RED BULL RACING - RENAULT:
Having ended 2009 so strongly, I actually believed this team would step up another gear, continuing the momentum, and the design department headed up by Adrian Newey would build a car that would prove to be the fastest! I actually wondered if Sebastian Vettel could surprise everyone and dominate the season! Reliability was a great concern in pre-season testing though. As for Mark Webber, apparently his broken leg from the cycling accident prior to the 2009 season had had more of an effect on his performance than he had let on. It was quite impressive to me that he hadn't made a big fuss of it and hadn't seemed to use it as an excuse, especially considering that Webber, himself known as a qualifying specialist, was astonishingly defeated 15-2 in qualifying last season.
Before this season, while Mark was certainly considered to be one of the better drivers in F1, he was not ranked in the same tier (the word "tier" seems to be the word of the moment in Superstar Racing) as Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, and his own precocious team-mate Sebastian Vettel. And given the much talked about "top 8", meaning the Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull, and Mercedes teams and their drivers, all of whom are mostly considered to be in the top 10 of driver's in F1, alongside the expectation that these 4 teams cars would prove to be very closely matched, would result in a driver near the top, but not quite on the summit of F1 talent, such as Webber, being consigned to a season of regular 4th and 5th place finishes.That was certainly my expectation, especially if Red Bull didn't produce clearly the fastest car. But if Red Bull did make the fastest car, then I could quite easily have conceived Webber finishing 4th, 3rd or even 2nd in the championship - with Vettel as the likely champion.
The expectation was that with Webber's leg now fully healed, he would provide a sterner challenge to his young team mate. My opinion was that although Webber would be stronger and more confident this year, so would Vettel by a similar amount, as he had gained valuable experience by now. So I expected the gap to probably close, but not by much.
HOW HAS IT TURNED OUT?
1.BAHRAIN - THE TRACK EXTENSION MADE IT EVEN DULLER THAN USUAL
The prevailing expectation was played out in Bahrain. Sebastian Vettel sort of surprised with a pole position - a fairly dominant one, while Webber started 6th. Vettel led from the start and appeared to be on his way to victory (but Alonso just cannot be counted out!) before an untimely mechanical failure spoiled his day. So he was definitely up for driver of the race award. Meanwhile, Webber launched off the grid in a cloud of smoke, causing problems for others behind, before finishing an unimpressive 8th.
2.AUSTRALIA - THE BEST TRACKS ARE ALWAYS UNDER THREAT. THIS ONE LOOKS LIKE IT'S GOING NOW!
Onto Webber's home race then, and Vettel showed superiority over Webber with a brilliantly commited qualifying lap taking pole to knock Mark firmly into second place, both on the track and in the Red Bull hierarchy. Again, Vettel seamlessly powered away and would have won, but lightning struck twice. This time there was no survival and a mechanical problem put young Seb out of the race altogether. Again, he was about the strongest contender for driver of the race. Meanwhile, Mark again showed a difference between himself and his team-mate by driving a pretty scrappy race, wasting an opportunity to even win, by clattering clumsily into an innocent Lewis Hamilton, and just not showing very good racecraft on his way to 9th. After this race, the fragility of the Red Bull was a real talking point, with some claiming Red Bull had already thrown away the championship. There was a point here. Vettel could easily have had 50 points by now, but had just 12! The pressure was on, as Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz had declared that he expected nothing less than at least one championship from his team this year - or else!
Round 3 at Malaysia, and this time Webber took pole, with Vettel 3rd, but maybe that could have down to extenuating circumstances (the weather was a bit crazy after all). Again, what seemed to be a difference in class between the two drivers was exposed as Vettel came from not one, but two places back at the start to take the lead from Webber and then proceeded to win the race this time. Webber finally drove decently to place 2nd.
4.CHINA - YOU WOULDN'T THINK IT WAS CHINA LOOKING AT IT. COULD BE ANYWHERE.
Onto China and once again Red Bull showed their pace to take the front row of the grid. And once again Sebastian Vettel showed superiority over Webber by just proving too fast for him, something Webber openly admitted. In the race, both cars struggled in the rain, and the hierarchy was maintained as Vettel beat Webber home.
