The instruction was as dismissive as it was blunt. It was a steamy Sunday afternoon at Sepang for the Malaysian Grand Prix in March, and Sebastian Vettel was fed up at being behind teammate Mark Webber in a race he’d started from pole and expected to win.
“Get him out of the way,” ordered Vettel to the pit wall over his team radio, and we all know what happened next. Webber led after the final pit stops, at which time Red Bull’s drivers were asked not to race one another. One heeded the order, and one didn’t. Commenting about the one who didn’t, the one who did said: “Seb made his own decision, and he will be protected as usual.” And the latest chapter in in the long-running story of animosity between the two “teammates” was born.
Fast-forward five months as the cars lined up for last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix. Vettel second on the grid, Webber third. Vettel made a brilliant start, passed pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton on lap one and strolled to his fifth victory of the season. Webber? Another wretched getaway, another poor first lap, another race fighting with cars he shouldn’t have been anywhere near and another recovery job to a solid if unspectacular points finish.
After Belgium, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said the team needed to look into Webber’s inexcusable start issues, which had the conspiracy theorists shaking their heads. And reaching for the facts.
Fact #1: Sebastian Vettel is a brilliant racing driver. At 26, he has three world titles, is close to a lock for a fourth, and surpassing the seemingly-untouchable career records of his compatriot, mentor and friend Michael Schumacher is in play.
Fact #2: Mark Webber is a Grand Prix-winning driver who, but for an untimely crash in teeming rain in Korea in 2010, may well be a world champion to sit alongside fellow Australians Jack Brabham and Alan Jones.
Fact #3: Mark Webber is a poor starter. Always has been, right back to his Formula Ford days. His stint at Jaguar in 2003-04 was punctuated by brilliant one-lap qualifying efforts where he hauled the green machine much further up the grid than it had any right to be before falling backwards in races. Dropping spots when the lights go out has been a frustratingly common occurrence across his 200-plus race career.
Fact #4: Along with Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel is the only driver not to lose a position on the opening lap of a Grand Prix this season.
Fact #5: There have been nine Grands Prix this season since Malaysia and the ‘Multi 21’ fiasco, and for those of you keeping score at home, Webber has had issues in six of them. Vettel? Five fewer than that.
The race after the Malaysia blow-up. After being quicker than his teammate in the opening two practice sessions, Webber is 0.4 seconds faster than Vettel in the first part of qualifying before having to stop the car in Q2 with a fuel pressure problem. He starts last, and retires when a rear wheel isn’t correctly affixed to his car in a pit stop.
Webber makes an atrocious start from seventh on the grid at a circuit where (a) he’s typically been strong and (b) has the longest run of the season into Turn 1 (730 metres). Was 14th at the first corner and recovered to fifth. Vettel finished fourth from third on grid.
Webber started fourth, next to Vettel, made an appalling start, and fell to 15th on lap one. His recovery drive back to second was aided when Vettel had his one and only DNF of the season while leading. This was, remember, the same weekend Webber announced he was leaving Red Bull at season’s end, telling a clearly miffed Horner at the last minute. “I didn’t have a clue what happened off the line,” Webber said. “We have to have a look at why these pop up from time to time …”
Vettel is second on the grid, Webber third. Webber makes a good start and stays out longer in the first stint, leading the race at a circuit where he took his maiden victory four years previously. He pits from the lead on lap nine only for a rear wheel – again – to not be correctly attached. Rejoins last and, aided by a safety car allowing him to unlap himself, fights back up to seventh. Vettel wins despite suffering from some intermittent KERS problems late in the race. Some cynics suggest Webber would take an intermittent KERS rather than one that doesn’t work at all …
Webber is within two-tenths of his teammate in FP1 and FP2 before electronic issues in qualifying hamper his KERS and gearbox, seeing him miss Q3 altogether. “It’s stupid, it’s embarrassing and it’s a brutal circuit to be out of position. We should be challenging for the front row and we’re bloody tenth,” was his comment afterwards. Damage done, he recovers to finish fourth in the race, with Vettel third. With his teammate four rows ahead of him on the grid, Webber, interestingly, makes a good start.
As detailed above.
Which brings us back to Christian Horner at Spa last weekend.
“We approach each race as they come, we try to get the best out of the car, we keep pushing in all areas, but there are things we need to improve,” he said.
“We particularly need to address the start issue with Mark, and have to get on top of that. It has cost us too many points so far.”
Talk, as the saying goes, is cheap. Let’s see if a team competent enough to win the last three drivers’ and constructors’ titles can “address” those recurring problems before the end of the year or before its other driver wins the world title, whatever happens first.