Month: September 2013

Why the boos for Vettel won’t stop

Singapore, last Sunday. The t-shirt left no doubt as to which Red Bull driver was in its wearer’s sights. ‘What part of Multi 21 don’t you understand?’ it read, and there’s a fair chance that said wearer was directing a chorus of boos at the winner of the 13th race of this year’s Formula One world championship a few hours later.

The thing is, it needn’t be this way. As a driver, Sebastian Vettel is breathtakingly good. Singapore was perhaps the best example of that, the first time all season we’ve seen him allowed completely off the chain as Red Bull tried to build a gap of a pit stop over the rest of the field after the safety car bunched up the pack just before half-distance. The result was an advantage of two seconds a lap, lap after lap, which sent jaws dropping the length of the pit lane. Those in the know suspected Vettel had, in this tyre-management age of ‘racing’ that is F1, been keeping his ultimate pace in reserve in recent races; few realised he had that much in store as he made the rest of the sport’s best drivers look silly.

For that demonstration of how to drive an F1 car better than anyone on the planet, the German was booed yet again on the podium as he received yet another winners’ trophy. And it wasn’t for that extended index finger, tiresome as it can become sometimes. For the third race (and victory) in a row, his post-race interview was drowned out by howls of discontent. No, those boos weren’t anything to do with one driver racking up win after methodical win on the way to another world title. And perhaps those boos shouldn’t be directed at Vettel at all.

Let’s be honest: the boos are as much about the way Red Bull Racing handled Malaysia and ‘Multi 21’ – and numerous incidents before that – while insisting that there’s no number one driver in its team and its drivers are treated equally. Since Turkey 2010 if we’re being honest, when the car that had the temerity of allowing itself to be driven into by its sister machine was somehow deemed by some as being equally at fault in a two-car accident. People aren’t stupid and they know the score.

The booing has everything to do with the position Vettel has been allowed to create for himself within the team or that the team has allowed him to create, one or the other. And the complete lack of ramifications for his actions in Malaysia. Would Mark Webber (or any other teammate for that matter) have even kept his job had the roles been reversed at Sepang? Very unlikely.

Is the booing a bad look for Formula One? Undoubtedly. Is it justified? Perhaps. Is it up to people on the inside of the sport to tell the fans how to behave, saying they don’t agree with it? Absolutely not. The fans pay very good money to be at races, and that investment means they can support their drivers/teams and be as passionate/emotional as they like. People can’t be told to turn that off, not should they. Making a big deal out of it will only encourage the fans to continue.

So far we’ve had Belgium, where Vettel was booed lustily on the drivers’ parade before he won that race as well as the top step of the podium, Monza – Ferrari territory, no further explanation needed – and Singapore, where a large percentage of the crowd were visiting Australians. It doesn’t make the booing right, but does explain a few things.

We’ll know more whether the booing at the last three Grands Prix has been a coincidence or will become a trend after the next two races – Korea, where few people turn up or know the sport anywhere well enough to be emotionally invested, and Japan, where the Suzuka crowds are as nice a bunch as could be imagined and know a brilliant driver when they see one even if he’s done the odd questionable thing from a sportsmanship point of view over the years (see Senna, Ayrton). Given Vettel’s imposing record at those two circuits in recent times, there’s a fair chance he’ll be stepping onto the top step of the podium twice more in the next three weekends. Or, if you believe Mercedes, perhaps at all six races for the rest of the year.

People aren’t booing Vettel for winning, far from it. He could come 14th and still get an earful at the moment. No, blame the lack of consequences for his actions over the years – particularly for the Malaysia incident – for the cacophony of derision that’s likely to be sent his way for the immediate future. Is it uncomfortable for those of us who love watching the best in the sport chase perfection? Undoubtedly. But, as the old saying reminds us, you reap what you sow.

A genuine apology, a story that was consistent and didn’t change on the fly as the court of public opinion made its views known and perhaps the suggestion of future consequences should it happen again would have sufficed back in March. And then perhaps we’d be talking only about the exploits of a driver that, when the dust settles on his career, could well own every record of note in his sport if he continues on in the same vein as Singapore last weekend.


Singapore GP review: Night rider


It’s technically incorrect to say the Singapore Grand Prix was a case of Sebastian Vettel first and daylight second given the race is held at night under artificial lights; what’s more accurate is that, on the tricky and tight road course that winds its way around the compact Asian city-state, the Red Bull driver is, quite literally, streets ahead of the rest.

For the third year in a row at a race that become one of the must-watch stops on the global F1 calendar, Vettel was imperious, converting his fifth pole of the season into his seventh victory, and his third in succession. Talk about his fourth championship on the bounce turned into a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ after 61 laps of the Marina Bay circuit, where the 26-year-old left the rest of the field for dust.