Webber's season had not been considered to be very impressive, and any thought of him challenging for the title was pretty much quashed as he had lost too much ground by now. He said at this time that one win was all he needed to turn it around. I basically rolled my eyes and thought "yeah yeah just talk - but no walk". Then he turned up in Spain and stuck it on pole and ran away with the race - and in the process leaving Vettel behind!!! This one win did indeed put Webber right toward the top of the championship and turned around his season - just as he said! Mark had been really stung by losing the win in Malaysia by being jumped by Vettel into the first corner. That had had a real affect on him, and he was hugely frustrated. It really ticked him off. But he used it positively, channeled this anger into focus and determination resulting in this run of great form.
6.MONACO - NOT SO GOOD NOW THEY REMOVED A LOAD OF THE ARMCO AND PUT PAINTED-ON KERBS DOWN
Round 6 at Monaco, a very different track to Barcelona and one that was not supposed to suit Red Bull much. Webber only went and put it on pole again! And again dominated the race and won, as he did in Formula 3000 in 2001. What's more, he now led the championship for the first time (although jointly). By this time, Vettel's usually sunny smile was much more cloudy. His confidence seemed to have been knocked a little. He must have been just as surprised as most at this sudden burst of form from his team-mate, who up to this point was usually a step or 2 behind the standard set by Vettel.
7.TURKEY - NOT BAD FOR A TILKE TRACK. I'VE ALWAYS THOUGHT MALAYSIA WAS HIS BEST ONE THOUGH.
Webber's season coming alive was a big talking point coming into Turkey, but the Red Bull drivers would provide a talking point of a totally different sort in the race. Webber had added a 3rd consecutive pole in qualifying, although some problems for Vettel put him back to 3rd. It had looked like Vettel had an edge over Webber here. The race was an interesting battle with the McLaren drivers. The Red Bull team has come in for plenty of criticism for a standard of race operation that has been desribed as a little "naive" and not up to what the best teams show, not making the most of what they have and of being unwise in seeking only short term strategic gain only to pay a bigger price later. In the past this has certainly cost them, but to their credit, in Turkey, a nice bit of quick thinking saw both drivers emerge from the pit stops in the lead! Into the position that enabled them to have that infamous crash together on the back straight. This was a pretty messy situation as it exposed a few goings on in the background of Red Bull. Many people are aware that Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz is in favour of young Vettel prospering in the team - over Webber! And it is even more clear that Mr Mateschitz's right-hand man, and main contact with the Red Bull race team Dr. Helmut Marko is not a big fan of Webber at all.
Well, we know what happened, Vettel tried to overtake Webber on the back straight. Webber squeezed him. Vettel had barely any room, but had just enough. Having come alongside, he veered right slightly to prepare for the upcoming corner. But Webber was still squeezing a little to the left! Well I think it went something like that anyway. 2 into 1 just doesn't go, and the dramatic clash was a disaster for the Red Bull team as the 1 - 2 finish went straight down the pan. Now, I have to say I have always thought
Webber was more to blame for this crash, even thought I like him more than Vettel. The team however, showed a favouritism to Vettel that I didn't like at all. It was very nice of the Red Bull top staff to hug Sebastian and give him condolences as he arrived back at the pit wall. And if they felt Webber was really at fault, they had a right to express that opinion. But to me, the way they pre-gravitated to Sebastian was one-sided. The team criticised Mark, and Helmut Marko did not waste this golden opportunity to strongly slate him in the press. It all smacked of favouritism to me.
The Turkey business was all quite a bitter episode really, and the fallout rumbled on over the Atlantic to Canada, and another track not expected to suit Red Bull much. So 2nd and 3rd on the grid was pleasing to them. Impressively it was Mark who was once again ahead. But a 5 place grid penalty meant he started 7th. As usual, the team were not as strong in the race as qualifying and they came 4th and 5th, Vettel ahead as he had eventually started ahead.
9.EUROPE - VALENCIA (BALEARIC!)
