Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The New Boys

In last week's Autosport, Mark Hughes asked whether the current crop of F1 championship contenders might just be the strongest that the sport has ever known. Such a suggestion will inevitably raise the hackles of the beard stroking senior citizens who insist that nobody's ever really matched Moss, Fangio, Clark or Stewart but I think there just might be something in it. What, though, of the generation that will one day supplant them? Who will eventually do to Messrs Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, Button, Kubica and Webber what Prost did to Lauda, Senna to Prost and, had Senna lived, what Schumacher might have done to Senna?

Is there anyone among this year's crop of F1 debutants who might one day be World Champion? It's too early to say, though I suspect that the answer to that question is 'no', but, as the season races headlong towards its halfway point, how are Petrov, Hulkenberg, Kobayashi, Di Grassi, Chandhok and Senna getting on?

The man with both the most difficult job and the best equipment of the bunch is Russian Vitaly Petrov. On the one hand, the Renault is, in Robert Kubica's hands has twice proven good enough for a podium, a car quick enough to enable a promising youngster to show what he is made of. On the other hand, he's having to learn his trade very publicly, and in Robert Kubica he has a team mate who's about as fast as anyone on the grid. And thanks to Lewis Hamilton's performances against Alonso in 2007, the F1 world is less inclined to give new drivers the benefit of the doubt if they are not immediately on the pace than might once have been the case.

At no time has Petrov looked like he would get on terms with Kubica, and while Kubica lies seventh in the driver's championship, Petrov has scored points on just one occasion. He has, though, shown flashes of real pace - scoring points in China and looking very quick there when it rained. Unlike almost everyone on the F1 grid, he didn't spend his entire childhood at the wheel of a go-kart and indeed, before he began racing in GP2 in 2006, he hadn't done much outside of the hermetic world of Russia's Formula Lada. As such, he might have more scope to improve than any of the other debutants. And if not, well, rumour has it he (or his father) is paying a lot of Renault's bills, so he might be given the benefit of the doubt.

Over at Williams, GP2 series champion and former A1GP star Nico Hulkenberg has been rather closer to his team mate's pace than Petrov has ever managed to be. On the other hand, in his 18th season in F1, I'm not convinced that Barrichello is quite the opponent that Kubica is, and thus far, the veteran Brazilian racer has generally had the upper hand. To be fair, it is almost certainly harder for a rookie driver to come in and trounce an experienced team mate in a slow, troublesome car, than in a really well set-up machine like the 2007 Mclaren but I still can't help thinking that if Hulkenberg were really the 'new Schumacher' then he would by now be outpacing his team mate.

That's not to say he might not establish himself as a solid GP driver in the mould of a Heidfeld or a Glock or, for that matter, a Barrichello. After a shaky start to the season, he qualified well at Monaco (though damage picked up at the first corner ensured he got no further than the tunnel come race day), was unlucky but quick at Montreal and was on course for a solid points finish in Valencia until his car packed up on him in the closing stages of the race. If, by the end of the year he's regularly matching Barrichello and if, crucially, he can keep his car out of the tyre walls, he will have done enough to show he belongs in F1, if not necessarily, that he's a future star.

A man who did look to have real star quality when he stepped into the Toyota vacated by Timo Glock at the end last year was Kamui Kobayashi. Immensely combative, what was all the more impressive was that in only his second F1 race, he was outpacing his highly rated team mate Jarno Trulli, and finished up with a very solid sixth place in Abu Dhabi.

This year, though, in a rather uncompetitive Sauber, Kobayashi has done little to remind us of those startling debut races. He's been outqualified 5-4 by veteran Pedro De La Rosa, a man who, at 39, is surely with the team more for his vast experience in car development and his testing skills than for his outright pace. Given that, before he was parachuted into Toyota last year, there had been little in his junior career to suggest he was anything more than a competent journeyman, having hardly troubled the front runners in what was not the most competitive GP2 grid the sport has ever known, dark whispers have circulated that the Toyota he drove in Abu Dhabi might not have been 100% kosher. That, anxious not to see another team pull out of F1, the stewards might have been prepared to look the other way. To my knowledge, there has never been any serious evidence to back up these claims, but equally it's hard to deny that Kobayashi has frequently looked a little out of his depth in F1 this year.