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A two-wheel interlude: The anointed one


Could this really be the future of Grand Prix motorcycle racing? If it wasn’t for the team shirt emblazoned with sponsor logos, fans poised with smartphones and pens for a photo or autograph, or that every head within sight has swivelled to stare at him, you’d swear there was nothing special about Marc Marquez as he weaves his scooter through the crowds congregating at the back of the Indianapolis pits. Short and slight with outsize eyebrows, the fresh-faced Spaniard wears a grin that makes him look like an ordinary kid getting away with jigging school. But there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about Marquez, who, barely out of his teens, is successfully going toe-to-toe with the stubble-faced, battle-scarred hard-arses of MotoGP.


Stop making sense: why Raikkonen is in red again

So, let’s get this straight. Ferrari gets rid of a driver who wants to be there and has been the consummate team player over eight years despite not being overly fast for four of them. Ferrari re-hires a driver to whom it paid $28 million to go away four years ago, doesn’t want to do anything other than drive cars very fast and get paid a hefty wedge for his services, and will be 34 years old next month. Ferrari has an incumbent driver who, to most experts’ eyes, is the most complete on the grid, is incredibly frustrated by not having won a championship in seven years, and has a poor track record in dealing with a teammate who is anything but a subservient number two or doesn’t have the ability to get in his way on a regular basis. And this is the way to halt the seemingly-unstoppable combination that is, in order of importance, Adrian Newey, Red Bull Racing and a 26-year-old named Sebastian Vettel? Am I missing something?

A word on Felipe Massa. Nice guy, true professional, 11-time Grand Prix winner. But results talk, and getting rid of him was the right thing to do. Probably was last year too or the year before that when Ferrari entertained the idea of Mark Webber as Alonso’s teammate, which would have been fascinating to see. Hopefully Massa finds a drive elsewhere to reward the class he’s shown in his career as a proper, decent human being in a sport that’s not exactly overflowing with them.

But Kimi Raikkonen? Ferrari changes its drivers very rarely, remember: since 2000 we’ve only had Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello, Massa, Raikkonen, Giancarlo Fisichella (briefly) and Fernando Alonso in red overalls (like you, I’m not counting Luca Badoer, who might just be finishing the 2009 European GP in the next 10 minutes). The team has operated with a very clear principle of all of its eggs in one basket ever since Schumacher came to Maranello in 1996. Nearly 20 years on, we know the way to win in F1 is to have a defined number one driver and someone who is either contractually-bound to be a team player or who is either not quite quick enough to win or not allowed to participate in a fair fight despite repeated claims to the contrary (filed under ‘Webber, Mark’). So what exactly are Ferrari trying to achieve here other than trying to enrage Alonso to the extent that he’ll leave? It can’t be for succession planning, obviously: as it is, Raikkonen will be the oldest driver on next year’s grid, Alonso (if Massa doesn’t find a new home elsewhere) the third-oldest.

A disgruntled Alonso usually means one thing: change, and decisive change at that. This is a man who brazenly negotiated his 2007 McLaren drive while on the podium celebrating his 2005 title success for Renault at Interlagos, and one who ran back to Renault as soon as he could when things went sour at McLaren alongside a fast rookie teammate named Lewis Hamilton. To think that he wouldn’t be, as corporate PR-speak would call it, “considering his options” in the wake of Raikkonen’s signature is naive. But maybe this is Ferrari’s brilliant long-term plan after all.

Given his current level of frustration and the tension with senior management, It’s hard to imagine Alonso being at Ferrari after the end of the 2015 season. It’s hard to imagine Raikkonen being in the sport full stop by then. Which leaves one obvious way of how to stop the juggernaut that is Red Bull Racing and Vettel – which is by signing the German himself. The one way to stop someone beating you is to cut your losses and make sure he joins you, right?

Quite why Ferrari chose to go down the same path it trod years ago with Raikkonen remains to be seen, but from this writer’s perspective, the Finn’s signature for two years makes it all the more transparent what Ferrari have planned for 2016 and beyond. Who else does Ferrari have waiting in the wings? Finished thinking yet? Exactly. Which means your Ferrari line-up that takes to the grid in Melbourne or whatever cashed-up Middle Eastern destination coughs up the most dosh to host the season opener in 2016 could well be Sebastian Vettel and Jules Bianchi. An established star with pedigree, and a solid number two on 10 per cent of the salary who is happy to be there, is capable of scoring points and sweeping up behind the team leader on the rare occasion he drops the ball, and ensures the team is in the constructors’ championship fight year after year. A bit like Ferrari used to be, basically.

Signing Raikkonen could be seen as the first step in a long-term plan to ensure success in Ferrari’s future – a future in which neither of next year’s drivers will likely feature.

Italian GP review: The more things change …


Appearances, as the old saying reminds us, can be deceiving. Last Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix was won by the driver who started on pole, a regular occurrence at the circuit the locals call la pista magica (‘the magic track’) at Monza. With one or two exceptions, the majority of the top-10 finishers ended the 53 laps where they started. And the skies over the famous royal park outside of Milan, which were ominously black hours before the race start, somehow didn’t turn the 12th round of this year’s world championship into a waterlogged mess.

