I was absolutely buzzing after the Turkish Grand Prix, a race that had almost everything you could ask for. Even though superficially all the pre-race hype had Red Bull easily in the lead, it turned out that McLaren have turned up the wick and give them a really hard fight.
Red Bull hung on to the lead, as McLaren failed to take advantage during the pitstops. Thereafter, we were treated to an amazingly tense battle at the very front, with all four front-running cars running within a couple of seconds of each other after the pitstops had taken place.
I am struggling to think of any other time when the front-running cars were so close to each other so far into the race. For me, this was racing at its very best. Who needs refuelling?
Red Bull threw away a “sure-fire 1-2”
By lap 40, the McLarens had fallen back a tad, but Sebastian Vettel was still racing closely with Mark Webber. It transpires that Webber was using up more fuel than Vettel, with the German able to save fuel while running in the race leader’s slipstream. Webber therefore had to start conserving fuel sooner than Vettel, whose pace had picked up.
That gave Vettel the golden opportunity to seize the race lead. But disaster struck when the two collided in the most dramatic fashion as Vettel attempted to overtake. The German had to retire, but Webber limped on to the pits and ended up in third place.
It’s one of the most extraordinary things I can remember seeing in F1. This is exactly what I love about the sport. Once you think you’ve seen it all, something even more incredible happens. Red Bull should have had an easy 1-2. But after being pressed by McLaren, Red Bull have ended up, in the words of team boss Christian Horner, handing 43 points on a plate to McLaren.
Red Bull face a driver management nightmare
It is the worst case scenario for Red Bull, not only because a relatively safe 1-2 was lost. The team management now has a complete nightmare job — it must try to keep both drivers happy when inevitably fingers are being pointed and jabbed in opposite directions.
Initial reaction was that the crash was Vettel’s fault. He had half a chance to pass Webber, and bit off more than he could chew. While the speed advantage ensured that Vettel could run alongside Webber, he wasn’t quite fast enough to overtake cleanly. Presumably worried that he would be compromised going into the corner by running so close to the left edge of the track, Vettel turned in towards Webber.
Webber held his line, having given Vettel just enough space and no more. Even though the onboard footage shows Webber trying to steer slightly to the right, Vettel’s steering movement was much more extreme, and he ended up colliding straight into his team mate’s car.
My brother and I strongly disagreed about this during the race. I feel that it was Vettel’s responsibility to ensure that he could overtake in a clean manner. Webber left enough room for Vettel to run alongside him, and it was Vettel who changed direction. This appeared to be the broad consensus viewpoint among most F1 pundits.
It is highly surprising therefore to see the Red Bull management appear to come out in Vettel’s favour, at the risk of upsetting Mark Webber even when most people are taking Webber’s side. If I was Mark Webber, I’d be pretty pissed off by this turn of events.
In a way, you can understand why the team would want to back Sebastian Vettel. He is clearly the team’s best long-term hope, even if in the short- to medium-term Mark Webber is often the faster of the two.
Moreover, Vettel is the only tangible evidence of a vaguely successful driver coming out of the Red Bull young drivers’ programme which the drinks company has poured so much resource into. I am sure Helmut Marko is a proud person, and he would like to think of himself as a mentor to the drivers he that have been through his drivers’ programme over the years. Mark Webber is only at Red Bull to plug the embarrassing vacant gap left over by the complete lack of any other decent drivers to emerge from the programme.
Helmut Marko may deny that the team favours Sebastian Vettel. But the fact he and his colleagues in the Red Bull Racing management have been prepared to publicly blame Mark Webber for the incident — when the vast majority of the F1 community holds the opposite point of view — is indicative.
F1 journalists have certainly been left surprised by Red Bull’s actions after the race. Will Buxton has been particularly vociferous on Twitter, first saying: “Total BS being smelt around the paddock.” He later added:
Helmut Marko – “Vettel was 2 metres ahead”. Riiiiiight. That’s why he and Mark made contact, yeah? Red BS stinking up the place.
Did McLaren also crack?
Meanwhile, are things quietly unravelling at McLaren too? It has not been attracting as much attention, but it’s worth pointing out that the race between Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button was also distinctly odd.
At the very same point of the track a few laps later, Jenson Button got a run on Lewis Hamilton, and the pair had a ding-dong battle for several corners. Luckily, this time round both drivers were more sensible. A good, tough, clean fight was the main result.
Button briefly led, but Hamilton ultimately prevailed. Immediately afterwards, Button suddenly fell right off the pace.
After the race, I thought Lewis Hamilton looked a bit wooden and tense on the podium. Both Martin Brundle and Anthony Davidson picked up on his unusual body language, which seemed quite negative for someone who had just won a race.
Both McLaren drivers seemed confused when they were talking to each other just before going out for the podium ceremony. They were having an interesting conversation until it appeared that they suddenly remembered a camera and microphone were picking up their conversation and broadcasting it on the FOM world feed!
The tension between the driver’s interest and the team’s interest
This pair of situations throws the issue of team orders back into the spotlight. Superficially, team orders are banned — but that doesn’t stop teams giving drivers cryptic messages, or using mechanisms such as instructions to “save fuel” in order to slow down one of the drivers.
Team orders shouldn’t really be banned, as it is understandable that teams will always want to look at the bigger pictures as far as the whole team is concerned. It has always been a part of motor racing, and always will be. But there is always a tension when a driver disagrees with the team’s view.
This tension between the driver’s individual interest and the need for a driver to also play a role as a “team mate” is one of the most fascinating aspects of Formula 1 for me. It doesn’t actually crop up all that often. But when it does, the results can be explosive, as we have seen today.
We have seen that in both front-running teams in Turkey. The situation arose with both teams because — uniquely — all four drivers were running so close with one another. Even fourth placed Button could literally see the leading car at all points during the race. Each one of those four drivers would have felt like they had a major chance of winning today. That’s when egos collide, and team orders begin to unravel.
McLaren’s engineers said over the team radio that “we pushed them and they cracked”, referring to Red Bull. Given Helmut Marko’s comments that Vettel needed to push Webber because he in turn was being pushed by Hamilton appears to vindicate this. But, in their own little way, did McLaren also crack today?
Update: See also the BBC’s Andrew Benson discussing the situations at Red Bull and McLaren.