Loyalty, Ambition and War: the F1 team trinity

A week on, the echoes of the Malaysian Grand Prix 2013 still resonate in the world of motorsport, carried around by the ‘Multi 21’ affair. It has been some time (but not too long) since team radios played a pivotal part in the outcome of a race, and raised a turmoil in the media in the following hours and days; and – as proved back in the day by Ferrari – the profile of the team in question raises the gravity of team orders to a new high.

Webber made it clear how he felt about his team-mate and inside politics after the Malaysian GP 2013Photo source: Sporting Life

Webber made it clear how he felt about his team-mate and inside politics after the Malaysian GP 2013
Photo source: Sporting Life

When Mark Webber finally appeared in the driver’s room prior to the podium ceremony, it was clear he was angry, not even willing to look at his team-mate. He had seen enough of him that afternoon, watching him race by to claim the Australian’s rightful lead, despite the ‘multi 21’ – ‘hold position’ order on the team radio. After the ceremony it was revealed that Webber had been so furious he needed persuasion to step out on the podium at all.

“Sebastian apologised in the press conference… For us now the issue is settled.”

It was a very specific podium as well: the scarce smiles were fake and forced, the drivers looked uncomfortable on their steps… and was there some worry in Vettel’s eyes?

“It looks like you wanted it badly enough. There will be some explaining to do,” he had heard on the radio prior to claiming the chequered flag. In the end, however, it was his team principal who had to do most of the explaining.

The affair caused a storm in the media; you could imagine the conference rooms where Christian Horner attempted to diplomatically answer countless journalists’ questions: What happened? What are you going to do next?; trying to protect the identity of the champion team he was responsible for. He talked to Sebastian – the hat-trick title winner, the most consistent high-point scorer on the contemporary grid, the ongoing record breaker; and then he talked to him again. To what effect?

“He’s apologised to the team and to every single member of staff for his actions, because he recognises the team is vitally important and being part of the team is a crucial aspect to being able to challenge for those championships,” Horner told Sky Sports News.

An apology should suffice, believes Red Bull motorsport advisor, Helmut Marko: “Sebastian apologised in the press conference and I think that was the first correct step to make… then there was a handshake between the two drivers. For us now the issue is settled.”

Vettel's attempt to overtake Webber for first in the Turkish GP ended in his retirement from the race - and cost Red Bull a one-two podium finishPhoto: Francois Flamand/Action Images

Vettel’s attempt to overtake Webber for first in the Turkish GP 2010 ended in his retirement from the race – and cost Red Bull a one-two podium finish
Photo: Francois Flamand/Action Images

After the Turkish GP Webber hinted on Red Bull's favourism towards Vettel and suggested journalists "dug deeper" into the circumstances of the accident. In fact, Webber's slower pace that blamed to be the cause of the crash was due to a fuel-preserving strategy that would have potentialy given Vettel a one-lap advantagePhoto source: Planet F1

After the Turkish GP Webber hinted on Red Bull’s favourism towards Vettel and suggested journalists “dug deeper” into the circumstances of the accident. In fact, Webber’s slower pace that was meant to be the cause of the crash was due to a fuel-preserving strategy that would have potentially given Vettel a one-lap advantage
Photo source: Planet F1

Indeed, the most likely consequence of Vettel’s actions is for Red Bull to leave the matter behind them and move on. Because, as the team admitted in a statement on their website, it wasn’t the first time such thing has happened – and the team survived. Never before, however, has it become this apparent how much Red Bull relies on Vettel – even if it’s already been known as common knowledge.

Other team principals had their say on the matter (as they would – after all, we’re talking about a scandal concerning their biggest rival) and agreed that no driver should put their interest ahead of the team.

“The driver is putting himself presumably in breach of contract and the team is bigger than any driver, isn’t it? At any team,” McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh told AUTOSPORT.

It makes absolute sense: the history has proved that a driver can only by so good, dependent on the car they are driving, and that if there’s no love in the team, there’s no future for the team. Look at the toxic relationship between Alonso and Hamilton in McLaren in 2007 which cost the team the title, as Whitmarsh conceded himself. Or take Ayrton Senna: a brilliant driver whose striving for success made him give up McLaren and move to a state-of-the-art Williams – the year all electronic driver aids were banned and the electronically-reliant car fell below average on the 1994 grid.

