On the podium after winning the Bahrain Grand Prix, interviewer David Coulthard asked race winner Sebastian Vettel to show the cameras a lucky charm on his racing boots. Vettel casually lifted his leg a little, dropped it and said “I don’t get my legs so high, because I’m not a woman.”
Exactly what Vettel meant is uncertain, but the world is going to interpret his comment as suggestive and demeaning. Earlier in the podium interviews, Vettel remarked that, “to have a woman on the podium, I think it’s not happening every day. Gill Jones, she takes care of our electronics in the team… she looks after the boys.” The suggestion that women have a place in F1 only in support of the men is unlikely to make Vettel any friends, both within and outside of the sport.
In the wake of recent sugestions by Sir Stirling Moss that women lack the mental aptitude to race in Formula One, Vettel’s comments are likely to get much more attention than they perhaps deserve. He is in a sport that needs a radical rethink regarding its approach to gender equality, and has not helped an already sensitive situation by publicly putting his foot in his mouth.
Yesterday’s Malaysian Grand Prix delivered some controversy, at least within the Red Bull team. Against team orders, Sebastian Vettel passed Mark Webber – banging wheels with his team-mate along the way – and went on to win the race. Webber was understandably furious afterwards, as was Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.
Vettel has been roundly criticised in the media, with some going as far as to question his morals. I don’t see how disobeying a team order has much to do with morality, but I do understand what drove Sebastian Vettel to risk the internal harmony of his team in pursuit of victory.
Vettel is a champion. That’s not referring to his achievements, but rather to his approach to everything he does. He wins. All the time. His preparation is meticulous, his attention to detail reminiscent of Michael Schumacher at his peak, and his performance on the track is almost always flawless. Vettel is capable only of domination. He knows no other way.
So when his team principal tells him not to win, as happened yesterday in Malaysia, there is no chance he will obey that instruction. He knows perfectly well how important his victory at Sepang could prove to be in the greater scheme of this year’s championship. Although it is too early in the season to know who will challenge for the title, every result counts. A victory is not more or less important depending on when it occurs during the season or whether or not the team management supported it.
The 2013 Red Bull RB9 could well prove to be the fastest car in the field. If that is the case, then Vettel’s main rival for the championship will be his own team-mate. Looking at yesterday’s drama from that perspective, Webber showed a major chink in his armour – he thought that Vettel, easily the dominant driver of his generation, would stop wanting to win just because his team said he should. Webber let his guard down, and Vettel took the advantage that was presented to him.
It doesn’t matter to Vettel that his team told him to finish second. He broke no rules of Formula One. His points cannot be taken away; the victory is valid. If the team doesn’t like the situation, they are certainly not going to fire him – he’s won the title three years running, what kind of fool team boss would kick him out? If anyone leaves, it will be Webber, and that will be to his own detriment.
Vettel’s actions may be unpopular, but they show a ruthlessness that could very well take this remarkable 25-year old German to a fourth consecutive World Championship this season, and perhaps on to just about every record in the sport by the end of his career. Vettel is not in Formula One to be liked. He is there to win. And in the words of Ayrton Senna, perhaps the greatest of all Formula One drivers, “Nice men don’t win.”
Mark Webber has become very much Red Bull’s number two driver over the past three seasons. That’s more due to the extraordinary performance of his team-mate – triple World Champion Sebastian Vettel – than anything else, and Webber is still highly regarded in Formula One. But it has become clear over time that Red Bull want him to play a supporting role despite their publicly professed policy of driver equality.
Recently, Red Bull Racing Motorsport Director Dr. Helmut Marko criticised Mark Webber quite openly in an interview for The Red Bulletin, Red Bull’s own magazine:
“It seems to me that Webber has on average two races per year where he is unbeatable, but he can’t maintain this form throughout the year. And as soon as his prospects start to look good in the world championship, he has a little trouble with the pressure that this creates. In comparison with Seb’s rising form, it seems to me that Mark’s form somehow flattens out. Then, if some technical mishap occurs, like with the alternator for example, he falls relatively easily into a downward spiral.”
While it certainly seems true that Vettel copes well with pressure, Webber is no slouch. He went into the final round of the 2010 season in Abu Dhabi ahead of Vettel on points and could have won the title if not for a strategic error that put him out of position on a track where overtaking was extremely difficult. For the first half of 2012, it was Webber who looked more like challenging Fernando Alonso for the title, although Vettel certainly found his feet in the second half of the season.
Perhaps Dr. Marko would do better to work within the team and find a solution to Webber’s difficulties under championship pressure rather than undermining his driver by discussing his weakness in public.
Lewis Hamilton believes that newly crowned triple World Champion Sebastian Vettel is likely to make it four in a row with another championship win in 2013, and cited the skills of Red Bull designer Adrian Newey as a major factor in that expected success.
Vettel is only 25 years old, and yet his stats are already staggeringly impressive: Three championships, 26 wins and 36 pole positions from only 101 races. At the rate he is going, Vettel could even challenge the achievements of recently retired legend Michael Schumacher.
Formula One is an extremely technical sport, which places massive emphasis on car competitiveness. Schumacher’s three difficult years with Mercedes have shown just how difficult it is to achieve success in an under-performing car. Vettel has had the quickest car, or close to it, for his three championship-winning seasons, and much of that advantage is down to Adrian Newey.
Newey has been designing winning cars for over 20 years, at Williams, McLaren and now Red Bull. His input at Red Bull has transformed the team into a powerhouse with dominance similar to that of Ferrari ten years ago. And Newey has shown no signs of leaving, which bodes well for Red Bull.
When asked by Sky Sports News about next year’s championship, Hamilton was clear about his expectations for Vettel and Red Bull:
“It’s going to be hard to beat Sebastian next year,” Hamilton said. “I think Sebastian’s going to have another amazing car.
“The car he had this year was fantastic. It’s going to be an evolution of that next year.
“Adrian only seems to get better with age; I think he’s going to do something pretty special next year as well.”
While Newey is likely to produce a good car again, he has acknowledged that it will be difficult to find aerodynamic gains with the current stable regulations:
“It is increasingly difficult because there are no real regulations changes compared to this year and it will be the fifth season since the 2009 rule changes… The field is converging and you can see how competitive it is in the fact that we had eight different winners this year,” Newey told Autosport.
Hamilton has not talked up his own title chances, largely due to the lack of pace shown by his new team, Mercedes, in the 2012 season. Mercedes won only won race, in China, and had a thoroughly uncompetitive end to the season. So it comes as no real surprise that Hamilton would deflect attention from himself by predicting more success for Vettel. Better to be the surprise winner than to forecast glory and then taste defeat.