Thoughts on the artifice of contemporary Formula 1, the brittle nature of sporting relationships and the sense of duty that united team-mates in simpler, distant times…
Lewis Hamilton took pole position for the Chinese Grand Prix, followed by Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, but on race day their positions were reversed, with the Ferrari winning conclusively from the Lotus and the Mercedes. Given what Alonso achieved in 2012, at the wheel of a very average car, his rivals will have been unsettled by the pace — the apparent pace, anyway — of Maranello’s latest.
I say ‘apparent’ because afterwards Alonso was at pains to stress that, yes, the car had worked well in Shanghai, but at another circuit, in contrasting weather conditions, it might be a different matter, and the first thing he said was, “Tyre degradation was better than expected…” Meantime Hamilton, while gratified to be on the podium for the second race running, found the very opposite with his Mercedes.
Shanghai — even more than Sepang — was all about tyres, in particular Pirelli’s soft compound, which Lewis described as, “Just a joke — completely the wrong tyre for this circuit…”
In this era of Formula 1, radio conversation between pits and drivers appears to be at an all-time high, and you can understand why, for increasingly those in the cockpit need instructions as to what they should do. ‘Saving tyres’, after all, has become the mantra of the business.
Perhaps the most telling words of the Chinese Grand Prix came from Jenson Button, who first of all enquired about the age of Hamilton’s tyres, and then asked, “Do we want to fight?”
If ever there were a question redundant through the history of F1, it was surely this, yet one understood only too well why Jenson was asking it. What he meant was, ‘Do I go fast — or carry on cruising?’ Later in the race, as different tyre strategies played themselves out, McLaren again got on the blower to Button, essentially telling him to forget about Alonso, Raikkonen and Hamilton: “We’re racing Vettel — let’s close up to him…” You have permission, my boy, to put your foot down.
In my last newsletter on the Motor Sport website, I wrote about tyres in F1, offering the opinion that the whole business of ‘deliberately inefficient tyres’ — a concept many understandably find difficult to grasp in the first place — had now gone too far. As qualifying in Shanghai unfolded, the same thought struck again, and even more forcibly. Even before it began, Ross Brawn reckoned some teams would sit out Q3, and was anyone surprised? The soft Pirelli may have been significantly quicker — a second and a half a lap — than the medium, but so limited was its lifespan that going into the race with it guaranteed a pitstop within a handful of laps, at which point those starting on the medium tyres would take over at the front…
So, what to do? Mercedes, Lotus, Ferrari and Toro Rosso (with an inspired Daniel Ricciardo) opted to go for it, and duly took the first seven places on the grid, but Red Bull (Vettel), McLaren (Button) and Sauber (Hillkenberg) decided otherwise, their drivers tooling around on medium Pirellis, and recording ‘no time’. This was hardly what Bernie Ecclestone had in mind when he originally conceived the knock-out qualifying system, and afterwards Jenson felt honour-bound to apologise to the fans.
As it turned out, the ‘start on mediums’ ploy failed, and for that we should all be grateful, for had it succeeded it would quickly have become the norm, at which point Q3, rather than being a highlight of the weekend, would have degenerated into farce.
Many folk think F1 wonderful the way it is at the moment. They like the ‘lottery’ aspect, the constant ‘overtaking’ engendered by proliferating DRS zones and tyres in differing states of degradation: as long as it looks exciting, it matters not whether that excitement is created of itself or by artifice. It is not ‘motor racing’ as I have always understood it — but then I admit that if there’s a sport on earth that does nothing for me it’s basketball, where the incessant ‘scoring’ causes me swiftly to glaze over.
Funny now to remember that in F1 circles NASCAR used to be ridiculed for tampering with the rules for the sake of ‘the show’.
Look hard enough, and you can find irony in anything. When Pirelli won the contract to become the solus tyre supplier in F1, the company was given clear instructions as to the sort of product ‘the show’ required. In this, as I said in the newsletter, it has undoubtedly succeeded, and if many find the current tyre situation bordering on the absurd, no blame should attach to Pirelli per se. The fault lies with the powers-that-be, but these are the days of CVC and we should remember that Grand Prix racing is now ‘a commodity’ rather than a sport.
