So far, it’s the intra-team fight of the season: the experienced pro against the bright young thing. And it’s testing Red Bull’s powers of diplomacy
By Adam Cooper
Over a long and successful career Adrian Newey has known and worked with many great drivers, and the Red Bull Racing technical guru certainly has a good eye for talent.
Every designer wants to work with the best of the era, to have someone in the cockpit who can truly benchmark the performance of his car. Ask Newey to rate his current muse, Sebastian Vettel, and he makes his enthusiasm for the German apparent.
“Sebastian’s a tremendously talented driver,” he says. “I’m very impressed with the way he conducts himself in terms of his approach, his professionalism, and his maturity really. If you listen to him in debriefs you’d never guess that he is the age he is.
“He’s quite prepared to adapt his driving style to suit the car, which is always the mark of a great driver. He’s very intelligent in terms of understanding what’s going on around him, over and above simply driving the car, and how he should manage his own race – when he needs to push, how he can use the tyres, all that sort of thing. He’s very mature, an impressive young man.”
So how does the man of the moment compare with some of the legends that Newey has worked with in the past?
“I think that ability to kind of know what’s going on around him, and the fact that he’s very single-minded in his focus, that certainly does remind me of Ayrton, and…” There’s a slight pause before he settles on the one name: “I would say Ayrton is the driver he reminds me of most, actually.”
It’s an astonishing vote of confidence for a guy who turns 22 on July 3, and yet has already established a place in the history books. With Scuderia Toro Rosso at Monza last year Vettel became Formula 1’s youngest pole man and its youngest race winner, and in China and at Silverstone this season he won again, this time for the ‘senior’ Red Bull team.
Yet contrary to the expectations of many, he has not left his team-mate trailing. Vettel may have had the upper hand in qualifying so far – the area where Mark Webber was expected to be strong – but the Aussie has more than held his own on Sunday afternoon. And while Webber has put in near-faultless race performances, Vettel has made some costly errors, reminding us just how early on his learning curve he still is.
The experienced driver and the young lion make for a combination that has traditionally worked well. The difference here is that Vettel has already won races, while in his eighth season – admittedly mostly in midfield cars – Webber is still searching for that maiden victory. At 32, he is as hungry as any new boy.
“It’s healthy for the team because we have two guys who are at very different stages of their careers,” says Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “There’s 11 years between them. Mark is in the second half of his career, while Sebastian’s very much in the early part of his. There’s obviously a lot of excitement surrounding Sebastian, because he is a prodigious talent. But I think Mark has often been underrated, and he’s now got an opportunity in a competitive car and he’s making the most of it.
“Sebastian is the biggest challenge that Mark has had presented to him. The good thing is that they are really bringing the best out of each other. It’s obvious that Sebastian is an emerging talent, but Mark has also risen to the challenge and some of his races this year – particularly in Barcelona, Monaco and Istanbul – have been outstanding. It’s a very strong pairing.”
They’ve certainly been spurring each other to greater heights, and both drivers see it as a healthy rivalry.
“He’s good,” nods Webber. “We’ve seen a few mistakes as well, we’ve seen a few areas where he’s learned off me, and there’s a few where I’ve learned off him. He’s definitely a talent, there’s no question about it. The balance we have in the team now is very good.
“We are both competitive, probably arrogantly competitive to each other, but that’s good, because that’s what makes us strive to get more out of the car and that’s what F1 is about. You want to be tested. It’s not ‘I want to go to a go-kart track and race against 18-year-olds’, I want to be here racing at the highest level.”
“I think Mark’s one of the quickest drivers in F1,” concedes Vettel. “Probably he was a bit unlucky because the teams he went to, initially they were not successful, whereas they had been maybe the years before. So it was not always an easy situation. But he’s very quick. And in fast corners he’s one of the quickest guys in F1.”