Again, though, there have been odd flashes of promise when the cards have fallen his way, or when the Sauber has been dialed into the circuit properly. At Barcelona, which places a premium on aerodynamic efficiency, and where a lack of low speed mechanical grip matters less, it was Kobayashi that got the Sauber into Q3 for the first time all season, and it was Kobayashi, too, who scored the team's first points of the season in Turkey.

His drive of the season, and it just might have saved his drive, came last weekend at Valencia. He qualified badly, but when the safety car came out after Webber's accident, the team rolled the dice and opted to keep him out on the harder tyres while everyone else took the opportunity to make their mandatory stop. He ended up third, and to my surprise (and surely that of most people watching) he stayed there, easily able to keep Jenson Button's Mclaren behind him. When he finally pitted, 5 laps from the end, he fell to 9th, but where everyone else struggled all afternoon to overtake on a circuit hardly conducive to it, Kobayashi, armed with new soft tyres, forced his way past Alonso, and then did for Sebastian Buemi's Toro Rosso at the very last corner to finish 7th. For the first time we saw flashes of that form which so captivated us when he made his debut with Toyota. A mercurial, intermittently brilliant Japanese driver who lacks consistency? A bit of history repeating...

The three drivers making their F1 debuts with the new teams have life much more difficult in one respect, and much easier in another. On the one hand, nobody expects that Karun Chandhok, Bruno Senna and Lucas Di Grassi will be able to achieve anything much in HRTs and Virgins that are the thick end of 5 seconds off the pace. But at the same time, it's hard to see what they can do to make a name for themselves.

Di Grassi is teamed up with Timo Glock, the man who beat him to the GP2 title back in 2007, and once again it has been the German who has generally had the edge, outqualifying his Brazilian team mate 8-1 so far . Di Grassi has often been as much as a second a lap off his team mate's pace. It's not clear, though, whether that's an entirely fair comparison. Virgin Racing is hardly Mclaren or Ferrari. They're not really in a position to field two equally competitive cars, and they've been desperately playing catch-up on the development front ever since they lost most of their winter testing to recurring hydraulic problems. They made life still more difficult for themselves by building a car with too small a fuel tank to go the distance, and developments to address these problems, as well as to improve the performance of the cars, have not always been available at the same time for both drivers. Glock had a long-wheelbase VR01 with its larger fuel tank from Spain onwards, while Di Grassi had to wait until Turkey. I don't know whether the same delay has applied in respect of various aerodynamic updates, but it may be that the gap between the two drivers is not as large as it appears. F1, though, is a harsh world, and as long as Di Grassi is being outpaced by Glock, he's unlikely to get a chance with a more competitive team.

Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna were previously team mates at ISport in GP2 a couple of years back. Then, as now, it's Ayrton's nephew who has generally had the edge over the son of the former Indian Motorsports Federation, though as with Glock and Di Grassi at Virgin, it is hard to know whether this is a reflection on their relative pace, or simply the luck of the draw with a slow and unreliable car. To be honest, I've never been entirely convinced that either really has what it takes to be in F1, although they've both generally kept out of trouble and the HRT is such a dog that the credentials of those driving it is rather a moot point.

On balance, I don't see anyone among the current crop of rookies who is likely to match the drivers at the front of the field at the moment. That, though, is not necessarily a sign that the sort is in trouble. There are always fallow years: did anyone of any real note emerge between 2003 and 2005? But perhaps I'll be wrong. The second half of the season will give us a clearer idea.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Assessing the Backmarkers