But to describe Sebastian Vettel’s sixth win of what is looking like his fourth straight championship season as routine would be selling him – and the race he triumphed in – short. With fights from first to last, two front-runners forced into atypical pit stop strategies before scything through the field, and reliability gremlins waiting to pounce with several cars in the latter stages, this was a race that was tense until the chequered flag.

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A red-letter day

Timing, as the saying goes, is everything. To wit: Daniel Ricciardo made his F1 debut, if you count driving for HRT as driving for an F1 team, back in 2011 – half a season ahead of fellow Red Bull-backed contemporary Jean-Eric Vergne as the pair fought for the affections of those with influence at Red Bull Racing.

For Ricciardo to have half a season of racing under his belt before the head-to-head judgement against Vergne began was invaluable in the context of the 18 months that followed.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the fourth race of the season in Bahrain. With a qualifying lap that was arguably more impressive than anything another driver managed all season, Ricciardo hauled the Toro Rosso to sixth on the grid, a mighty effort in a car that, on merit, struggled to see the top 10 with a pair of binoculars. Veteran technical director Giorgio Ascanelli, not a man prone to blowing smoke where unnecessary, described Ricciardo’s effort of out-qualifying three world champions (Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen) in his fourth race driving anything other than a tail-end car as “quite extraordinary”. As has been much publicised since, Ricciardo undid a lot of that good work with a poor start and a meek first lap that saw him get elbowed all the way back to 16th, but those in the know recognised true pace – the sheer speed born of immense talent that few possess – when they saw it.

Jump ahead to 2013, and the departure of Schumacher and, to a lesser extent, Pedro de la Rosa in the off-season made Mark Webber the oldest driver on the grid, and questions that wouldn’t be asked of a 36-year-old had older drivers stuck around started to come. The ‘retirement’ word was used regularly throughout the Australian Grand Prix weekend, and brought Ricciardo’s future into sharper focus. Those familiar with Webber recognised the body language he displayed at Albert Park as a sign that he was competing in his final home Grand Prix, meaning time was of the essence for Ricciardo – and Vergne.

When Webber eventually announced his F1 retirement before the British GP in June, Ricciardo already had one foot in next year’s RB10 by dint of his flashes of top-drawer performance over the past season and a half. While Vergne was plodding around in Q2, three straight top-10 starts for Ricciardo immediately after Webber announced he was off to compete in sports cars was the ideal way to make the most of the situation.

While Ricciardo’s timing – married to no shortage of talent, which some keyboard warriors have discounted since he was promoted to Red Bull, choosing instead to talk up Vergne as the better option for the sake of appearing controversial and attracting attention to themselves – has been perfect, Red Bull might have played a blinder in choosing the Australian over a sure-fire bet in Kimi Raikkonen, who says little, gives away less and finishes in the points at close to every race. Perhaps by 2016, we’ll know more.

Sebastian Vettel is out of contract at the end of 2015, by which time he’ll be 28 years old, a potential five or six-time world champion, edging towards 50 Grand Prix victories and, ominously, with at least five years of his prime ahead of him. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso will be 34 and may well have had enough by then. Might Vettel do what his great friend and mentor Schumacher did and leave a known quantity behind for Ferrari, as Schumacher did in 1996 when he departed Benetton at a similar age (27)?

By then Ricciardo will be 26, have had two seasons in a top team, and should – if his career keeps progressing on a similar upward trajectory to his first two-and-a-half seasons – be ready to assume the mantle of being a team leader.

Had Red Bull chosen Raikkonen, he’d be 36 by then, and who knows if he’d be bothered staying in the sport by that stage (remember how miserable he made driving for Ferrari look in 2009?) A Vettel/Raikkonen pairing would have achieved nothing for Red Bull’s succession planning as it looked to fight with a McLaren where the talented (and cashed-up) Sergio Perez should be coming into his own, a powerhouse Mercedes outfit where Lewis Hamilton should still be a formidable force, and perhaps someone like a Antonio Felix da Costa, who could be ready to become a Grand Prix winner.

All food for thought.

While the success (or otherwise) of Red Bull’s decision to parachute Ricciardo into a race-winning car based largely on potential next season will be determined in due course, one has to wonder about the timing of Monday’s decision, which was perhaps predictable given the haphazard way the situation has been handled since Webber caught some sections of its management on the hop with his decision to quit the sport at Silverstone.

On Monday night, much of the English-speaking F1 press was at the premiere of Ron Howard’s film ‘Rush’ in London and missed the Ricciardo news, although listening to some of them whingeing that they didn’t get the scoop because they were otherwise distracted with their snouts in the trough was cause for some amusement. A world away from the media gravy train, most of Australia was about to wake up; Perth, Ricciardo’s home town, was sound asleep at 3.30am. As PR exercises go, it wasn’t the best. But one smiling Australian probably couldn’t have cared less.

Ricciardo’s attitude and approach since he first set foot in an F1 paddock has made an impression on everyone who has come across his path; while timing clearly is everything, perhaps another saying, that nice guys finish last, could be re-assessed in the coming years. For this scribe, who has interviewed far too many prima donnas in the F1 paddock to count, one certainly hopes so.