The problem with modern racing drivers is that racing is all they’ve ever known: all that time spent honing their natural, instinctive feel for how to make a car go as quickly as possible, from an early age, leaves them undeveloped in other crucial areas. Chief amongst these is their capacity to form effective relationships with other people.
Of course, even if you’re paranoid it doesn’t necessarily follow that they aren’t out to get you – but for an F1 driver, trapped in their own self-centred bubble from the moment they first grasped a steering wheel, paranoia can be extraordinarily corrosive. The merest whiff of partiality is all it takes; and then, like any message board conspiracy theorist or tinfoil hat merchant, once they have reached their conclusion they shape and interpret all incoming data to suit it, and discard anything to the contrary. It’s all downhill from there.
This mentality is what precipitated Fernando Alonso’s meltdown at McLaren in 2007. Odd, isn’t it, that someone with the inner steel to go wheel-to-wheel with their rivals at 200mph and beyond could so easily be provoked into a destructive sequence of hissy fits? And yet that’s what happened: by the end it didn’t matter whether McLaren really were favouring Lewis over Fernando or not; it was enough that he believed they were (and let’s not forget that Lewis had a tantrum of his own that year, in Monaco, because he felt the team had favoured Fernando over him – sometimes being a team principal must be like herding cats).
As documented in my previous post, a whiff of not-invented-in-Salzburg syndrome is in the air at Red Bull after the Turkish Grand Prix. But what of McLaren? Never have I seen Lewis Hamilton look so unmoved after a race win.
Having inherited the lead after the Red Bulls eliminated one another at Turn 12, Hamilton was challenged by his team-mate at exactly the same spot nine laps later. It was a brief battle, which Hamilton resolved in his favour by edging Button wide into Turn 1 at the beginning of the following lap. And then, as if in receipt of an urgent injunction from the team to play nicely, they held station for the rest of the race.
There were the beginnings of a muttered conversation between Hamilton and Jenson Button in the drivers’ pre-podium ‘green room’, but they broke it off when they realised they were within earshot of a live microphone and camera. McLaren’s race feed on their excellent new website contains no radio conversation pertaining to the events of lap 49.
Questioned later, Hamilton explained that he had been instructed to save fuel and given a target lap time, which he thought was too slow, and which enabled Button to catch him up. He also alluded to a “miscommunication” with the team (given his recent penchant for slagging them off on the air, they can be forgiven for leaning on the mute button for that one). Fleet Street drilled down into this during the official presser. He responded:
For me it was just… the communication wasn’t clear for me. When they suggested ‘save this much fuel’ it was not easy to save that much fuel unless I went particularly slowly. I tried to reach that target and in doing so, Jenson was all of a sudden… he just appeared from nowhere and he was up my tail and then there was nothing I could do.
Button, for his part, said:
For about four or five laps beforehand they were saying you have to save fuel. They didn’t put a lap time on it. They just said you have got to save a bit of fuel. That was quite early in the race I was told to do that, probably about lap 30.
It’s possible that Button, having stayed in touch with the leading trio in the first half of the race without seriously pushing them, had burned less fuel and therefore had more ‘in his pocket’. Does the team’s failure to set him a target lap time, as they did with Hamilton, equate to favouritism? As conspiracy theories go, this is very thin gruel.
Still, as I said, it doesn’t matter whether there is any favouritism or not. What matters is the individual’s belief that it exists. At the end of the FIA press conference there was an illuminating exchange prompted by F1’s pre-eminent banana-eater, Michael Schmidt:
Q: Lewis, what happened at the pit stop because Sebastian was able to jump you. Was there any problem?
LH: I don’t know, I have to…
MW: We put fuel in, I think, at the pit stop.
LH: It seemed to be quite a…
MW: My guys weren’t quick and I thought ‘Lewis’s guys are also having a bit of a break.’
In the toxic mental landscape of the paranoid, even a sticky rear wheelnut can be taken as evidence. Mark Webber clearly has a monkey on his back. Is there one astride Lewis Hamilton’s shoulders too?