Webber might not have had the results to back it up, but that pace has been acknowledged for years, especially over one lap. Like Jarno Trulli, he has long been regarded as a qualifying specialist who is able to wring every last ounce of performance from a car. And that’s what makes Vettel’s 2009 qualifying record – it is eight-nil so far – all the more impressive.
But that snapshot doesn’t tell the full story. In Bahrain Webber was badly held up in Q1 and didn’t get a lap in, and at several races he has been faster in Q2, when everyone is flat out on low fuel. When it counts in Q3, Mark has routinely had the heavier car, although that wasn’t the case at Silverstone. In reality the gap – in terms of positions and lap time – is not as big as it sometimes looks. But a gap there is, and it’s an achievement that Vettel is proud of.
“My target is to beat him first of all,” he says, “and also the rest of the field. So I’m very happy. I think it has been tight always, so far always on the good side for me, so let’s see. It will be tough to keep it up in the future as well, because we are very close to each other.”
Webber is well aware how such things can be perceived from the outside. He downplays his reputation as a one-lap hero, however, even suggesting that he was flattered by his former team-mate David Coulthard: “Quallie seems to be a bit more difficult for me these days. And racing seems to be easier! There’s been a question of fuel in there as well, but generally Sebastian is very strong in qualifying. If you’ve had someone like David alongside, who wasn’t a particular strong qualifier, people still think that you’re an amazing qualifier.
“But it’s part of the job I’ve got to get right, when you’re up against someone who obviously is fast. It’s not that I’m having disastrous qualifying results, there’s just been a few that nipped his way. I don’t give a shit about what the numbers are – I’m looking for points on race weekends. I’ve never been fired up about qualifying – it just so happens it’s been good for me in the past. I’m not sitting here saying I want to be five rows further up, I just want to be a row further up every now and again.”
The encouraging thing for Webber in all this is, despite the headline statistic, the team seems unconcerned.
“In qualifying you have different fuel loads on board, so it doesn’t always say what the reality is,” says Red Bull driver development boss Helmut Marko. “Yes, we are impressed by Vettel, but we shouldn’t forget that Mark had a serious injury over the winter [Webber was knocked off his bicycle and broke a leg]. He’s recovering, but in the beginning it was a handicap for him. Maybe his qualifying when he has a lot of fuel on board isn’t as magic as it was, but I think part of that is the injury, and of course there’s a young guy who doesn’t need any warm-up.”
Newey is also sympathetic: “Mark has been a little bit unlucky or has underperformed compared to what I know he’s capable of in Q3. In Q1 and Q2 he’s had some very strong performances, but in Q3 it hasn’t always happened for him this year. I’m not for one moment being critical, I just think it’s one of those things where sometimes you have that run. Personally I’m not worried about it because it is exactly that, and he’ll come out of it.”
The racing side has been a different story. Of course Vettel had that brilliant wet win in China and he has put in charging performances elsewhere – in Australia he was the only driver to keep the flying Jenson Button in sight. But there have been costly mistakes too. Had he tempered his fighting spirit and conceded his place to Robert Kubica in Melbourne, he would have finished on the podium. Instead the pair collided and Vettel earned a 10-place grid penalty that also ruined his Malaysian weekend, where ultimately he spun off in the rain. In Monaco he hit the Ste Devote tyre wall and, most costly of all, he slid off the road while leading the first lap in Istanbul.
Last year his performances were almost flawless, but there’s a big difference between battling for sixth and seventh place in an underdog car and routinely fighting for wins. The pressure is intense. “He’s young, you know,” says Marko. “Of course it’s the extra pressure – if you are fighting at the front or just for points, it makes a big difference.”
“Sebastian’s still a young guy and you only learn from experience,” adds Horner. “He’s learning all the time, but obviously very publicly because he’s under the spotlight. Mark is providing a stiff benchmark, which is absolutely great.
“You mustn’t forget that the guy is only in his second full year. Everybody makes mistakes but the important thing is to learn from them. He’s a bright lad and he will continue to improve.