As for the irony… well, the idea behind ‘deliberately inefficient’ tyres was that they would spice up the show, but if they have led to more order changes, thanks to the frequency of pitstops, they have also made genuine overtaking more difficult, for so thick and wide is the pile of ‘marbles’ all around the circuit nowadays that the actual ‘racing line’ is narrowed to the point that it takes on the aspect of a dry line on a wet track.
Go off-line into the marbles and see what happens the next time you turn the steering-wheel: not enough. So clumpy is this stuff that, after the race in Shanghai, Ross Brawn reported a build-up of it on the front wing of Hamilton’s Mercedes, which had caused the car to understeer: only when it eventually fell off did Lewis get the balance back again.
I remember something else Ross said, at the end of last season. No fan of DRS, he suggested that it was anyway no longer necessary: high-degradation tyres were in themselves quite enough to provide the frequent order changes required for ‘the show’. This season, though, the significance of DRS has only increased, both in the number of zones, and in the length of those zones, and it seemed to me in China that some overtaking moves were achieved with way too much ease.
Having said that, I’ll admit that no one was more frustrated than I by that long period in F1 when, thanks to the overwhelming significance of aerodynamics, overtaking was rarely seen, and I don’t underestimate the difficulties involved in arriving at a set of regulations that get the balance right, so that passing is possible — but not easy. Think of Mika Hakkinen’s move on Schumacher at the top of the hill at Spa: it happened 13 years ago, and we talk about it still.
Mark Webber, always more prepared than any other driver to be straightforward, even controversial, makes little secret of his feelings about the way F1 is at the moment. In Malaysia he spoke of the frustrations of ‘driving at 80 per cent’, and in China followed up with an observation that aspects of the contemporary sport put him in mind of the WWF (World Wrestling Federation). Some brilliant minds work tirelessly to make racing cars as fast and efficient as they can be — and then on Sunday afternoons they are required to cruise. Can’t be right, can it?
His Shanghai weekend was one Webber will wish to forget — perhaps even more than the one in Sepang. For one thing, he had the fall-out from the fall-out with Vettel to deal with; for another, he ran out of fuel in Q2 (spawning ludicrous accusations against Red Bull from conspiracy theorists), and was then ordered to start last because not enough of a fuel sample could be provided for testing; for another yet, he left from the pits and made good progress until tangling with the supposedly ‘friendly’ Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne. Finally — immediately after stopping for tyres and a new nose — he had to pull off when his right rear wheel departed. I was reminded of something Jochen Rindt said during his wretchedly unlucky season in 1969: “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this — maybe in a previous life I ran over a nun…”
Webber is not one to live in regrets, but in the recent past it must have at least crossed his mind that last summer, when Felipe Massa’s departure from Ferrari was considered a formality, he turned down the offer to partner Alonso in 2013. Fernando, unlike his current teammate, has long been a friend, but Ferrari hardly had an ultracompetitive car at the time, and in the end Mark quite reasonably concluded that that counted for more than anything else. There is, after all, only one Adrian Newey.
That said, like everyone else, Webber will have taken due note of what happened in China. As I write ahead of Bahrain, 16 races remain in 2013, so it’s indeed early days, but Alonso’s 31st Grand Prix victory seemed remarkably straightforward. “There’s no need to push,” said his race engineer Andrea Stella, as he reeled off late laps a second quicker than anyone else. “I’m not pushing…” said Fernando.
“Every year I take a slightly tougher attitude to drivers…”
The 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix (above) did much to foster this thought in the mind of Frank Williams. Carlos Reutemann and Alan Jones had qualified his cars second and third, and in the race they ran 1-2 from start to finish. Afterwards, though, there were ructions, for by the terms of Reutemann’s contract he should finish behind Jones if both Williams were running in good order at the end of a race.
It had been that way the previous year, when Reutemann joined Williams, but he accepted that the team was on a crusade to get Jones to a World Championship it felt he deserved. Oddly, though, even after that had been achieved, the clause remained in Reutemann’s contract. If Williams later acknowledged that had probably been a mistake, one never understood why Carlos accepted it in the first place.
