Sunday, April 10, 2011

Simmering rivalries at F1 summit

Formula 1's return to North America after an absence of two years has given rise to much positive comment and anticipation over the prospects for another action-packed race weekend.

But two weeks on from the Turkish Grand Prix, the in-house rivalries at Red Bull and McLaren are still providing the biggest talking points.

You didn't have to walk very far down the paddock at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Thursday before you found by far the biggest media crowd gathered around Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel as Red Bull continued their efforts to dampen down the storm caused by the pair's collision at Istanbul Park.

The more you listen, the more you hear, the more contradictory the picture appears, however many interviews the key players give.

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But while we may never get proper confirmation of what was precisely planned and demanded from under the Red Bull pit-wall awning in Turkey, the fall-out is set to expose critical fault lines within the championship battle between Webber and Vettel, starting this weekend in Canada.

As with the race a fortnight ago, the key challengers are likely to be Red Bull and McLaren. But this time the stakes have been raised that much higher as a result of both in-house Turkish disputes.

Scrutiny from teams, media and fans alike will now be hugely intensified.

The key message from Red Bull throughout this week's build-up has been that the team is focused behind both drivers, with equal equipment and opportunity for a genuine two-pronged title assault.

What happened in the last race was "a racing accident", they now say, one of those unfortunate incidents that can befall competitive team-mates. That staged photograph of Webber and Vettel smiling and shrugging their shoulders at each other was intended to emphasise the point.

But my understanding is that the trust level between the pair has now plummeted.
Webber may be relieved that his private frustrations over Vettel's perceived favoured status have been released so publicly but Vettel is now very bitter that his race was wrecked in such a way.

Within the pit lane, however, there's little sympathy for the 22-year-old German among Red Bull's rivals.

Rival team managers have been scathing about the way Red Bull handled the episode, with one claiming it was "nonsense" to blame Webber. And it's interesting that team principal Christian Horner has now admitted doing so was "a mistake".

There have also been questions about the potentially disruptive influence of Red Bull motorsport director Helmut Marko, who so clearly backed Vettel after the race in Turkey.
It was Marko who blamed Webber in the initial aftermath of the collision, then changed his tack to accuse the Australian's race engineer, Ciaran Pilbeam, of not telling his driver, as instructed, to let Vettel through on that ill-fated lap 40 because he was faster and being hounded by Lewis Hamilton's McLaren.

German colleagues say Vettel's refusal to apologise stems from his belief that he did nothing wrong. The responsibility lay elsewhere, he believes.

As an interesting aside, some detect increasing parallels with fellow German Michael Schumacher, with whom Vettel's developing a closer relationship. Schumacher was never one for popularity contests but he does have a record seven world titles to his name.

Does Vettel see a similar path to follow? As discussed by Andrew Benson,
Webber's race engineer was busily engaged resolving another problem during those crucial moments, and remains in his role, despite claims in some quarters that he'd breached Red Bull's chain of command by his actions and should have been replaced.

Whether by default or design, Jenson Button's observation only added to the intrigue.
"Their crash was very strange," the champion said on Thursday. "It looked like Sebastian thought that Mark was going to move to the right. He didn't expect him to be there."

And listen to Webber answering one of many questions on Thursday, and you heard him make clear that there'll be no favours given or expected for the rest of the season.

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Question: "Will you give him (Vettel) more room if he attacks in the future?"
Answer: "Or vice versa. We will see. We've had Malaysia, China and stuff last year."

When I sought clarification on Marko's mention of the order to Webber, one high-level source within Red Bull insisted on Thursday night that there had been no such instruction for him to move over in Turkey. Team orders, as we know, are banned in F1. So the answer was predictable.

So the precise chain of events may never be established. Yet while the grey areas remain, so will the questions and the suspicions, waiting to be fuelled by future conflicts.

Questions also remain about the "misunderstanding" at McLaren that led to the breathtaking duel between Button and Lewis Hamilton in Turkey. There has been confusion about whether Button had been given the same, specific, fuel-saving lap-time target as Hamilton in that race, and from that have stemmed the conspiracy theories about McLaren's handling of the race.

But it turns out that both had been instructed to save fuel from as early as lap 20 because the race pace was so fierce. And that after the Red Bull drivers had collided, both were given the same target times. Button even talked the media through them on Thursday!

The key information is that on the lap Button passed his team-mate, Hamilton had backed off by a further two seconds after going especially slowly through Turn Eight. That gave Button his opportunity to get close and overtake.

This week, team principal Martin Whitmarsh has said that the radio message given to Hamilton that Button would not overtake him was only "an opinion" from chief race engineer, Phil Prew, and that he was wrong. My information is that Prew was only "wrong" insofar as the team, like Hamilton, did not expect Button to make the move he did.

Like Webber - another 30-something with greater experience than his team-mate - Button felt he was there to race and not make life easy for anybody. If Hamilton and Vettel fell into the trap of underestimating their team-mates - as a good number within their respective teams believe they did - they are learning fast to rethink their approach.

Montreal has a reputation for making things happen, notably at the notorious 'wall of champions' at the exit of the final chicane, so named following the 1999 race, when Schumacher, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve all crashed there.

There's every reason to believe that a sell-out crowd is going to get full value for their money this weekend.


Jack Turner Toni Ulmen Bobby Unser

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