Red Bull honcho Christian Horner has stepped forward to preserve the harmonious image the team has tried to maintain ever since hot shoe Sebastian Vettel came on board at the beginning of last season. Surely a rivalry has been brewing between Vettel and team mate Mark Webber since day one, and for the most part it’s appeared that Vettel has had the upper hand.
During the last three races, however, Webber has risen to the occasion, and has out qualified his younger team mate, which hasn’t gone down well with the young German. Many have suggested that it was only a matter of time before Webber and Vettel had a skirmish that ended in tears, thus poking a hole in the notion of driver harmony, and at Istanbul last Sunday it finally happened.
To add insult to injury for Webber, it initially appeared as though the team were siding with Vettel when it came time to allocate blame for the incident in which the two drivers collided on lap 40, and which resulted in Vettel’s retirement. Vettel walked back to the pit wall and received a warm round of cuddles from team bosses Adrian Newey and Christian Horner.
Anyone who watched the collision, however, would be hard pressed to deny that both drivers were at fault. As a reference point in such matters, one only had to watch the duel between McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button to see how it should be done. The McLaren boys raced closely, nearly touching, for a lap or so, but never were in danger of taking each other out. Both later termed the skirmish a fair fight, and a safe one.
As everyone knows, the last person an F1 should collide with is his team mate, but Webber and Vettel seemed to have forgotten the most basic of rules. Christian Horner put it plainly a Red Bull press release, in which he said, “What we expect from our drivers, as team mates, is that they show respect for each other and allow one another enough room on the race track. Unfortunately neither driver did this on Sunday and the net result was an incident between the two.”
Horner had previously revealed that Vettel was able to close up on Webber on lap 40 because the Aussie had switched to a leaner fuel mixture to conserve fuel. “On lap 38,” Horner said, “Mark changed his mixture setting based on his fuel consumption to a slightly leaner mode, which had an average lap time loss of about 0.18 seconds, whilst maintaining the same revs. Sebastian had conserved more fuel than Mark during the race and therefore was able to run in a slightly better mode for an additional couple of laps.”
Horner also excused Vettel for not merely holding station behind Webber, saying, “With intense pressure from Hamilton behind, who was in a McLaren that had a significant straight line speed advantage, it would have been impossible to back Sebastian off. Therefore it was acceptable to us for him to attempt an overtaking manoeuvre.”
However, he also perhaps revealed an inherent weakness in the team’s approach to managing their drivers. While FIA regs specifically prohibit team orders, it’s widely known to be a rule more honored in the breach than the observance. Ferrari, in the Schumi-Brawn era, would allow Schumacher and Barrichello to race until the final fuel stop, after which they were instructed to “consolidate” their positions.
And McLaren, their ostensible opposition to team orders not withstanding, clearly instructed a frustrated Lewis Hamilton to hold station behind Fernando Alonso at Monaco in 2007, obviously fearing that an aggressive overtaking maneuver would be met with an equally aggressive defense, and a calamitous result.
In other words, it’s all well and good to rely on your drivers to behave responsibly, but it’s also incumbent on a team to anticipate situations that can go quickly wrong, and to manage them accordingly. In this case, the situation wasn’t anticipated, and it wasn’t managed. As a result, Red Bull traded a likely one-two finish (43 constructor’s points) for a third place podium and a retirement (15 constructor’s points). That’s a 28 point difference. Constructor’s titles have been won or lost by much slimmer margins.