It wasn't meant to happen this way: Red Bull's plan to hijack Formula 1 with a brash, youth-centric image of rebellion more akin to skating or surfing than traditional motorsport was not supposed to be led by a battle-hardened Aussie veteran. Mark Webber had been taken on board only to help the racing arm of the energy drink marketing operation achieve respectability. Using his hard-won experience of five seasons to help get the operation up to speed at the track, while designer Adrian Newey built up the technical resource to the level necessary to use his genius, Red Bull Racing would then wipe the floor with the two behemoths – Ferrari and McLaren – that had largely dominated F1 for the previous decade. As that came to fruition (so the assumption went), Webber would be replaced/demoted by a young super-talent, preferably one raised and funded by Red Bull itself and who fitted into the funky image it wished to project to the marketplace.
Sebastian Vettel was that man – a whirlwind of talent, who'd grabbed the ladder of opportunity that Red Bull provided in his junior-category days, who was an F1 Friday test driver while still a teenager and who became the youngest ever grand prix winner with a giant-killing drive in the 2008 Italian Grand Prix for Red Bull's junior offspring, Toro Rosso. Installed into Red Bull for 2009, just as Newey's work was maturing to give Red Bull the fastest car on the grid, Vettel's arrival there dovetailed perfectly with the masterplan. Thanks for your efforts Mark: you can now be Vettel's tail gunner.
Except they'd misjudged the caliber of Webber – just as almost everyone in F1 had always underestimated him. He was always way too fast to be anyone's number two. That's created internal problems in the team this year – though they are nice problems to have. In the meantime, the “wrong man” could end up being Red Bull's first World Champion. For Mark himself, that would represent an achievement huge even by the standards of F1 title glory – to do it effectively against the grain of the team.
When Vettel joined, a leading team member gathered the troops around at the factory and roused them with the following: “You guys have never worked with a potential World Champion before. Now we've got one.” One (now ex-) team member bristled with indignation on Webber's behalf. He was one of the few who “got” Mark. Most of F1 – fans and paddock insiders alike – did not.
Webber, the man, was easy: hard- working, straight-talking Aussie grit. But back in 2005/'06, if you'd ventured the opinion that Webber was one of the very fastest men on the grid, directly comparable in speed with Fernando Alonso or Kimi Raikkonen, and that in the right car he would win grands prix, you'd have received disbelieving looks.
Those people hadn't stood trackside and watched, hadn't seen the aggressively committed approach to a corner, watched the fine-honed coordination of brake/throttle/steering through it. Nor had they monitored his qualifying performance compared to as quick a teammate as Nick Heidfeld at Williams in '05. Anyone almost 0.5sec per lap faster than Heidfeld was surely almost as quick as anyone could be.
Even those few who acknowledged this couldn't see past the guy who made a few key errors in races as he tried to maintain the position that his transcendence of the car in qualifying had elevated it to. But at Monaco in '06, for example, what was his Williams doing vying for victory with Alonso's Renault and Raikkonen's McLaren? It seemed the Monegasque marshals had the same Webber-blindness as everyone else, for as the three leaders came to lap the traffic, they seemingly hadn't realized that Webber was one of them: the paths of Alonso and Raikkonen were eased by a plethora of blue flags, but Webber received virtually no service on that score. Maybe the fact that he was lapping the identical Williams of Nico Rosberg added to the confusion.
He got over the disappointment. More troubling for him was that team bosses Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head seemed to share F1's general lack of faith in him. As he recalls: “I'd gone there from Jaguar thinking I was joining the Williams team as it had been, a championship-contending team. This was going to be the big break that put me on a completely different plane of success.
“What I found when I got there was a big disappointment. They said that part of the problem with Ralf Schumacher and [Juan] Montoya had been that they didn't get involved enough: they'd just show up, drive and go home. I'd always been very much involved at Minardi and Jaguar, so this sounded great. But as soon as I ventured an opinion on things that could be improved in the team – and there were lots of things at that time – I was told, more or less, to shut up and mind my own business. There were a lot of things holding us back and I wasn't being listened to. By '06 I was ready to walk away from F1 rather than stay there.”
Red Bull at that time was even less competitive than Williams. But for Mark, it had two things going for it: one, it wasn't Williams, and two, Adrian Newey had joined. The peripheral marketing buzz around the team was irrelevant to him. (There are few drivers further removed from the “party-party” lifestyle the brand projects.) He understood that, inside, it was a deeply professional and ruthlessly competitive F1 team.
