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Webber Wins, Vettel Sulks, in Hungary

Red Bull’s Mark Webber scored a double victory today, by winning the Hungarian Grand Prix and by assuming the points lead in the Formula 1 World Championship.  Although he won, in part, due to a few lucky breaks, as the Aussie himself said after the race, he hasn’t been gifted an abundance of breaks this season, so he didn’t mind savoring this one.

The Hungarian Grand Prix is often a mixed bag, and today’s was no exception.  Much of the day’s drama was unintentional, however, which is usually the case, as natural overtaking is generally limited by the configuration of the Hungaroring, a track which is informally known as “Monaco without walls.”

It was a Red Bull front row on the starting grid again, with both Red Bull pilots, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber giving a good demonstration of that car’s overall superiority.  The only potential spoiler seemed to be Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who launched from third.  The Spaniard is a cunning racer with the ethics of a pit bull.

Webber started on the dirty side of the track, and although he’d intended to keep Alonso behind him at the start, it was not to be.  The Spaniard easily took over second slot, and for a moment looked as though he might steal the lead.  But Sebastian Vettel, who began from pole, had a decent start for a change, and managed to hang on to first position.  He immediately began to gap the rest of the field, while Alonso, perhaps slower than the Red Bulls by a second a lap, acted as a buffer between Webber and team mate Vettel.  No wonder Webber had been keen to stay ahead of the Spaniard.  It wasn’t long before the two of them were trailing Vettel by nearly 20 seconds.

But what looked like an easy win for Vettel soon evaporated.  On lap 15 the safety car was deployed to allow track marshals to clear a piece of debris from the track (one of the endplates from Tonio Liuzzi’s front wing).  Generally, local yellows are used in such situations, but the Hungaroring is a tight and twisty track with poor visibility in some corners, so perhaps it was a safety concern for the marshals that caused Charlie Whiting to opt for the safety car instead.

Ironically, what might have been a choice favoring prudence produced mayhem in the pits.  Vettel took a late dive for the pit lane, actually jumping over the ribbed curbing that separates the pit entrance from the track, which looked as tough it might have caused damage to the undertray of his car.  I fully expected a penalty to be issued for this move, but as events unfolded, Vettel had other infractions to worry about.

In the pit lane, as most of the field scrambled for their mandatory tire change, several things happened in quick succession.  As Nico Rosberg was leaving his pit box, his right rear wheel fell off and promptly careened into a Williams mechanic.  The mechanic was later taken for medical treatment.

Then, as Robert Kubica was being released from his pit box, apparently his chief mechanic was distracted by some of the commotion in the pit lane, and he released the Pole too early, allowing him to collide with Force India’s Adrian Sutil, who was just pulling into his own pit box.  This halted Sutil’s race, and Kubica was handed a stop-and-go penalty on behalf of the team.  The Pole later called it a day on lap 25.

Eventually, the field seemed to calm down as they formed a single line behind the safety car.  But, while safety cars have been a fixture of American racing for decades, with most most of the mysteries ironed out, their use still seems to cause confusion in Formula 1.  Perhaps this is because the FIA keeps changing the rules.

In any event, Webber and his crew realized that this was their only opportunity to gain the upper hand in the race, and they wisely chose to stay out rather than making their mandatory stop.  Vettel was able to slot in second, ahead of Alonso, who had also pitted, as had most of the leaders.

What happened next is open to interpretation.  As the safety car pulled off the track, it looked as though Vettel used the old accordion technique (i.e. slowing down to a crawl, causing Alonso to slow in response, and then jumping on the throttle while Alonso was still riding the brakes) to put a gap on the Spaniard.  This type of maneuver is outlawed in F1.

But Vettel insisted in the post race interview that he was under the impression that the safety car would be out for an additional lap, and that he was slowing merely to put heat into his brakes.  He also claimed that his radio had malfunctioned for part of that lap, and that he hadn’t heard his crew tell him that the restart was imminent.

It sounds a bit like a fish story, but true or not, Vettel couldn’t have helped but notice that the green lights were being displayed again, and that Webber was charging ahead into the distance.  Although Vettel began building a gap on Alonso, it was short-lived, as the German was called in for a stop-and-go penalty.  It looked as though he might be served with a double penalty, as he when he finally came in he raced down pit lane in what appeared to be a violation of the pit lane speed limit, waving his hands outside the cockpit all the while, apparently as an expression of his anger and dismay at the stewards’ call.

