the pair of them off the road. Perhaps he thought, wrongly, that he was already clear of Webber's front wing by the time he began to pull right, back towards the racing line in preparation for braking. Perhaps he simply expected Webber to yield and give him room, in which case I can't help but think he hasn't been paying enough attention to his team mate's racecraft over the last couple of years. Webber gave him just enough room to stay alongside, but was determined not to give any more than he had to, to give Vettel the choice between backing off and following him, or braking on the dirty, dusty inside line. What happened was an understandable error on Vettel's part, a racing accident, but

The trouble is, Red Bull didn't seem to see it that way. Christian Horner's first comment to journalists was that he was disappointed that his drivers didn't give each other room. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that what he was really saying was that he thought Webber should have given Vettel space, let him past, in the interests of ensuring a Red Bull one-two.

And that, inevitably, that can only have fed a creeping belief on Webber's part that Vettel is Red Bull's favoured son. He is, after all, the team's longer term prospect. The man far more likely to be with the team in three, or even five, years time. The man that the team need to keep sweet if they want to be certain he won't run off to Mercedes when Michael Schumacher finally calls time on his career.

On top of that, there are those who would whisper that the young fresh-faced Vettel is a much better 'fit' for Red Bull's marketing activity. Certainly, as someone rather closer in age to Webber than to Vettel myself, I can't help thinking it's been a very long time since I last went out on the town fueled by vodka and red bulls. It's the sort of thing I might have done when I was, like Vettel, in my early 20s. Personally, I can't stand the stuff. On top of that, Vettel is also the Red Bull protege, having been backed by the soft drinks maker since his early teens, where Webber came to the team as a hired mercenary, having previously driven for Williams.

Normally, this wouldn't be obvious. Webber might suspect that Vettel was the unofficial Number 1 in the team, and Dietrich Mateschitz might prefer it if it were Vettel who was racking up the wins and leading the title, but if, as happened at Barcelona and Monaco, Webber was the in-form man, the team could live with it. But the Vettel/Webber collision left the team suddenly exposed, forced to nail their colours to the mast, to side with one driver or the other. Or rather, it didn't force them to do any such thing, but under pressure, in the heat of the moment, the team's allegiances were thrust into the light. And it will be interesting to see whether Christian Horner, Dietrich Mateschitz, Adrian Newey, et al, can repair the damage and ensure that both their drivers still believe they have the full support of the team. The news, last week, that they had re-signed Webber for 2011 suggest that, in spite of everything, they're determined to give it a go.

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