That divergence between marketing aspiration and racing reality is what has created the fault line for conflict as the car has become competitive enough to show that Webber was simply too fast for the role envisaged. It's necessary to understand the dynamic between the parent company and the race team to properly appreciate the tensions Webber's speed has created.Team principal Christian Horner is essentially an employee, in that the F1 team is effectively a promotional tool of the energy drink company that provides the money. But it's run as a racing team, and is much less cumbersome than the multi-structured operations of McLaren or Ferrari. Webber likens it to a “giant F3 team” run by Horner and Newey together. The link between owner Dietrich Mateschitz and the team is Helmut Marko, but the former F1 driver has no direct say in the running of the team. As Mateschitz's connection, however, he very much buys into the idea of Vettel being a more appropriate focus for Red Bull's marketing aims than Webber.
Vettel, a brilliant but not fully matured racer, petulantly steered into Webber while trying to pass him for the lead in Turkey this year, and cost the team a likely 1-2 finish. Afterward, Marko publicly put the blame fully on Webber, revealing an apparent bias toward the young German. So it's Horner's job to manage the conflicting pulls inherent in the team, between marketing and racing, Austria and the UK, Vettel and Webber. The reality is that, from a racing perspective, Horner doesn't much care which RBR driver wins, so long as it's one of them. But he also appreciates what's funding the whole thing and is therefore acutely aware of the delicate line to be trod.
That was unconnected with the wing episode at the British Grand Prix. The only undamaged example of Newey's new front wing design was transferred from Webber's car to Vettel's only as a consequence of Newey's blinkered striving for performance as Vettel was slightly quicker in practice. Horner, in a FOTA meeting at the time, only knew about it when an eruption unfolded on Webber's side of the garage on the eve of qualifying.
Yet, from the outside, it reinforced the impression that Webber is treated as a number two. And, once the paranoia antennae are up, smaller things then come onto the radar – the release order from the garages in qualifying, which driver gets to stop first in the race, who gets the best engines. The differences are small, but at least until Webber emerged in a mathematically stronger position late in the season, they all seemed to point the same way – and that was toward Vettel. This could well be a product of Horner managing the opposing pulls.
As late as last year – when Vettel won four times to Webber's two and outqualified him 15-2 – it seemed there was a natural order between them. But in the RB6 of 2010, Webber has been quicker much more often than was the case then. Is it to do with Webber recovering from his leg and shoulder-breaking injuries throughout last season? He insists not.
“It wasn't the most comfortable of seasons,” he says, “but in terms of my performance in the car, that had no bearing. I could have done without being distracted by various operations during the season, but it's only the sort of stuff that's normal for, say, top motocross riders. So, no. If you're looking for why I've been better in qualifying this year, I'd say it's more to do with the format. I didn't like heavy fuel qualifying. I feel I can get more out of the car in the low-fuel quali we have now.”
Overall, he's probably still been slightly slower than Vettel, but over the intense pressure and grind of the season, Webber's experience has given him the edge. Sometimes he's fast enough to beat Vettel on pure pace but, just as important, he doesn't lose the plot when he's not. That composure has been badly lacking in his teammate, who seems to carry his frustrations into the car – a symptom, perhaps, of a too-rapid career ascent.
“Composure has not always been my best point,” Webber admits, “but you get a good exposure to yourself when you're put in situations that a fast and reliable car gives you. It maybe looks like I'm a late bloomer, and I'll be honest and say I'd love to have had this opportunity at 21 or 22 years old, but you can only deal with these situations as you're put into them. There's no manual for this stuff. You get into new situations and each of my six wins have been different, so they've required different qualities. That's how you get familiar with what's needed at any given moment.
“What doesn't kill you helps you,” says Webber on whether his long career slog is now a key asset against a brilliant teammate who's a decade lighter on life experience. It's not the sort of hip, jive street talk that would fit with a Red Bull ad campaign – but it carries a whole lot more substance, doesn't it?
DON'T UNDERESTIMATE VETTEL
The Red Bull prodigy has the pace to fight back
Sebastian Vettel is a fantastically fast racing driver. He has an ability to get a car instantly on the limit from the braking phase through to corner entry, uninhibited by any instability.
Vettel can do this slightly better than Webber, and that should be his rock of belief that allows him to shrug off both the various frustrations that have befallen him and also the psychological pressure that Webber famously applies to his teammates. Instead Vettel's self-belief is too often overriden by emotion.
It's absolutely essential for a racing driver to turn up at a race having put behind him frustrations from previous events. In the first two races of the season, Vettel was robbed of victory through no fault of his own. Each time anything has gone wrong subsequently, it's as if the emotion is magnified.
An inappropriate degree of emotion was behind his clash with Webber in Turkey, was what stopped him recognizing when to surrender the first corner to Webber at Silverstone and contributed to his inattention behind the safety car in Hungary. There, he failed to notice its lights go out before the restart, backed up the pack behind him and got penalized for it.
The best thing he could do now is forget all of that, put on the blinkers, ignore any destabilizing things that might be said from the other side of the garage, and just focus on what he does best.