Ferrari's Luca Di Montezemelo thinks that they have no business being in Grand Prix racing, remarking in the aftermath of the Canadian Grand Prix that "cars who perform at GP2-level should not be allowed to participate in F1 races because they are supposed to race on Sunday mornings." He was referring, one presumes, to the three new F1 teams, Lotus, Virgin and HRT. Di Montezemelo, though, might have his own reasons for feeling aggrieved, as Fernando Alonso's shot at victory in Montreal foundered when he was slowed by Trulli's Lotus on his in-lap before his second stop and he then lost second when Button took advantage of a moment's hesitation when he came up to lap Karun Chandhok's HRT. And that's before we consider that Di Montezemelo might rather like the idea of running a third Ferrari to make up the numbers, or perhaps even of selling a customer version of the car to another team. Ideas which, I suspect, would fill Force India or Williams with as much horror as any of the new teams. From a less partisan perspective though, how are the new teams faring this year?

This might come as a surprise, and to be somewhat counter to the prevailing wisdom on the matter, but I think they're doing about as well as anyone could expect. They may be four or five seconds off the pace at some circuits, but to assess their performance fairly, it is necessary to consider how they compare, not with Sauber or Toro Rosso or Williams, but with other new F1 teams over the last fifteen or so years. I'm not thinking about Brawn, who took over a large, well-resourced F1 team as a going concern, nor Red Bull, for much the same reasons. Even Super Aguri cannot really be classed as a true start-up team in the sense that Lotus, Virgin and HRT are. They started our running an updated 2002 Arrows chassis which was a long way off the pace (though perhaps not quite so far off as one might have expected a four year old chassis hacked apart to fit a 2.4 litre Honda engine where it had been designed for a 3 litre Cosworth) but later got their hands on discarded 2006 BARs which proved an altogether more competitive proposition, especially when engineering and financial support from Honda is thrown in to the mix.

The last team to enter F1 with a car that they had designed from the ground up, using a completely new team, was Japanese car giant, Toyota, back in 2002. They had a budget which dwarfed that of even the sport's biggest players, and the benefit of an entire year spent pounding around the test tracks of Europe in 2001 (with the truly awful, overweight test-car, the TF01). And yet still they found in their first season that their car was not a great deal faster than Paul Stoddart's desperately underfunded Minardi PS02, or at least the one with Webber at the wheel.

Three years before, in 1999, with a similarly stratospheric budget courtesy of British American Tobacco, BAR arrived with great fanfare and talked, rather foolishly, of winning races in their first season. They had 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve on the payroll, and the Supertec (nee Renault) engines might not have been the equal of Mercedes or Ferrari's units but had won the title a couple of years previously with Williams. And yet they failed to score a single point all season, something even Minardi managed to do. Yes, the team eventually, slowly pulled itself into competitive shape, and they might have done better had they hung on to more of the Tyrrell squad after they bought it to gain an entry, but their experience went to show that getting a completely new F1 team off the ground is not a simple task, no matter how much money you have to do it with.

The fair comparison, though, I would argue, is not between 2009's crop of new teams and the mega-budget efforts of BAR and Toyota, but between Virgin, HRT and Lotus on the one hand, and Forti, Pacific and Simtek on the other. For these, if we disregard Lola's disastrous and abortive attempt at F1 in 1997 were the last three genuinely new teams to enter Formula 1 without the benefit of either a vast corporation or a car manufacturer behind them (pedants might argue that Virgin is a pretty big corporation, but I'm yet to be persuaded that they are really anything more than title-sponsors of Manor Grand Prix, and Lotus has not insubstantial backing, but were on the other hand the last of the three teams to get established and are not directly connected with the car-maker.)

And the comparison is pretty favourable. Some years ago, the FIA introduced the so-called 107% rule to discourage chancers and those whose hearts were not really in it from turning up, running around at the back and making the sport look less than professional. The rule fell by the wayside as the F1 qualifying rules have got steadily more unnecessarily complex in recent years, but it is interesting to note that, in Canada, all bar Karun Chandhok's HRT, which had gearbox maladies, were comfortably inside the 107% rule. Indeed, the fastest of the new boys, Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus, was just 3.1s and 104% or so away from the pole time. Compare and contrast with Forti's first run Canadian Grand Prix, back in 1995, when the quicker of their two cars, that of Roberto Moreno, was some 6.3 seconds off the pace and the wrong side of the (then not yet introduced) 107% rule. A year earlier, the quicker of the two Pacifics, driven by Bertrand Gachot, a man whose career never really recovered after he lost his Jordan drive in 1991 to a spell in prison, was 6.6s away from pole and missed out on the 107% cut-off. The Simtek, which, like this year's Virgin, was the brainchild of Nick Wirth, was a fundamentally better car, but was still much further from the pace than the Lotuses or Glock's Virgin were the other weekend, being 5.5s away from Michael Schumacher's pole time.