Back to Europe for Valencia in Spain (a track that I really like on Superstar Racing, but which is fairly rubbish in real life), where Sebastian regained his superiority over Webber by claiming pole. At this point, Seb had surprisingly only won one race this year, Malaysia. So the fact that he won here was very welcome. But for Mark, he dropped right back to 9th at the start and had a very nasty crash as he clipped Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus on the back straight, his second collision in two races. This one was horrible though, as the car somersaulted upside down, evoking memories of his 1999 Mercedes horror crash, but thankfully landed the right way up, before sliding a long way at great speed. Even though the barriers were distant, Mark still crashed into them at some force. In this age of gigantic run off areas spoiling the racing (in my opinion), it was good on this occasion that there was plenty of run off area in a sensible place (at the end of a high speed straight). It goes without saying that safety is the most important thing. Still, it put an abrupt halt to Mark's good run. He had still salvaged 3rd in Turkey.
9.THE NEW SILVERSTONE
By the time (the new) Silverstone arrived, the whole Turkey thing had died down. So surprise! More controversy and dark rumblings of favouritism! This time it all centred over a front wing. Red Bull had developed a new front wing, apparently worth about a tenth of a second, although time constraints dictated that only 2 would be available in time for this race - one for each car of course. No problems there! It only all went to pot after Sebastian's wing then failed in practice. That was that - no new wing for Sebastian! So what did the team do? Get this, they march over to Webber's car, UNBOLT HIS front wing from his car and carry it across the garage and attach it onto Sebastian's car like so. Now correct me if I am wrong, but if I am a child in a family, and we are each given an ice cream (yum! TRIPLE chocolate please), and the other child drops his, then the parent takes mine off me and gives it to him, does that not speak volumes about who is the favoured son? (As it happens, I would like to think I would be happy to share my ice cream - if possible. I hope I would be nice enough to do that.)
Another big outcry then. Christian Horner's defence was that there was not much time to decide what to do, and they had to decide quickly without much time to think it through, and he made the decision in collaboration with Adrian Newey. They took into account the fact that Vettel was slightly quicker than Mark in practice, and that he was ahead in the championship at the time. Also, he was more positive about the wing than Mark was. Christian Horner came across very sheepish it seemed to me, in an interview which appeared on www.itv-f1.com. I thought he could have just said he made a mistake. I for one would have understood. I really do think there is some unpleasant favouritism toward Sebastian Vettel and AGAINST Mark Webber. But I think Christian Horner is a decent guy, and the problem is with some people who are
over him (I won't mention any names). To be fair to Horner, I think he had a point when he told of how the team had supported Mark by trying to help him because of his weight disadvantage (cos he's a big 6ft Aussie while the others are little kids you see). Actually come to think of it, with Mark being about the heaviest driver in F1, this HAS to penalise this speed. I have heard Martin Brundle talk (in his East Anglia accent) about how every 10 kilos of fuel is worth 0.3s per lap and suchlike. If fuel weight makes that sort of difference, why not driver weight? If you recalculate driver's performances taking their personal weight into account, then Mark looks extremely impressive indeed, with others like Massa maybe not so much. Puts a whole new spin on things eh?
Here's another dimension about this wing thing though. In practice when both drivers had the wing, Sebastian Vettel was much in favour of the new wing. Webber was not so keen on it and didn't feel it really made a difference. So could it be that Mark's protest was not just about being denied the wing, but that this was an opportunity to put some leverage on his team by going public? So was it as much a political motivation as a sporting one? Having said that, Mark should NOT BE in a position where he would have to do that. Consider also that Sebastian didn't seem to mind at all being given Mark's wing...
Mark really did look very unhappy and ticked off when he shook Sebastian's hand after qualifying, in which Vettel beat him to pole by 0.143 seconds (which let's be honest was more than the estimated 0.1s advantage the new wing offered). The top 3 drivers posed for the cameras together. There were smiles from Vettel and Alonso. Webber's smile was upside down though. Certainly plenty of that would have been down to the fact that this competitive sportsman was beaten by his team-mate. But later we found out the full reason why.
