This weekend’s Sepang Grand Prix was an absolute thriller, but instead of the race itself, let’s discuss the internal battle at Red Bull or, more specifically, the increasingly toxic attitude of three-time champ, Sebastian Vettel, and why he could find himself out of a drive at the Milton Keynes team sooner rather than later.
The fact is that Sebastian is becoming increasingly difficult to control. He’s always been slightly obstinate, having a habit of setting increasingly faster laps when he’s miles ahead of everyone, in deference to his engineer’s demands to take it easy and bring the car home. But having the confidence to keep pushing and gather all the race-weekend notches for his bed post is one thing, blatantly ignoring team orders as he did on Sunday is quite another and takes cheeky obstinacy deep into the realms of insubordination and onto very thin ice indeed.
As it stands, apart from the obvious humiliation suffered by (Team Principal) Christian Horner and long-time Seb Champion, (Red Bull Motor Sport Adviser) Helmut Marko, his behaviour hasn’t yet cost the team too dearly – in fact you could argue that it’s won them the last six championships on offer. But how long before it goes really bad? And how will Red Bull respond to the rather embarrassing PR-position in which Sebastian has just placed it? Its undisputed star just stuck two fingers up and said ‘screw you guys, I’m doing what I want’. It doesn’t look good: after all, Red Bull is really nothing more than a marketing company that happens to make a soft drink.
The first question that Red Bull Racing has to ask if there isn’t a sudden and dramatic change in Vettel’s approach (which there won’t be) is ‘do we really need him to win championships and races?’ Based on what we have seen recently, the answer is almost certainly ‘no, we do not.’ While there is no doubt in mine, nor should there be in any right-thinking F1-fan’s mind, that Sebastian Vettel is a magnificent driver, the car that Newey has provided is more than a match for his talent. Stick any decent pedaller like, oh I dunno let’s say, Mark Webber, in that car and it’s more than capable of remaining at the very sharpest end of the grid. Ricciardo? Buemi even? Yes, and yes again.
And this will lead to a second question: ‘So if we can win without him, do we really the stress he is bringing into our operation?’ This might be a bit harder to answer, but again the answer is no. Success in Formula One requires unity and cooperation within a team. Getting beaten in a fair fight and being stuffed by a broken agreement that one party denies even existed in the same breath as apologising for breaking are, psychologically, on entirely different planets even if the outcome is identical. A blatantly disregarded team order breeds an atmosphere of mistrust which is not conducive to the success to which Red Bull has become accustomed. As it stands, Red Bull cannot rely on their World Champion to do as he’s told, Webber has just lost any remaining scrap of faith he had in the team and, as a result, Red Bull can no longer trust Mark to support Seb when he has to. A lack of trust can bring a team to its knees – just look at the McLaren debacle of 2007.
So, why not just get rid of Mark Webber, abandon the team’s (huge inverted commas here) ‘equal driver status’ and let Seb rip? Well, because not bothering to listen to the team has nothing to do with your team mate. That’s an attitude problem that will prevail no matter what and, I would suggest, one that will worsen in the face of undisputed number one status and a non-threat in the other car.
With the way he’s acting, Vettel is putting himself in serious danger of being ‘Damon Hilled’. Hill lost his drive after he won the world title in 1996 primarily because Frank Williams wanted to prove that anyone could take one of his wonderful cars, not-so-coincidentally also designed by Adrian Newey and powered by a Renault motor at the time, to championship glory. And he was right. Whatever interest they have in Vettel, Red Bull’s management are arrogant enough to make this type of power play and they seem to have the engineering talent and financial fortitude to pull it off without looking like idiots.
On the face of it Sebastian’s seat is the safest on the grid, but don’t be surprised to find one, or maybe two, new drivers in 2014’s RB10.