In fact, for all Di Montezemelo's bluster, when it comes to single lap pace, at least, the new teams are really not so far away from the pace of the tail-end teams of recent years. To go back to the Minardi's final year in the sport in 2005, and again referring to the qualifying times, Kovalainen's Lotus was quicker, relatively speaking, than either of the two Jordan-Toyotas, Patrick Friesacher's Minardi or, perhaps most surprisingly of all, new boy Christian Klien's Red Bull.

There have been ways in which the new teams haven't exactly shined. Costly pit-stop fumbles, their seeming inability to get on top of the complex hydraulic systems which all modern Grand Prix cars rely on (leaving them with a finishing record which looks like it comes from an earlier age when a 60 or 70% attrition rate was the norm) and perhaps most embarrassing of all, Virgin's miscalculation that left them with a car whose fuel tank was too small to get them to the end of most of the races without slowing to a crawl. But let's remember that 12 months ago, these teams had only just found out that they had a slot on the grid (indeed, Lotus would not be given its place until September). They have had to cope with a ban on in-season testing which, while it might help them in the long run (by negating some of the advantages of the vastly greater budgets the front-running teams have to spend) is really hurting them in the short term, forcing them to do all their development work at race weekends, and learn their lessons in public.

But the new teams are hardly in the same class as some of the embarrassments of yesteryear of whom I remember far less criticism. Even at their greenest, with a car they had spent Friday building in the paddock, HRT were never as awful as Life Racing Engines or Andrea Moda. And unlike those two teams, they have come on in leaps and bounds as the season has progressed so that, whatever the ultimate limitations of Dallara's first F1 car since 1992, they are at least able to lap within a second or so of the Lotuses and snap at the heels of the Virgins. Though they've still got the daftest name I've ever heard given to an F1 car (a doctor friend of mine speculated that they were running on evening primrose oil after seeing their qualifying efforts in Bahrain).

So yes, it's fair to say that none of the new teams have managed to make quite the same impact as Jordan or Sauber did in their first years, though in both cases, they went on to have very trying sophomore seasons, but Lotus at least, look like they're in it for the long haul and are arguably doing a better job given what is at their disposal than a certain Italian team I can think of...

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Fastest Tortoise

It's not been the best couple of weeks for the man in charge of Red Bull's driver development programme, Helmut Marko. First he finds himself at the centre of allegations that the team attempted to nobble Mark Webber and ensure that Sebastian Vettel won the Turkish Grand Prix, and then, two weeks later, the record he held with Dutchman Gijs Van Lennep for driving the fastest ever Le Mans 24 hour race finally fell after 39 years.

The Le Mans 24 hour race was a very different beast in 1971, when Marko and Van Lennep took their Porsche 917 to victory at an average speed of 138.1 mph. Where now there are strict rules about how many mechanics can work on the car when it is in pitlane (4), how long a driver can remain at the wheel over a single stint (no more than 4 hours) and how great a portion of the 24 hours a driver may drive (no more than 14 hours) things were all a lot more informal in the early 1970s, as even a cursory glance at photographs from pitlane, which was thronged not only with mechanics but with journalists and all kinds of hangers-on.

And where the Audi R15 TDIs that finished 1-2-3 last weekend are a model of a very particular kind of measured, teutonic efficiency, their big diesel engines almost silent, breezing effortlessly through the night. By contrast, the Porsche 917, perhaps the platonic ideal of a racing sports prototype, was a fearsome beast which, particularly in its early days, left many of its drivers genuinely terrified. With around 600BHP, it had about as much power as the modern Audi, but that power was delivered through a much more primitive chassis which, just to add to the fear factor, had a magnesium chassis in order to save weight. Not, in short, something you would want to be stuck inside if it were to spear off the road and the go up in flames.

