Time for Vettel to refuse all favours
JULY 14, 2010
BY CLYDE BROLIN
Sebastian Vettel spent his early F1 career fending off comparisons with his illustrious compatriot Michael Schumacher. The standard retort for any rising star is always 'No, I'm not the second X, I'm the first Y.' But Red Bull's Silverstone antics have brought the associations flooding back - sadly not with bright young Schu but with Schu the pantomime villain.
For all the huffing and puffing over wings at the weekend, let's not forget this kind of thing was routine in the 'glory' days of Noughties Ferrari. They were similarly keen to maintain a facade of parity yet the newest upgrades were the minimum Schumacher expected ahead of team-mate Rubens Barrichello. Ferrari, too, insisted their German had priority only while he was in front on points, but Barrichello's early-season luck ensured that never varied.
Red Bull's latest misdemeanour was comparatively mild - time is tight between FP3 and qualifying and this decision was clearly taken on the hoof. But the improvised justification has bitten them as new points leader Mark Webber has been assured the next unique gizmo. Cue parts arriving at next week's German GP in a rigid formation that would have made Noah proud. We'll see how far Webber really wants to push his luck if he trashes something on Saturday morning.
Memories can be short and selective. After Barrichello was forced to sacrifice second place to Schumacher in Austria 2001 he was told he would not have been asked to do so if he'd been in front. Then came Austria 2002, when he duly gave up victory and all hell broke loose in the stands.
You'd think Red Bull supremo Dietrich Mateschitz, an Austrian himself, might have recalled the reaction that provoked. After the fallout from this year's Turkish GP any order from on high should have insisted Webber receive the next 'favour'. Clearly not, so in the run-up to Hockenheim here's another Austrian to jog memories with a more extreme tale than Webber's about the power of the mind in adversity.
Most of the outstanding performances detailed in the book 'Overdrive - Formula 1 in the Zone' come when the driver's mind is at peace. That is usually when they find the best out of themselves and access the full, glorious ability they have honed over years of practice. In happier times less than two months ago, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner rightly described Webber's Monaco masterclass as 'in the Zone'. But there are exceptions, as I found when I spoke to Gerhard Berger about his seminal win at the 1997 German GP after the troubled build-up to end them all.
Berger had missed the three previous races with three sinus operations, and he was on antibiotics affecting his ability to train. He was also battling with Benetton team boss Flavio Briatore over his future after a disappointing year. Yet all of that was rendered insignificant when, three days before the Hockenheim race weekend, Berger lost his father in an air crash.
"That was a big time in my life and everybody - really, everybody - told me not to go to the race because I was just not ready," he recalled. "The team was against me, my health was against me and the emotion from the loss of my father was against me. When I arrived in Hockenheim everybody was trying to smile about it and saying, 'We're so happy you're back,' but I could read on their faces they were all thinking, 'What are you doing here?' That's what gave me the push. I just said, 'Sod it.' I went to one of the usual press conferences and, without warning the team, said I was going to stop driving for Benetton at the end of the year. Then I got into the car and said, 'Let's see what we can do.'"
What Berger could do was quite unlike anything he had ever done before as the dire circumstances paradoxically thrust him firmly into the right state of mind. He hadn't won a race for three years and Benetton hadn't topped the podium since Schumacher left two seasons earlier. But this weekend Berger stormed Hockenheim, taking pole, race and fastest lap in a car that was far from the best on the grid.
"If I hadn't had all this shit, if my father hadn't had his accident, if I hadn't been in hospital, if I hadn't come to Hockenheim and had everybody say, 'Great that you're here,' perhaps it would have just been another race," he admitted. "Maybe I would have finished third or fourth, I don't know. But I've always noticed in myself the tendency that I've been stronger when I've been in the shit. If contract time was coming or there was more pressure than normal, I could find extra time within me. It seems the most difficult conditions made my body find more energy than ever before."
"That's absolutely wrong. You want somebody who can get this level of performance out of himself every day in every condition. But my Hockenheim race was proof for me that so much comes from your head. It was the most emotional grand prix of my life and it showed me how much of racing is mental. In a Formula 1 grid of 24 cars, everyone can perform well - as a driver you don't get there otherwise - but there's a range of performance. Now I'd say one of the main things a driver needs, apart from natural talent, is mental strength. If I have to judge a driver I'd look into his mental situation and mental approach."
Webber may not walk out of his Red Bull contract at Hockenheim, even though it was agreed before Turkey and his displeasure since is clear. But anyone who truly thought Silverstone would unsettle him got it very wrong. Webber is a man who has battled his way through season after season of F1 disappointment. He has also broken his leg in a bike crash and taken to the skies three times in a racing car, bouncing back each time. Strong in mind? Tick. As the Australian declared, Silverstone's wing saga added the weight of karma behind him too.
Rather than favouring Vettel, Red Bull's handling of the situation has inadvertently put the 'chosen one' in the difficult position - in the run-up to his home race too. At last year's German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, Vettel went in as the Golden Child but home pressure prevented him from taking advantage while Webber took the debut win that kicked off everything since. Such pressure is nothing compared with having your every move scrutinised for evidence you are Dick Dastardly in disguise.
Yet Vettel's primary offence is to be the management's darling - a transgression that can only escalate with every Webber outburst. Where favouritism really arises, team bosses are invariably more to blame than the driver, whose every instinct is to grab any competitive advantage to reaching the flag first. Schumacher showed it may be too much to expect the modern day sportsman to see the bigger picture and refuse a helping hand, no matter how much it harms reputations. But Vettel can still trump him by telling his mentors he is big enough to win all by himself. No more 'help', thanks.
Red Bull's concern is understandable. They have the best car on the grid and they fear they will look foolish if they don't bring home the title. But they will look worse if there is any hint of manipulation. They're better off letting two drivers at the top of their game slug it out, even if that risks defeat.
It was Gerhard Berger who originally snapped Vettel up for Toro Rosso when he was joint owner of the team. The Austrian's attention had originally been drawn to him by, yes, Schumacher, and the youngster's impressive mental strength was a major factor. That strength is now being tested to the limit - by his own team, no less.
Vettel is no villain but he is young, without years of bitter experience to fall back on. Last weekend he was comprehensively out-psyched (or at least out-PRed) by his team-mate. But if he can recover his reserves of mental strength amid the turmoil - and find the Zone - he can still emulate the right Schu.
Clyde Brolin is the author of 'Overdrive - Formula 1 in the Zone'