F1’s a funny old sport. It’s the only sport where your ‘team-mate’ is your biggest rival. In other sports, team-mates work together to realise an ultimate goal and if you’re not a team player, you’re not in the team. It’s why non-F1 fans don’t understand the fuss. In F1, the term ‘team-mate’ is a misnomer. The person sat in the car on the other side of the garage is driving an identical car, the only other identical car. The team can see the data. He is the only person with whom you can be compared. Beating him is the difference between winning and losing. You’ve worked your entire life to make it, and he is the one preventing you from your target. Even 2 races into the season, Marussia drivers Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton have gained very different reputations; Bianchi’s got it, Chilton has not. It’s why Paul di Resta was so miffed at the Australian Grand Prix when he was told not to overtake Adrian Sutil. Eighth place was no cause for celebration for the British driver because his number one rival had finished in seventh.
There’s the issue with a ‘team’ sport such as Formula 1. It’s a team sport with individual goals. Different teams have operated alternate policies throughout the history of the sport. In the 1950s and 60s, team-mates handed over their cars to each other for the sake of the championship. Ferrari operated a Number 1 and Number 2 policy throughout the Schumacher years to the detriment of the sport’s image, while in 2013 Fernando Alonso is very much their favoured son. A team such as McLaren has used team-orders but frequently highlight their equality policy. This backfired spectacularly in 2007 when Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and then-Principal Ron Dennis became involved in heated arguments and a public war of words, one which almost ripped the team apart and cost them the championship. “We weren’t racing Kimi [Raikkonen], we were basically racing Fernando”, said Dennis with two rounds remaining.
Red Bull Racing has bent over backwards to dispel the theory that Sebastian Vettel is given preferential treatment to Mark Webber. It’s a theory that stems back to the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix, when Vettel and Webber collided while battling for the lead. Senior figures within Red Bull apportioned blame to Webber, raising eyebrows among the majority who felt that it was Vettel who erred. A few races later Red Bull brought a new front wing to the British Grand Prix. When Vettel’s failed and he was handed Webber’s new part, there was uproar. Webber used the situation to his advantage and gave the impression of being given detrimental treatment. Webber went on to win the race and proudly declared ‘not bad for a number two driver’. Webber thrives off of this supposed underdog situation of fighting the rest of the team, and heightening the belief that Vettel is the prodigal son, the golden boy whose path to the top has been funded by the energy drink giants, while Webber fought tooth and nail to make it – against the odds – with the Aussie Grit that he now uses as his Twitter handle. Red Bull cares hugely about the Constructors’ championship; it offers standing within the paddock and the pit-lane, as well as prestige and more importantly, money. Back in 2010, owner Dietrich Mateschitz said it was irrelevant whether Vettel or Webber emerged with the title.
It’s a situation that reared its head in Malaysia. Vettel has three titles, Webber has none. In many other teams, Vettel would be the clear number one, but that is not the case with Red Bull. Webber could have won the title in 2010 but ultimately failed. Vettel did not fail. He then went and added a further two titles to his haul. From Vettel’s perspective, he is the one who can win the drivers’ title for a fourth time; Webber is merely the other guy who is sometimes an irritant. Red Bull ordered Vettel to maintain his position but he ignored these instructions and embarked on a quest for victory, one in which he prevailed. Ruthless? Clinical? A cheat? The comparisons to Michael Schumacher have already been dragged out with which to beat him. On the other side of the garage, Webber was already sculpting his words. ‘Seb will get protection, as usual, he said while stood on the podium, to an audience of millions. In one swoop, Vettel is the favoured son, Webber the valiant underdog, ignoring the three or four occasions over the past few years when Webber has – very publicly and openly – ignored team orders. Vettel sensed blood. The red mist descended. In 2010 he claimed the title by four points, last season his championship margin was just three. The seven points separating first and second in Malaysia were too good to squander. Vettel placed his individual goals ahead of that of the team who employs him. He passed his main rival, his ‘team-mate’ and risked costing his team points. Opinion is still split on whether what he did was right or wrong – although Vettel has sheepishly apologised on several occasions – but the division between the drivers trickles down to the mechanics and engineers on different sides of the garage. The cast have been set: Vettel is the archetypal German villain, Webber the plucky underdog fighting against the world. Even if that isn’t the reality, it’s what will be represented. Personal preference, opinion and perception remove rationality.
Vettel’s actions not only reflected negatively on himself and incensed Webber, but by ignoring ‘Multi 21’ he also placed his team in the spotlight. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has already come under fire for failing to control his driver, even admitting that there was no use ordering Vettel to let Webber back through. Vettel is a product of Red Bull’s academy; he is their own creation. How can Red Bull punish him? Fining a wealthy man won’t make a difference; the only way to punish a driver is by stopping them from doing what they want to do: drive. But that would impact Red Bull’s title aims and therefore it’s a step they cannot take. Vettel cannot be punished. By taking the decision into his own hands, Vettel has exposed Horner’s weaknesses. With F1 yet to agree on a new Concorde Agreement, it makes Red Bull’s position just that little bit harder if their team principal cannot control his 25 year old driver.
Therefore the term ‘team-mate’ is thrown around regularly in sport. In Formula 1, ‘team-mates’ work together for the team, but in reality, it is for their individual targets.