“Sebastian got caught out in Istanbul. He knew with the strategy we had adopted that it was all about building the gap to Jenson and making it work, and he was obviously on the ragged edge and, at times, over it. I think he was trying to use everything he’d got available to him and he got caught out by the wind direction being that bit different. But I’m sure it’s not a mistake that we’ll see from him again any time soon.”
Webber meanwhile has answered critics of his race performances with some feisty drives. He fought wheel to wheel with Fernando Alonso in Spain, and crucially dispatched Trulli on the first lap in Turkey after losing out off the line. But what has really caught the eye is his ability to pound out fast laps in race situations. In Spain and again in Istanbul he ran long middle stints that, thanks to his consistent pace with a heavy load, allowed him to gain positions. In Monaco he suddenly popped up in fifth, right behind the Ferraris, after a mid-race charge.
“They’re unspectacular strategies,” says Webber. “But they’re not easy to pull off, because you’ve got to do the job when the car’s heavy and you’ve got to do the business on the out-laps. They’re ‘under the radar’ strategies, but effective.
“No question about it, it’s the best car I’ve ever had and it’s a good position to be in. I needed a good car this year because my motivation was tested over the winter, and if I had a car that was at the back of the grid it probably would have been very hard for me mentally. It’s made my injury a lot easier [to deal with], knowing that I’ve got a car that can make the podium.”
In both Spain and Turkey, diverging strategies allowed Webber to jump ahead of Vettel, and that’s added an extra dimension to their contest. In the first race Vettel was stuck behind Felipe Massa and unable to use his pace, while Webber ran long and passed both of them. In the second, the team kept Vettel on three stops so he could pressure leader Button. But while doing so he was again trapped, and couldn’t use his speed. Instead of having a shot at taking the lead, he lost second place to Webber.
On both occasions Vettel was left a little nonplussed. The strategies were run with the best team performance in mind, but provided clear hints that not everyone in the camp was happy to see the ‘wrong’ RB5 suddenly emerge ahead.
Horner denies that there’s any inherent favouritism towards Vettel. “It’s a great situation for the team,” he says. “Sebastian’s been a Red Bull member for some time now, but Mark’s also a very popular team member, so there’s equal support and treatment for both drivers. There’s no number one status for either of them. Updates have gone on the cars simultaneously, and we’ve done our best to be as fair as possible.”
However, it’s understandable that the likes of Marko have a soft spot for Vettel. He came through the company’s junior ranks and is the poster boy for the programme which the former BRM driver operates.
“Both drivers get the same treatment, the same materials,” insists Marko. “There’s no difference in that. It’s working well, they are acting as a team. Of course everyone goes his individual way, but in the end it’s a team performance.
“I have a different relationship to Sebastian than I have to Mark, just from the language barrier. Of course we are proud that the Red Bull system is working and it’s not only proved by Vettel, but also by [Sebastien] Buemi. To have young guys from your junior team programme [in F1], that makes Red Bull happy.”
Newey is impressed with the way Webber has dealt with the situation: “All credit to Mark, because Sebastian is obviously very good, although still a bit raw. Mark is as determined as ever and is competitive with Sebastian. I don’t think he’s letting it faze him and that is a credit to him, because it would be very easy for him to feel as if he’s been upstaged. But a), that’s not the case, and b), Mark realises it’s not the case.”
Webber himself is aware that there’s a lot of focus on his team-mate, but doesn’t let it worry him: “Not really, because he’s still got to go out and do it. I’ve been around the block long enough to know that. I had quite a lot of attention early on as well. The Germans are like that – they’re full on, they have a thousand TV crews here. It was the same for Nico [Rosberg] – when he set the fastest lap in his first Grand Prix he was the next Schumacher.
“Vettel is a talent, no question. Clearly he’s been with Red Bull for a long time and he’s hot property. I’m just doing my best job for the team and that’s all I can concentrate on.”