The controversy was not over yet though. Onto race day, and Webber shot off the line beating Vettel into turn 1. There was contact with Vettel's wheel against what was reportedly Hamilton's front wing endplate (thought there was suggestion it had been contact with Mark at first!). The result was Vettel went wide and lost a lot of places! He then went off again at Beckett's. He had a puntcure! He crawled around the track and had to pit, putting him dead last, almost a lap down already! Apparently, there was an outburst of cheering from the Silverstone crowd, who sympathising with Webber, viewed Vettel as something of the bad guy after the previous day. Mark said after the race that Vettel's puncture was "karma". I'm not a karma person myself, but He meant that it was justice - payback! Mark had put in another winning performance to take the outright championship lead. Vettel eventually finished 7th, not helping to dispel criticism of his racecraft by rudely barging Adrian Sutil out of the way towards the end. He did put a pretty good move on Schumacher though, but is that so special in 2010?
"Karma" wasn't the only thing Mark said. Knowing that the public could hear the radio transmissions, Mark replied to team boss Horner's congratulations for winning the race "not bad for a number 2 driver." MIAOW! Apparently, Horner then muttered in reply "maybe you can actually start smiling now"... The BBC interview after the race with Christian Horner was pretty good too (I wouldn't know - I didn't watch it!) But anyway, Christian Horner said something along the lines of Mark did very well and congratulations to him etc... to which Eddie Jordan (seems not to miss an opportunity to make team bosses squirm - shows them no mercy!) directly replied on-air that that sounded a bit insincere!
10.GERMANY (HOCKENHEIM THIS YEAR)
Hockenheim was a much quieter affair, Mark having a subdued time - 4th on the grid, 6th in the race. Vettel had shone to beat a resurgent Ferrari to pole by 0.002s! Silly weaving tactics, which was now pretty usual for Seb, meant he lost not only the lead off the line, but 2nd as well. That was that for the afternoon, and he couldn't get ahead of the Ferraris, so 3rd it was.
On a side note, it was funny to see how quick Horner was to take the moral high ground over Ferrari's team orders scandal, suggesting Red Bull would never do such a thing (yeah - favouring one driver over another - imagine!). It was suggested that he had taken this opportunity to deflect bad press from his own team onto Ferrari.
11.HUNGARY - WHY DOES F1 KEEP TURNING UP TO THIS AWFUL PLACE YEAR ON YEAR?
Hungary was the scene of a huge dominance by Red Bull in qualifying - another front row, Sebastian ahead. It would have been an easy 1 - 2 in the same order on race day, under normal circumstances. An early safety car mixed things up, and Webber defied conventional wisdom by pitting early. Vettel broke a pesky rule by being more than 10 lengths behind the safety car. I have to say I think the whole rule is ridiculous, but the FIA know better than any racing drivers and fans. Sebastian could quite rightly feel a bit hard done by. As it turned out, Mark ended up shooting into the distance while Sebastian got stuck behind Alonso! Mark was honest enough to say he questioned his team's wisdom with the strategy Now it really looked like Mark had the advantage in the championship. But it has to said Sebastian had been the quicker driver for 4 races in a row...
12.BELGIUM - WHY IS IT THAT GREAT TRACKS LIKE THIS ARE ALWAYS UNDER THREAT WHILE THE RUBBISH ONES ARE SET IN STONE FOREVER? (SEE ABOVE)
Another pole for Mark in Belgium, and a fine 2nd place in the race after an awful start. Vettel had his worst qualifying, only 4th, but even that is good (as it was raining again). He was much criticised for that dumb crash with Jenson. Jenson was an innocent victim and deserved to not be too happy about it. But it's easy to forget that Vettel had only recently turned 23. When you turned 23, did you by that time have a race win in a Toro Rosso and finish 2nd in the World Championship? That reminds me, by this time, there was a badnwago
13.ITALY - AT LEAST THEY HAVEN'T GOT RID OF MONZA YET
Webber qualified ahead again in Italy, on a poor track for Red Bull. Bad start put him behind Hulkenberg. Every time Mark tried to get past, the Hulk was very naughty and went wide and gained an advantage at the chicane. It seemed pretty unfair he didn't get penalised, but I didn't watch the race so I don't know do I? To his credit, Mark didn't get flustered and did his best to get 6th. Vettel was 4th, the superior result not reflecting that Mark was quicker this time. But then it was the other way round in Hungary.
