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German bullish, but Aussie sees red
Is the war between Vettel and Webber finally out in the open?
Before March 24, 2013, popular opinion on Sebastian Vettel was divided into two emotions: unabashed admiration and grudging respect. To those who loved him, he could do no wrong. He was the youngest three-time world champion and a likeable sort of fellow. But even if you didn't care for him or for Red Bull Racing, you couldn't doubt Vettel's skill or talent.
On March 24, 2013, that changed. With less than 15 laps to go and Mark Webber cruising in the lead, the Malaysian Grand Prix was set for a predictable finish. Red Bull Racing had asked its two drivers, who were the two fastest in the race, to turn down their engines, save fuel and maintain status quo. Vettel refused to heed a call asking him to stay behind his teammate. On lap 46, Vettel took the lead from Webber, and all that team principal Christian Horner could say on the radio is, "Come on, Seb, this is silly. "
The German won 25 points but lost face in front of millions of fans. He apologized, later, to make amends but also said he didn't realise he had been "told to hold back. . . I messed up in that situation and took the lead from Mark and can see now he is upset. Apologies to Mark. The result is there and all I can say is that I didn't do it deliberately, " he said after the race. Webber, seething with anger, wasn't convinced. The world wasn't convinced too. In light of his actions, the words rang hollow.
Vettel's image is a carefully cultivated one, that of an ever-smiling, simple hardworking young man who is superstitious and likes to name his cars. More often than not he does manage to find the right words to say at the right time. In Malaysia however, there were no words to dig him or Red Bull out of the public debacle that unfolded.
But really, does Vettel care? You don't get to be a triple world champion at the age of 25 by caring what others think about you or whether they like you. You are concerned about one thing and that's winning. The how and why are not important. He's a gifted racing driver, one of the few greats. Of course he's ruthless. So was Michael Schumacher and frankly, so was Ayrton Senna. And both pushed the car and things to the limit to pursue victory. Though it's another matter to think they would have disobeyed a team order to do so.
Team orders are usually deployed to ensure the best result for the team, and then driver. At Sepang, Red Bull Racing was guaranteed 43 points, irrespective of the order the cars finished in. In this particular instance Webber was leading and they chose to impose Multi 21 - a scenario when car number two would finish in front of car number one. Multi 12 would be the other way round. Vettel's move to attack Webber after there was an agreement about holding positions was the action of a calculating, entitled driver. It said "I'm the number one driver in the team and nobody can tell me what to do".
There's no denying the role that Vettel has played in RBR winning three Constructors' championships but what they have on their hands is a monster very much of their own making. They have a driver who has forgotten that he races for a team, and not for himself. One can't fault Vettel for wanting to win a race. That's what he has been trained to do. A product of the Red Bull driver development programme under the sharp eyes of Dr Helmut Marko, Vettel is every inch the German Formula 1 driver - extremely focussed with a hunger to win and the will to dominate.
Marko has never been too fond of Webber, who has driven for Red Bull since 2007 and won two races in 2012. Earlier this year, the Austrian made comments on Webber's emotional and physical ability, or lack thereof.
Marko said: "It seems to me that Webber has on average two races per year where he is unbeatable, but he can't maintain this form throughout the year. And as soon as his prospects start to look good in the world championship, he has a little trouble with the pressure that this creates. In comparison with Seb's rising form, it seems to me that Mark's form somehow flattens out. Then, if some technical mishap occurs, he falls relatively easily into a downward spiral. "
But if Vettel has Marko's confidence and support, Webber's relationship with Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz is pretty strong too. Mateschitz has long been a supporter of the 36-year-old Webber. The Aussie even brought in the New Year at Mateschitz's private island in Laucala.
The story gets more curious by the fact that the Malaysian GP team orders controversy is only the latest episode of a long-running drama between the two teammates. Both of them share a love of competition but while Vettel is extremely Teutonic in his approach - he does little else except race through the season, lives in a small Swiss village cut off from all distractions - Webber is like an Aussie should be. He rarely loses his cool, is an adventure junkie and shares his life with his fans.
The first tussle between the two was in 2010, when they crashed while Vettel tried to pass Webber for the lead of the Turkish GP. Since then, there have been further incidents as the two men, both intensely determined and tough but in their own ways, have battled for supremacy.
Adding more drama to the proceedings is Webber's long-held belief that though publicly the team doesn't differentiate between the two drivers, the team is more behind Vettel than him. Cue Webber's remarks after winning the British Grand Prix: "Not bad for a number two driver. "
Webber's belief has many takers in the F1 paddock and after Red Bull's admittance that Vettel was not told to cut his engine power to the same level as Webber at the end of the Malaysian Grand Prix, not many will remain undecided. Though Red Bull don't have a clear cut No. 1 and No. 2 policy, the way the team works is that the driver with the highest championship position takes priority in certain situations. And currently, Vettel leads the table with 40 points while Webber is third with 26.
For Red Bull the past two weeks have been all about damage control, wasting breath and time when they should be focussing on the 2013 campaign. They are keen to brush this as a one-off incident, despite the fact that there's little love lost between their drivers. In a recent press release, the team reiterated how well the combination of Vettel-Webber has done. "Mark and Seb have driven together since 2009 and the pairing has achieved 35 wins, 80 podiums, 13 one-two finishes and six Formula 1 world championships, "the team said. "This successful period includes some spells of intense on-track rivalry between the two drivers, which began in Turkey 2010 and has seen both drivers ignoring team orders at different times. The team has managed the situation each time in its own way behind closed doors, " it added.
Team principal Horner's inability to reign in golden boy Vettel has come under public scrutiny. Vettel undermined his authority to overtake Webber. How does Horner ensure there's no repeat? But the biggest and scariest fall out of the entire debacle will be loss of trust, already weak and tenuous, between Webber and Vettel. Malaysia would have strengthened Webber's resolve to watch out for himself. It also means that there will be a doubt in Webber's mind whether or not to trust the information that his teammate inputs. And what about the next time the drivers are called upon to help each other out? Will the team ever take that chance?
At the root of the issue is the fact that racing drivers, by definition, are not team players. They are singular and single-minded men, many of whom embrace the collective ethic only to feed their own egos. For all the coordination and teamwork required by hundreds of clever and skilled technicians to put a car on a track, team means little in Formula 1. And on Sunday in Malaysia, that truth was exposed.
In the dog-eat-dog world of Formula One, the Sebastian Vettel-Mark Webber rivalry may still be one of the tamest. . .
AYRTON SENNA V ALAIN PROST
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DAMON HILL V MICHAEL SCHUMACHER
Hill looked set to win the world title in 1994 in Adelaide when Schumacher took him out, taking the championship with a better points tally. Crashes between them became commonplace in a classic Englishman v German sporting duel.
NIGEL MANSELL V NELSON PIQUET
In 1986 they came together at Williams and instant dislike erupted. They banged wheels many a time, took points off each other regularly and that cost Mansell in the final race when his tyre exploded with the title in sight. Prost won the title.
NIGEL MANSELL V ALAIN PROST
Together at Ferrari in 1990, there were suspicions of favouritism on both sides. Prost once demanded Mansell's engine and was given it. By the end of the season, they had both had enough and Prost retired for a season, coming back to take Mansell's title-winning car at Williams in 1993.
LEWIS HAMILTON V FERNANDO ALONSO
Their season together at McLaren brought huge acrimony. Alonso was furious that, as double world champion, he was not given No. 1 status. He blocked Hamilton at a pit-stop in Hungary, and they both lost out as Kimi Raikkonen took the 2007 title. Alonso quit after one season.
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