What Sebastian Vettel needs…
Mike Conway, currently recuperating from major surgery to his legs and spine, will know precisely what AJ Foyt meant when he described the consequences of two cars touching at racing speed on the banking at Indianapolis: “School’s out, baby.”
As the simmering tension behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing manifested itself before our very eyes at Turn 12 of Istanbul Park on Sunday, I was minded of another quote – one that is (pluggety plug) going to feature in my next book. Graham Hill, in a 1967 interview, said:
I have a little mental card index for every driver. No driver responds in exactly the same way, so I have this little mental index which I look up whenever I come up on another driver so that I know what to expect from him. If you know all this, obviously you’re not going to put yourself in a position which might be very embarrassing.
This might sound terribly self-righteous, and I don’t intend it to be, but very often a lot of near misses can be anticipated and this comes through experience with the people you’re driving against.
If Sebastian Vettel was in possession of such a card index he’d have known not to swerve into the path of Mark Webber in a crass attempt to intimidate him out of the way (if that’s what it was). Steering a Formula 1 car is like flying a kite; at 200mph the merest dip of the hand on the steering wheel can induce a sharp change of direction. Close analysis of the onboard footage shows that this is what Vettel did.
Webber? He moves over for no one. That nugget would come at the top of his entry in the card index. He is hard but fair, and tough as old boots.
On the face of it, a racing incident – an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Behind it we can trace the fault lines of an increasingly fractious relationship – not so much between the drivers as between the racing team and Red Bull itself.
Commentators have been quick to accuse the team of outright bias towards Vettel. Let’s look at that in a level-headed way, shall we? Both Red Bull and McLaren approached the Turkish Grand Prix with a risky fuel strategy; McLaren were running light so as to push, and their quarry was doing the same in the hope that they could build a gap and then turn down the wick later.
The consequence of these opposed tactics was that Red Bull entered the middle segment of the race without the gap they desired. Worse, by lap 38, when Webber was instructed to change to a leaner fuel map, Vettel was carrying around a kilo more fuel – whether this is because he had embarked with more, or had burned less through running in the slipstream of Hamilton and then Webber, is open to question. Either way, Vettel had three more laps at full chat before he too would have to ‘lean off’.
We know what happened next on-track. Off it, the picture is murkier. Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s motorsport consultant, gave an interview to the energy drink’s TV channel on Monday in which he pointed the finger at Webber’s engineer, Ciaron Pilbeam, for failing to communicate the fact that Vettel was approaching rapidly in the laps before the collision.
On Sunday evening several journalists were briefed to the effect that Christian Horner had instructed Pilbeam to tell Webber to move over and let Vettel past, but that Pilbeam had been unable to bring himself to do so. This conversational lull may be what Marko was alluding to.
In an interview with the official Formula 1 website, Marko also emitted the following curious piece of doublethink:
The fact is that if Sebastian hadn’t passed [Webber] he would have been overtaken by Hamilton.
The manoeuvre was certainly born of desperation. And the irony here is that Hamilton was also fuel-critical. Still, it begs the question: why was protecting Vettel’s position the priority? Why should Webber sacrifice his lead?
You could make a strong argument here for saying that Vettel is the favoured driver at a most senior level – not so much within the race team, but back in Salzburg, whence the money flows. Marko has the ear of Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz and he was the most unequivocal in blaming Webber – when the majority of experts saw it quite differently. Horner initially sat on the fence, but during the course of Sunday evening gravitated towards the Marko view; interestingly, he appears to have dragged Marko back to a position of neutrality in their most recent pronouncements.
Webber’s key failings are that he is too old and not cool enough for Red Bull’s core demographic, and above all that he is neither German nor a product of the Red Bull young driver scheme (overseen by – ah yes – Helmut Marko).
Not that being any of the above would have yielded Webber any benefit as he hauled himself up the ladder all those years ago. Marko’s attention-deficit approach to superintending the careers of young drivers has wrecked every one but Vettel’s thus far; perhaps his management style would be better suited to running a small boating lake. You know: “Come in number six, your time is up…”