But a second penalty was never served, and it was up to Vettel and the team after that to go into damage control mode.  Vettel slotted into third, ahead of Massa (who was never able to challenge the leading three).  He quickly closed up on Alonso, but was never able to pass him.  Alonso never put a foot wrong, and while the Red Bull was quicker than the Ferrari over all (as Webber was demonstrating ahead) the Ferrari was actually quicker on the main straight, which prevented Vettel from getting a tow into turn one, which would have been the most likely overtaking zone.

As for Webber, he and his crew planned out the rest of the race to perfection.  They stayed out on option tires long enough for Webber to build a healthy gap over Alonso, and he was thus able to make his own pit stop, and return to the track in the lead, with a comfortable gap into the bargain.  Had Vettel not served his penalty, and lost second spot, this never would have happened.

So while it was a good day for Red Bull on the whole, as they took the victory, regained the lead in the championship, and had two podium positions, it was yet another example of how they failed to convert a huge qualifying advantage into the desired race result.  By rights, they should have stormed to a one-two victory, with Vettel and Webber finishing in that order.  But because of Vettel’s botched restart, they lost a position.

Whether the team is to blame, or Vettel, is hard to say.  Certainly it appeared to be Vettel’s fault, but in the post-race interview he seemed dumbfounded by the decision.  What is certain, is that the team should have been feeding him updates on the status of the safety car, not to mention the particulars of the restart rules.  This seems not to have happened.

Red Bull is still a relatively young team, enjoying their current success largely due to the brilliance of technical director Adrian Newey.  Newey has decades of success behind him, having contributed to several world titles at Williams and McLaren.  Newey is no newbie.  But the team management at Red Bull (i.e. Chris Horner) often seems a bit green.

The team have been unable to prevent several costly scuffles between team mates Webber and Vettel that have either resulted in lost positions at the start, or, in at least one case, a collision in the closing laps of a race.  These things simply shouldn’t be happening.  It’s all well and good to tell your drivers to fight with their gloves off, but their efforts should always be in the service of the team as a whole.

Vettel, for one, doesn’t seem to understand this.  When asked this race weekend for his take on the current team orders controversy provoked by Ferrari, he responded that he was against the concept, and further, he didn’t know of any other sport in which the term “orders” came into play.  Ahem.  If you’re discussing team sports, obviously the opposite is true.  Perhaps this is at the heart of Red Bull’s driver squabbles.  Each driver seems to be using his own playbook.

Contrast this approach from Ferrari’s, where Fiat/Ferrari chairman Luca do Montezemolo regularly lets his troops know that everyone on the team, including the marquee name drivers, works for Ferrari, and not vice versa.  Should anyone have a difficult time swallowing this dictum, they’re quickly invited to seek employment elsewhere.

As for the remainder of the race, it proceeded calmly, with cars bunching up at midfield.  The only further drama occurred during the closing laps when former team mates Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello battled for the 10th and final points paying slot.  Schumi kept Rubinho at bay for several laps, but the Brazilian had much fresher tires, and a quicker car in general, and was finally able to get a tow down the main straight and slip by the German.

But not without difficulty.  Schumacher, seeing the Barrichello approach in his mirrors, made a classic squeeze move, nearly pushing Barichello into concrete pit wall.  The Brazilian still managed to squeak by, and he was immediately on the radio to his crew, crying hysterially that Schumacher’s move was “horrible,” and demanding that the German be “black flagged,” i.e. disqualified.

The move was investigated by stewards after the race and Schumacher was handed a 10-position grid penalty to be served at the next race on the calendar, at Spa-Francorchamps.  Ironically, Spa was the track at which Schumi caused a sensation in his first F1 appearance in 1991, when he qualified seventh in a dog of a car (a Jordan), serving as a stand-in replacement for one of the team’s regular drivers.

More on the Schumi-Rubinho incident to follow in a separate blog post, as it seems to be sparking plenty of chatter, and it’s worth taking a look at the history of these two drivers, vis a vis current controversies, and also at drivers’ etiquette in general.

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