He did, though, which was why his team-mate expected him to move over in the closing laps at Rio, and was incensed when he did not. “I’d like to think,” Alan said, “that when you shake a bloke’s hand in December, and sign contracts, he doesn’t pretend a couple of months later that it didn’t happen. If he didn’t like it, he shouldn’t have signed it…”
Carlos didn’t deny any of it. “Alan had a reason to be upset — I can’t disagree with that — but when I saw the pit signal, telling me to let him through, I thought to myself, ‘Right, if I give way now, I stop right here in the middle of the track and leave immediately for my farm. Finish. Not a racing driver any more’. Alan says he doesn’t trust me now, and he’s right — he shouldn’t…”
Come the end of the season, in Las Vegas, Reutemann was in the running for the World Championship, whereas Jones was not. No one forgets where the hatchet is buried, and after qualifying I asked Alan — tongue in cheek — if he would be helping his team-mate in the race. “Oh, absolutely!” he laughed. “I mean, I consider it my life’s work…” Who, someone asked, did he hope would win the title — Reutemann or Piquet? “Couldn’t care less,” he said. “No time for either of them…”
As a journalist, you knew where you were with Jones and, as a team owner, Williams thought he did, too. Thus he was more than disappointed when Alan — out of the blue — told him at Monza that he’d be retiring at the season’s end. It was very late in the day to begin the search for a top-line replacement.
In December I went to Frank’s home to interview him. “It’s true,” he said, “that Carlos ignored the terms of his contract at Rio and for that we exercised a certain penalty — in effect, he didn’t get paid for that race.
“After that, though, the matter was forgotten, as far as Patrick [Head] and I were concerned — frankly, I just found the whole thing very boring! All I care about is Williams Grand Prix Engineering and the points we earn — don’t give a toss who scores them, frankly. Why should I care which driver wins? They’re only employees, after all…”
Simpler times, but of course this controversy — along with several others — came back to me on the day of the Malaysian Grand Prix, when Sebastian Vettel ignored Red Bull team orders and passed Mark Webber in the late laps.
Perhaps I should say immediately that what I found more dispiriting than Vettel’s actions — which did not wholly surprise me — was the response of some, inside the paddock and out, to what he had done. In interviews, and on websites all over the place, many condemned Sebastian’s behaviour — but plenty suggested he now stood even higher in their estimation, the gist of their remarks that Vettel was a real racing driver, and this was what real racing drivers did. Any means, in other words, justified the end.
The facts of Sepang were straightforward. Webber, having led most of the race, made his final tyre stop after his team-mate and, as he came back out, Vettel was right on him. If Mark had assumed that Sebastian was going to hold station — the fabled ‘Multi 21’ scenario, indicating that car 2 should finish ahead of car 1 — he was to be swiftly disabused: ‘Multi 12’ was what Vettel had in mind, and for several corners the Red Bulls came perilously close to taking each other off.
On the pit wall the body language of Adrian Newey and Christian Homer spoke volumes: apart from mere concerns about tyres, was this to be a repeat of Istanbul in 2010, when the Red Bulls, running at the front, had a coming-together? “This is silly, Seb, come on…” said Horner, but he was wasting his breath.
Coming up to the flag, Vettel did his usual triumphal swerving around number, and if there were none of the usual whooping on the slowing-down lap, as he climbed from the car in parc ferme inevitably there came that remarkably unattractive ‘1’ finger jab for the cameras. On this occasion two fingers — in the direction of his team — might have been more apposite.
All the indications at this stage were that Vettel was treating this as just another of his umpteen Grand Prix victories, and it was only in the following minutes that it began to dawn on him that, ‘Hang on, maybe this isn’t going down too well…’ Prior to going on the podium, a stony-faced Webber quietly said, ‘Multi 21, Seb — Multi 21…’ and neither was Newey smiling as he spoke to Vettel. Elation on the podium was in short supply.
“Apologies to Mark,” Vettel disingenuously said afterwards. “For sure it’s not a victory I’m very proud of, because it should have been Mark’s, but now the result is there and all I can say is that I didn’t do it deliberately…”
Human error, then. I was reminded of Max Mosley’s fatuous remarks about Michael Schumacher’s attempt to take out Jacques Villeneuve in their championship-deciding race at Jerez in 1997: “The World Motor Sport Council has come to the conclusion that, although the act was apparently deliberate, it was instinctive and not premeditated…” It was the build-up to Mosley’s announcement that Schumacher, to all intents and purposes, was going to escape punishment. A momentary silence in the room was punctured by my colleague Alan Henry: “Excuse me — is this April the first?”