The rivalry between the McLaren team-mates robber both Alonso and Hamilton off the 2007 titlePhoto source: The Telegraph

The rivalry between the McLaren team-mates robbed both Alonso and Hamilton off the 2007 title, extending the team’s constructors  title draught
Photo source: The Telegraph

And yet, what was Red Bull before Vettel joined the team? Where would they be now without this young, ferocious talent, with thirst for winning and no fear of breaking the rules? It’s safe to say that they would not have claimed the total of six titles in the least three years. Just how much independence and power Vettel has enjoyed in the team became strikingly clear in Horner’s explanation of why he didn’t order Sebastian to give back the position to his team-mate.

“Do you honestly think that if we had told him ‘slow down and give the place back’, he would have given it back?… He had had the communication. He chose to ignore it.”

“In the end Seb made his own decisions today and will have protection as usual, and that’s the way it goes.”

Red Bull might fear Vettel’s growing ego, but not as much as they would fear his departure – he is the most desired item on the market, and even on today’s champion-studded grid there’s hardly anyone who could give Red Bull the same results. So, as much as they can pretend to be cross with their golden-boy, in the end they have to bow their heads to the fact that once more it was him who scored the team the whole 25 points – by fair play or otherwise.

And with all this talk about what Sebastian did and how Sebastian will make amends, the main casualty of the whole story seems to bee forgotten – as ever. Mark Webber, who spent in Red Bull two more seasons than Vettel – always on a rolling contract, always in the shadow of his bigger team-mates – is getting as much publicity as Red Bull finds fit; and it’s clear which of their two drivers they find fitter. It was a shocking move to publish in the Red Bulletin the criticism of Marko suggesting that “Mark’s form somehow flattens out” and that “he falls relatively easily into a downward spiral.”

And although Mark had had to stand up for himself many a time in the past, it was still somewhat shocking – in place of a “glad to be standing here” podium speech – to hear him say what everyone really knew but would not dare to bring up:

“In the end Seb made his own decisions today and will have protection as usual, and that’s the way it goes.”

The relationship between Senna and Prost was quickly deteriorating creating a toxic environment in the McLaren team in 1990 and 1991Photo source: Autosport Portugal

The relationship between Senna and Prost was quickly deteriorating creating a toxic environment in the McLaren team in 1989
Photo source: Autosport Portugal

There have been rumours that Webber has finally had enough and that he wants out. The Red Bull situation does, indeed, resemble that of the McLaren garage in late 1980s: then it was Alain Prost claiming that working with Senna became unbearable, and when an opportunity arose he made his way to Ferrari – to fight Ayrton as an opponent, and not as a team-mate. In that situation, however, it was Prost who had the protection of the FIA’s boss Jean-Marie Balestre… and he had already claimed two champion titles by that time anyway, whilst Webber’s tally still equals zero.

If Mark was to make the move, Red Bull would be losing a strong point-scorer who significantly contributed to the team’s superiority in the Constructors’ Championship. If he stays – how can the team function with no trust between its drivers and with the threat hanging up in the air of their mutual competitiveness turning bloody? The upcoming weeks will sure be a difficult test for the team – whether they can call themselves, in fact, a ‘team’.

Sebastian has made his apologies and promises of better behaviour; and maybe Mark will give up the grudge this one last time, in line with the Easter spirit. Maybe in two weeks time it will be him standing on the top of the Chinese podium, being hugged by Horner or Newey, and shaking Vettel’s hand receiving congratulations, with peace and harmony re-established in the winning team’s garage. Who knows.

One thing is known for sure: Red Bull would do well acting a bit more patronising in these next two weeks. Like Vettel now, Ayrton Senna was fearless and success-driven; so much so that, against all odds, he took part in the San Marino Grand Prix – cursed with an accident of his friend Rubens Barrichello, followed by a fatality in the course of the weekend – to fight, again, for victory. In that race he lost more than just a place on the podium.

So as for Vettel, this young bull’s wings might do with a bit of trimming before someone really does get hurt.

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One response to “Loyalty, Ambition and War: the F1 team trinity

  1. Pingback: Keep your enemies closer | They call it F1ver·

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