Yet at first glance, it might seem remarkable that Marko and Van Lennep's record lasted as long as it did. The Automobile Club De L'Ouest's ban on the big 5 litre Ferrari and Porsche sportscars played a part (cynics might suggest a transparent attempt to give a helping hand to the French Matra organisation) and there is no doubt that the sportscars of the mid 1970s were not as quick as those of the era which immediately preceded it, in much the same way that the sports prototypes of the mid 1990s couldn't hold a candle to the all-conquering Peugeot 905s and Toyota TS010, but there can be little doubt that the Group C cars of the 1980s were a good deal quicker than the Porsche 917 had ever been. The early Porsche 962s and Jaguar XJR-5s might not have had any more power, but they did have the benefit of another 15 years or so of development and they were considerably faster. How do we know for sure? Well, at least in part because the Kremer brothers ran a modified 917 in the 1981 Le Mans race and, while it certainly wasn't slow, it wasn't quite as quick as the more modern Porsche 936s and would almost certainly have been completely outclassed had the Kremer brothers deigned to run the car against the 956s the following year.

No, the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of anyone aiming at the 1971 record has been that the circuit at La Sarthe has been made steadily slower and slower over the years. It was in 1972 that the end of the lap was slowed down by the introduction of the Ford Chicane, and the bypassing of the fearsomely fast Arnage by the Porsche Curves. Later came the introduction of the Dunlop chicane and just when the 1971 record looked like it was coming under threat at the height of the Group C era, with Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace coming very close in 1988, the 3 mile long Mulsanne straight was broken up by the introduction of two chicanes and average race speeds dropped considerably as a result.

The increased use of safety cars and the mixed grid of gentleman drivers in underpowered LMP2 prototypes and GT2 Porsches and Ferraris had made it still more difficult to break that fastest race record in recent years. In all truth, the Audi and Peugeot diesels have probably had the speed required to top Van Lennep and Marko's 222kph average for some years, but wet races and long safety car periods (often the result of accidents involving prototypes and much slower GTs) have mitigated against the record actually being broken.

Finally, last weekend, the Audi R15 of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Mike Rockenfeller broke that 39 year old record, winning the race at an average speed of 140mph and heading up an Audi 1-2-3, with all three cars creeping under the bar set by Porsche nearly 40 years earlier. The irony was that the fastest Le Mans ever wasn't even won by the fastest car in the race that weekend. The gap between Peugeot and Audi has, if anything, got bigger since last year, with the French cars lapping up to four seconds a lap faster than their German rivals. But anyone familiar with Aesop's fables will know that the steady determination of a tortoise can sometimes beat the flighty but unreliable hare. And so it proved. The Peugeots led the first half of the race but then, one by one, all four of their cars hit problems, and eventually not one of them would finish the race. Whether there was something fundamentally wrong with the 2010-iteration of the 908 or whether they simply pushed the engines too hard after getting held up early on by minor niggles isn't clear, but either way the old cliche is true: to finish first, first you must finish. Peugeot hared off into the distance early on, but Audi, it seems, had produced the fastest tortoise in the world.

So another long-standing record has gone. It took 44 years for Fernando Alonso to snatch the late Bruce Mclaren's record as the youngest Grand Prix winner of all time, though that record would belong to the Spaniard for just a few short years before Sebastian Vettel stole it away from him. Likewise, Emerson Fittipaldi's claim to be the youngest world champion ever lasted for 33 years before Alonso took it from him, only to find his arch-rival Lewis Hamilton took the record away from him just 3 years later. Which begs the question, how long will Audi get to keep this record for? No record lasts forever, it seems. Though I would be surprised if the 251mph recorded by Roger Dorchy in Gerard Welter's WM Peugeot down the old Mulsanne straight will ever be bettered...

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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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