Vettel, as we have many a time seen, is adept at coming across as a sort of winsome schoolboy, and there’s no doubt that in the right mood he can be as personable as he is bright. Some schoolboys, though, stamp their feet when they don’t get their own way, and when things don’t go right for Sebastian a somewhat different persona emerges — indeed long before the constant winning began, a Red Bull man confided that never before had he seen toys come flying out of the pram with such vigour.
“I think,” said Martin Brundle at the end of last season, “the happy-go-lucky kid, coming into the paddock with his rucksack on, has disappeared — and the real Seb has stepped forward. When things go wrong, he doesn’t cope with it particularly graciously, does he?”
Perhaps the most telling remark, in the post-race fall-out in Sepang, was from Homer, who said that the team had not considered ordering Vettel not to pass Webber — or indeed later to hand back the lead to him — because there would have been no point: Christian knew, to put it another way, that Sebastian was beyond his control.
Nor should we have been surprised, for thanks to Helmut Marko, the culture at Red Bull has long been that Vettel is the Second Messiah, and everyone is entitled to his opinion. Interviewed in the winter by Red Bulletin, the company’s house magazine, Marko shored up this perception, at the same time denigrating Webber. Since the Malaysian controversy, he has come forth with the excuses traditional in situations of this kind: he had been misquoted, something had been lost in translation, he hadn’t meant to come across as so critical and so on. A career in mainstream politics clearly beckons.
After Sepang Bernie Ecclestone was asked for his feelings on the matter, and his response was predictable: “If I was Sebastian Vettel — having won three World Championships for the team — and somebody came on the radio to me, and starting giving instructions, I’d probably do exactly the same as Kimi Raikkonen did when they gave him some instructions the other day…”
At this point Bernie appeared to have gone off piste, and he temporarily lost me. Presumably he was talking about Abu Dhabi last November, when, during a safety car period, Kimi’s race engineer reminded him to keep his tyres and brakes warm, and received short shrift for his trouble. Quite how this was comparable with Vettel’s conduct in Malaysia was not immediately obvious.
“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser,” Ecclestone went on, trotting out Vince Lombardi’s familiar line. “Sebastian is a winner…” That much we already knew, but perhaps, when asked if disciplinary action should be taken against Vettel, Bernie fleetingly remembered his own days as a team owner. “I don’t think I’d give that any consideration,” he said, “but I think I’d say, ‘Sebastian, in future don’t make me look an idiot…”
No one would have expected any other reaction from Bernie, whose priority is keeping the gentlemen of CVC happy, which in turn means keeping Formula 1 as ‘saleable’ as possible, come the day the private equity bunch decides to move it on. The emphasis is these days on ‘showbiz’ to a degree one would once have believed unthinkable.
As well as that, Ecclestone might be second only to Marko in his devotion to Vettel. Sebastian, as we know, is a clever lad, and not the least of his talents is cultivating pedigree chums. As Brundle puts it, “Vettel’s a smart boy, no doubt about it — on Bernie’s birthday he’ll have a present for him, and all the rest of it. Simple little things for a billionaire, but the clever drivers have always engaged Bernie: Nelson, Niki, Michael, now Seb…”
All those years ago Messrs Jones and Reutemann duly posed for a publicity photograph, smiling and shaking hands, and if it was comically false — the picture made you think of boxers touching gloves — the hope was that it would persuade the world that all was again sweetness and light between them, that they had ‘moved on’.
Something similar might have been expected from Red Bull when the clans reassembled in China, after a three-week break. Webber was plainly simmering in the Sepang paddock, but he kept a lid on it pretty well, saying that he was going back to Australia to do some surfing, and his ‘phone would be off. As for Vettel, he made an appearance at the factory in Milton Keynes, where he was apparently profuse in his apologies. In China it was expected that there would be the usual platitudes about ‘all professionals together’ etc.
In point of fact, it wasn’t like that at all. In a press conference Vettel, coming across as a sort of cherubic hitman, now said he made no apology for winning in Malaysia, that he hadn’t understood the team’s requiring him to stay behind Webber — but that even if he had, he would have ignored it. What was more, he added, were the same situation to arise in the future, he would do exactly the same. Having said in Sepang that the victory ‘should have been Mark’s’, he now said that he hadn’t deserved it — that in effect this had been payback for Webber’s ‘not helping the team’ — ie S Vettel — in the past.
