The Vettel way

Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel (left) and his team-mate Mark Webberrace side by side at Sepang. Against Team orders, Vettel ultimately passed Webber and won the Malaysian Grand Prix.-Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel (left) and his team-mate Mark Webberrace side by side at Sepang. Against Team orders, Vettel ultimately passed Webber and won the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Sebastian Vettel has set his sights firmly on a fourth world title, which would place him alongside the legendary Alain Prost. He would take every opportunity — even half chances — to get to where he actually wants to. The method he adopts or how his victories come are irrelevant here, writes G. Raghunath.

In the Malaysian Grand Prix recently, two front-running teams faced identical situations but reacted to them very differently. Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, quicker than his team-mate and race leader Mark Webber, sought right of way but was turned down by his team. The German, however, rebuffed team orders to hold position and passed Webber with nearly 13 laps to go in the race. (Vettel eventually registered his 27 {+t} {+h} Grand Prix victory.) A few laps later, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg (running fourth) wanted to pass his labouring team-mate Lewis Hamilton (running third), but team principal Ross Brawn refused and asked him to hold station. Rosberg took the orders stoically and drove his car to the finish behind Hamilton.

The incidents, viewed conjointly, present Red Bull in poor light, a team seemingly in the throes of anarchy with its protagonist pulling in a different direction, and sing paeans to Mercedes and its purportedly regimented crew. But seen independently, the events underpin an over-riding fact that team orders aren’t always right. In the case of Mercedes, Rosberg, given his coruscating pace, could well have challenged Webber for the second place had he been allowed to pass Hamilton. As for Red Bull, it was clear after the final pit stops that Vettel, running on medium, was at least a second quicker than Webber on hard Pirellis.

In the days following the Sepang incident, the focus has been on Vettel tendering his apology to a peeved team-mate and the Red Bull crew in Milton Keynes and his attempts to win back friends — little else.

How did Vettel, a darling of Formula One buffs, hurtle down the popularity chart in a matter of just 43 laps over a weekend? Is it because he strongly believed that the fastest car had to be in front? Perhaps his push for victory, undermining the authority of the team head, had to do with the seven ‘bonus’ points he eventually gained with the win that brought rancour to nearly the entire F1 fraternity. Or maybe it was a manifestation of his ruthless streak — a characteristic normally associated with hardnosed F1 drivers such as Jochen Rindt, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, who drove by the principle ‘if there’s a victory to be had, then they must have it at any cost.’

Rindt, a German-born driver who represented Austria, mesmerised the crowds in the late 1960s with his derring-do. The only driver to be posthumously awarded the world title, Rindt’s drive in the Monaco Grand Prix of 1970 — the year he died in a crash during practice for the Italian Grand Prix — is legendary. Not the one to nurse his engine even if circumstances demanded it, he pushed his Lotus-Ford to its limits, forced race leader Jack Brabham off the racing line and into the hay barriers on the last corner and sped to victory.

Over a decade and a half later, Senna would knock team-mate Alain Prost off the track in the decisive Japanese Grand Prix, cut a chicane and roll on to the gravel skirt area. He would then take assistance from a marshal to get back on to the track and drive to victory, which would later be annulled. In 1997, Schumacher would attempt, albeit without success, to run Jacques Villeneuve off the track at Jerez in the deciding race of the season.

Like Rindt, Senna and Schumacher were endowed with superior ability and nerve that characterised a champion. Winning mattered to them the most and the end justified the means. As Senna said, “When you are fitted in a racing car and you race to win, second or third place is not enough.”

At a media conference before the inaugural Indian Grand Prix in 2011, when Vettel was asked if he had anything at stake having already sewed up the world title two races ago, he remarked sternly, “We race to win. Period.” Terse words these, but speak volumes of the German’s steel within.

Even in his early days in F1, Vettel was an aggressive competitor, his driving style bordering, at times, on unruliness. He was censured for stretching his belligerence a little too far, running into his team-mate (Webber) more than once and thereby blowing away a potential 1-2 finish for Red Bull. However, his eye for detail, unbending resolve and an implacable approach to competition compelled comparisons with the legendary Schumacher. A quality that still endears him to the Red Bull bosses apart from the fact that he is an ideal brand ambassador for the makers of Red Bull, a beverage that is quite popular among the youth in Europe and many other places.