Singapore saw Vettel back on form, on a much higher level than Webber. But he wasn't perfect, gifting pole to Alonso. And "Alonso the Merciless" is NOT the kind of driver you can afford to be giving gifts to! That was a win lost then. Mark was impressively mature again in accepting it wasn't his weekend this time and made the most of it, managing to get on the podium from 5th on the grid. But he only did it by stuffing Hamilton out of the race - judged a 50/50 accident. That wasn't so mature. It didn't seem possible that Mark's front suspension could survive. It was pretty screwed up but somehow made it to the end.
1 - 2 on the grid, 1 - 2 in the race. Simple. With Sebastian ahead, as he usually is when things are simple. Sebastian had been due a win by now, having not been on the top step since Valencia.
Brand new Korea, onto another bland could-be-anywhere-in-the-world track. It was alright actually. The wimps were scared to out in the rain although drivers always have done since the creation of the World Championship - just that they're paid a bit more now. Why are things suddenly different? Alright seriously, I do see the whingers' point. Tough to call, when the consequences could be sobering. But I have long forseen a day when there won't be any wet running at all. Just like Tennis or Cricket, they will all cry and call it off immediately. We just CANNOT ever be doing with any sort of unpredictability and excitement (SARCASM ALERT). I shudder to think... Anyway, an unexpected 1 - 2 on the grid at this crucial stage of the season was welcome. Mark was leading the championship and the most important thing to do is finish! THEN worry about finishing first. But what did he do? Spin off almost straight-away and hit a wall and he was sensationally OUT OF THE RACE!!! The championship leader! It was awful. A catastrophe for Webber and his supporters, including myself. I felt sorry for Australia, imagining a collective groan of disappointment from the other side of the world. Having thought about it, Mark was really unlucky. He only made a very slight error, gently hit the wall at slow speed, and got a very unforgiving and harsh punishment for it.
Think about it, when you consider how many other drivers were behaving like idiots out there, going off left right and centre, often taking someone of with them, and they get away with it - it does make Mark's slight error seem very harsh indeed. More drama as it didn't end there, as he then slid across again and smacked into Leo di Caprio in the Mercedes, in a spectacular spray of car shards. No one hurt - so good to know. Vettel meanwhile, led from Alonso, and similar to Bahrain, you just cannot count that guy out, but it looked like Vettel would probably win. And with Webber completely out and unable to add to his championship points tally, it was an open goal for Seb and the others. Now he was looking good to be the youngest ever world champion after all. But then catastrophe, at this utterly important stage, a huge engine failure - smoke everywhere put him dramatically out, leaving Alonso laughing all the way to the flag. A double "Did Not Finish". Gut wrenching stuff for Red Bull.
And so that wily Alonso took the championship lead. That formidable foe is tough to keep behind at the best of times, but now he has the lead with two races left. Prising a championship lead from Alonso is the worst thing to try and do. Raikkonen couldn't do it. Schumacher couldn't do it. Now we move on to Brazil and will see.
Now after Korea, there are more rumblings on behind the scenes, with their various implications. Gerhard Berger, a close friend of Dietrich Mateschitz publicly suggested that Webber had deliberately tried to take off a rival! And that he would have aimed for Alonso or Hamilton, but hit Rosberg by mistake! Mark put his hand up and confessed that he had indeed attempted to take either Alonso or Hamilton out of the race. No I'm just kidding - he denied it of course. Christian Horner did as well, but on further analysis according to a fair few people, his explanation was not convincing. Who knows?
Also, Christian Horner said that it is too early for Red Bull to back one driver over another in the championship (THERE ARE TWO RACES LEFT!!!) Well that's OK, but remember what Mr. Mateschitz said before the season that the team had better win at least one championship! It could possibly be construed from this that failure to do so could result in Mr. Horner seeking alternative employment! It's up to you Christian, if you really want to lose this championship.
It would be interesting to see if Red Bull would back Vettel to the title, either publicly or otherwise, if it were the other way round...