Sebastian used the word ‘honest’ a lot in the conference, but surely the honest path would have been to make clear from the outset, “No, not interested in ‘Multi 21’ or anything like that, thanks — I’m going for it”, because then at least Webber would have known where he stood.
It was all a little Senna-esque. I have never forgotten Ayrton’s response, at a press conference long ago, when he was asked if he had learned from his mistakes: “What mistakes?”
In China any show of bogus contrition from Vettel had clearly gone for good, and one wondered what thoughts had gone through his mind in the interim between the two Grands Prix, for although this apparently amounted to a volte-face, one little doubted that it reflected his true feelings on the matter. Why, though, had Sebastian now chosen to go public with it? To whom had he spoken since Sepang? I’m sure we all have our own ideas.
Perhaps most significant of all was Vettel’s response when asked if any sanction had been imposed on him by the team. “Sanction as in ‘punishment’? Maybe it is a little bit of a dreamland that you all live in, but what do you expect to happen?”
What was it Sam Spiegel said about Hollywood? “You make a star, you make a monster…”
One way and another, there must have been many an interesting conversation in the days after the Malaysian race. Dietrich Mateschitz, I was told by someone who should know, was thoroughly displeased by the events in Sepang, just as he had been by Marko’s derogatory remarks about Webber in Red Bulletin. For all Mateschitz is inevitably aware of Vettel’s value to his team — to his company — he is also perhaps Webber’s greatest supporter in the whole set-up: indeed, in the past I have heard tell of his refusal to countenance Mark’s being replaced in the team.
Now, though, the gloves are off, and Red Bull’s official policy is that there are no more team orders. No surprise, this, for what other course was open? Vettel’s attitude to them is now a matter of record, anyway, and it was unlikely — to say the least — that henceforth Webber would have shown much interest in them, either. The two of them never liked each other from the beginning and any pretence of comradeship may now be dropped. Lewis and Fernando must be rubbing their hands.
Gerhard Berger had some interesting observations to make about the events in Sepang. “To win a couple of Grands Prix,” he said, “is a very tough thing — you need to be talented and committed, and so on. But to win championships you need also to be extremely selfish — it’s you, and nothing else. If you look at Senna or Schumacher, that’s exactly how they were, and Vettel is the same. He doesn’t sit at a table and debate who will win in which situation — no, he sits there, and says, ‘I want to win everything. I want to be with the best team, in the best car — and I want to be the best all the time’.
“Vettel is not doing this because he wants to hurt Webber, to be unfair — he’s doing it because he just wants to win. Think of Senna with Prost at Imola (in 1989): they had a clear agreement with Ron Dennis that whoever won the start would go into the first corner in front. Everything was fine — until Prost won the start, and Senna overtook him at the first corner! Afterwards Prost said, ‘What’s going on? We had an agreement…’ But Senna couldn’t do any different…”
Nonsense, of course. Senna, like Vettel, could have done it differently: he just chose not to.
That day at Imola was the beginning of the end of any sort of rapport between Prost and Senna. “Our McLarens were easily quickest in qualifying,” said Alain, “and there was no point in risking anything stupid on the first lap, so we made this agreement, which Ayrton broke and it had been his idea! That was him, though: he had his own rules, and that was it. In his own mind, he was always right on the track and off. No, I didn’t like a lot of the things he did but how often was he sanctioned? Never…”
While I understand what Berger was getting at, I take issue with his conclusion which is effectively to absolve such as Senna and Schumacher and Vettel of any responsibility for their excesses: “Ayrton could have said, ‘Excuse me, I made a mistake…’ but next time he would do exactly the same, because that was the way his brain was. Now they’re all criticising Vettel but I wouldn’t criticise him, because, to be fair to him, his brain doesn’t work this way. At the end of the day, with guys like this there is no agreement unless it is to their advantage…”
What Berger appears to be saying is that duplicity a characteristic that can swiftly get you locked up in normal life is somehow excusable in certain people, that we shouldn’t reasonably expect such folk to behave honestly and fairly.