Red Bull continues to back Vettel even though he was the cause of its embarrassment in Malaysia. And the team’s principal sponsor, Infiniti (a luxury car manufacturer from Japan), has nominated him as its Director of Performance. That’s the power of Vettel the racer, for you.

Though Vettel has expressed regret for the ‘Sepang pass’, experts maintain that the driver’s explanation that he did not see the order-code ‘Multi-21’ — which commanded the drivers maintain their positions — is only a smokescreen.

The man who has set his sights firmly on a fourth world title — which would see him past legends such as Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna (all triple world champions) and place him alongside another F1 superstar, Alain Prost — would take every opportunity — even half chances — to get to where he actually wants to. The method he adopts or how his victories come are irrelevant here. You might call him selfish, an egotist, even a cheat. But it’s a liberty — something like a licence that an artist uses to impart effect to his work — that the youngest triple world champion would take as if by right to seek his goal. Champions are like that. As Gerhard Berger said of Vettel, “To win a World Championship three or four times, you have to be selfish.”

* * * FEUDING TEAM-MATES

1976-77: James Hunt versus Jochen Mass (McLaren-Ford)

The 1977 Canadian Grand Prix exacerbated the tense relationship between the two drivers. It was an eventful race where 13 of the 25 starters failed to finish. In the 62 {+n} {+d} lap, Hunt pushed to get ahead of Mass, but the latter swerved into the Brit’s path leading to a collision. Hunt crashed into the guardrail and had to retire while Mass soldiered on to finish third.

A miffed Hunt, it was reported, stayed on the side of the track and waited for Mass to come on another of his laps and menacingly brandished his fist at him. He then punched a marshal on way to his home.

1981-82: Gilles Villeneuve versus Didier Pironi (Ferrari)

Villeneuve and Pironi were not the best of friends. Things came to a head when the team decided to issue orders, asking the race leader Villeneuve and Pironi, running second, to hold their positions. Pironi refused to comply and darted past Villeneuve to take the chequered flag.

Feeling humiliated, Villeneuve vowed never to speak to his team-mate again. Two weeks later, he died in a crash during practice at the Huesden-Zolder Circuit (Belgian Grand Prix).

1988-89: Ayrton Senna versus Alain Prost (McLaren)

The first signs of tension between the two came to light during the Portuguese Grand Prix when Senna and Prost kept attacking each other through the first lap. The Brazilian very nearly ran his team-mate onto the pit wall. Senna apologised to the Frenchman for the incident, but old wounds were reopened the following year at the San Marino Grand Prix when the Brazilian nipped ahead of Prost heading into the first corner after the race was restarted following Gerhard Berger’s horrific crash. Prost accused Senna of breaking a pact the two drivers had between them — that they wouldn’t attack each other to the first corner of a race — but the latter argued that it was a restart.

The final straw, though, was at the Japanese Grand Prix where the two drivers fighting for the World Championship collided after Prost attempted to thwart Senna’s effort to pass him. While the crash ruled Prost out of the race, Senna went on to take the chequered flag, only to be disqualified later for cutting a chicane.

Prost quit McLaren to join Ferrari in 1990.

1990: Alain Prost versus Nigel Mansell (Ferrari)

Prost faced fresh troubles at Ferrari as his new team-mate Mansell accused the team of showing preferential treatment to the Frenchman. Prost too didn’t trust Mansell and he even suspected the British driver of ruining his chances at the Portuguese Grand Prix. A mighty wheel-spin at the start pushed Mansell towards Prost who barely escaped hitting the pit wall. Prost finished third, behind Mansell and Senna.

Mansell retired from Formula One at the end of the season. Though he returned to racing in 1991 with Williams, he quit the sport again, after winning the World Championship in 1992, when he learnt of the fact that Prost would be joining his team in 1993.

2007: Fernando Alonso versus Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)

Alonso’s move from Renault to McLaren was a matter of great celebration for the Woking-based team. But it would take not many races for the relationship between the Spaniard and his fellow-driver Lewis Hamilton and McLaren to melt down. At the Hungarian Grand Prix, the two stubborn drivers refused to give each other way at different stages of qualifying, leading to a widespread disenchantment within the team. And towards the end, Alonso was not even talking to Hamilton while his relationship with the team principal, Ron Dennis, became frosty.

Alonso went back to Renault in 2008 after McLaren agreed to terminate his contract two years earlier than it was due to run out.