Sorry, Gerhard, but I don’t buy it. In the professional sport of this hard-nosed 21st century, I understand that brattish behaviour is apparently to be lauded, ‘sportsmanship’ to be mocked, but it is possible to be both fiercely competitive a real racing driver and honourable, as anyone can attest who ever knew Ronnie Peterson or Gilles Villeneuve. And before someone springs up to say, ‘Ah but they never won the World Championship, did they?’, let me mention Jacques Villeneuve, a man who inherited his father’s values.
In conversation with his 1996 Williams team-mate Damon Hill in Shanghai, JV said this: “You have to think about yourself, to a certain extent, because that’s how you build your career, but you also have to play the game: you have to work for your team. That doesn’t mean helping your team-mate, but you have to respect him, and never do anything that will be detrimental to him in a way that will then be detrimental to your team. It is possible to trust a driver to keep agreements, but it’s down to personality: you need respect and also honour. There’s no point in winning without honour unless it’s the only win you’ll ever have in your career, and it’ll be in the book as your one win, fine. But when you’ve won three championships, and a lot of races, winning one more without honour is pointless.
“Kids grow up today never being told ‘no’ and so they have no concept of what honour is: in racing, even if you do something unacceptable, it’s great, you’re a real winner but ultimately you’re not. Of course today you can see in the forums that most journalists and fans think it’s great that’s how a champion should be. I think the opposite. There have been some ruthless champions in the past but to me that’s not being a big man, not being a hero. At Williams, we knew we could have a fair fight, but at the same time I don’t remember either of us zig-zagging down the straight it was proper, fair, racing. Respectful. You and I, if we drove today with honour, we might get our butts kicked!”
Villeneuve well knows whereof he speaks, and so, for that matter, does Hill, although in one respect Jacques got off more easily than Damon, for while Schumacher’s attempt to take him out of their 1997 title-decider failed, a similar move on Hill, in Adelaide three years earlier, did not.
On a very personal level, too, Villeneuve well knows what a teammate’s duplicity can lead to: thank God the cars are safer now than they were in 1982.
Something that came back to me, through all the debate of the rights and wrongs in Malaysia, was a conversation I had with Ronnie Peterson on race morning at Zandvoort in 1978.
That year, it will be remembered, Peterson had returned to Lotus, as Mario Andretti’s team-mate, and at the time of the announcement there had been some surprise, for Ronnie, after a season in the Tyrrell six-wheeler, was at a low point in his career indeed it was only funding from a personal sponsor that got him back into the team he had left a couple of years earlier.
The situation at Lotus was similar to the one Reutemann found when he joined Williams, in the sense that the team was determined that its established number one driver should win the World Championship he deserved. Andretti, Colin Chapman stressed to Peterson, had dragged Lotus back from the depths and 1978 was to be his year.
Ronnie had no problem with that. It may not have been an ideal situation for a driver of his quality, but he knew that the Lotus team was back on its game, and here was the opportunity to resurrect his reputation. The contract he signed called for him to finish, in normal circumstances, behind Mario, and he accepted it.
The iconic Lotus 79 was, of course, the class of the field in 1978, and Andretti built up a clear lead in the World Championship. Through the first half of the season, indeed, he had a discernible edge over Peterson, but thereafter there was frequently an impression that Ronnie was obediently hanging back.
By the time of Zandvoort, in late August, the word was that Peterson would be leaving Lotus at season’s end, and going to McLaren. “If I were Ronnie,” another driver a lesser light said, “I’d just go for it from now on. He’s leaving Lotus what’s he got to lose?”
On race morning Peterson confirmed to me that he was indeed going to McLaren for 1979 and, yes, he was looking forward to being a number one driver again. Even though he and one Andretti were close friends, I wondered how difficult it had been for him, keeping to the terms of his contract.
“Sometimes it’s been frustrating,” he admitted, “but you have to remember the situation when I came back to Lotus I was very happy to have the chance! As well, the 79 wouldn’t be the car it is without Mario he’s fantastic at sorting a car, and for several races he was definitely quicker than I was. He deserves to be World Champion this year.”
Then I mentioned to Ronnie what the other driver had said that now he was leaving Lotus, and had nothing to lose by ignoring his contract. He was affronted. “Listen,” he said, “I had open eyes when I signed the contract and I also gave my word. If I break it now, who will ever trust me again?”