If it is true that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, Red Bull Racing's first half of the 2010 World Championship had some dangerous parallels for the blue crew to past campaigns in which a seemingly dominant team was eclipsed in points at season's end. The 1986 and '91 seasons, in particular, stand out as ominous for Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, since in both cases it was a McLaren driver who won the title with a car widely considered to be less than the best.
After sweeping every pole position from the opening seven races this year, Vettel and Webber had established the superiority on speed of their Red Bull RB6, but a series of seemingly unconnected and unlikely reliability issues kept their win totals considerably short of that pace. With Red Bull's rivals having made performance gains after RBR's ingenious “blown” exhaust diffuser inevitably began to yield up some of its mysteries, Webber found himself musing that his team could have devoted more use of its rules-limited test time in the preseason to ironing out some of the bugs.
“That's grand prix racing,” said Webber. “The car was very, very fast. We could have done a bit more reliability work and you may say the car would not have been so fast, but it is a long, long season. Will those extra three days of testing have made a difference by Abu Dhabi? Well, hopefully not.
“Everyone has had some pretty decent hiccups along the way. McLaren has had a few pit stop problems and Ferrari has had problems. There is a solid fight going on toward the front and, when you are trying to develop the car in-season without any testing, you might have some niggles along the way – whether it is with an F-duct, an exhaust, or different types of mechanical bits you might try.”
The mechanical issues were pushed off the front page by Webber and Vettel's infamous collision while contesting the lead in Turkey, an event that not only cost the team a likely 1-2 sweep but handed that perfect result to its archrivals at McLaren.
Both drivers and RBR did their best to dispel any notion of a grudge between the two in the aftermath of their Turkey clash. Indeed there have been no signs to date of the personal animosity that split the 1986-'87 Williams-Honda pairing of Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, or the Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost teams-in-name-only at McLaren in 1988-'89. But, in Formula 1, the most obvious sources of conflict aren't always the most significant.
Mansell and Piquet's war never actually included a collision between the two. Rather, it developed out of Piquet's perception that the team had undermined the No. 1 status he thought he had been guaranteed when agreeing to terms for '86. Whatever the contracts read, Williams declined to leash Mansell, and the drivers were left to their own devices to gain the upper hand over one another. A key example of this came in Hungary where Piquet – who, unlike Mansell, had a spare car to work with – tried a new differential in practice that he found to be a marked improvement. He managed to keep it a secret from his teammate until the race, which the Brazilian won easily….
Ultimately, the gamesmanship didn't pay off, as the pair ended up splitting Williams' nine wins 5-4 in Mansell's favor. Prost – at that time still driving for a McLaren team fully unified behind him – took all four of the squad's wins, including a year-ending triumph at Australia that secured the Frenchman's second straight title. His win on the streets of Adelaide only came after Mansell's hopes had been blown up by an exploding tire and Piquet was forced to cede the lead to Prost when the team called him in for a precautionary tire change.
On the other hand, it could be argued that Williams' advantage was such that Prost – whose TAG Porsche-engined car was no match for the Honda either in power, fuel economy (critical in the turbo era) or reliability, should never have been in a position to take the title by that point anyway.
The 1991 season is arguably a closer parallel with the present, as its dynamics hinged more on mechanical than human foibles. Mansell, lured back to Williams after a stint with Ferrari by the promise of undisputed No. 1 status over Riccardo Patrese, started the year a strong championship favorite with Williams' high-tech FW14-Renault – designed by Adrian Newey, the brains behind Red Bull's modern-day marvels. Like Red Bull this year, though, Williams was unable to capitalize on its car's advances due to a series of mechanical failures in the first half of the year, while McLaren's Senna took full advantage.
Senna swept the first four races, then held on as Williams finally sorted its teething troubles by midseason and Mansell reeled off five wins in seven events. It might have been more difficult for Senna to beat back Mansell's late surge if he had still been facing a challenge from within, but Prost – with whom he had split title honors in the final two years of the '80s, when McLaren-Honda had enjoyed an overwhelming technical advantage over the rest of the field – had left for Ferrari.
Instead, Senna was paired with Gerhard Berger, who rarely posed much of a threat, and back-to-back World Championships for Senna during this period provided a lesson that was not lost on his contemporaries. Prost himself insisted on No. 1 status when he joined Williams for '93 (although his designated No. 2, Damon Hill, ran him surprisingly close at times) and Michael Schumacher always reserved a veto over his teammates. While it might seem selfish logic, Senna explained the rationale to Autosport's Mike Doodson after locking up that '91 title.
“It may seem sometimes that this sport is just a boys' game, like kids playing around, with big egos,” he said. “But it is not, you know – if you're really into it, you feel the pressure not only to achieve your own dreams and your own goals, but because you are part of such a large structure. You've got to do it right. I race for an engine manufacturer that has thousands of people just behind the F1 program alone. Then there is the whole structure which finances the F1 program. It's a heavy responsibility.
“It's hard enough to be No. 1, and even harder to stay No. 1. You win a championship, and then the pressure goes even more, because it's no good being second.”
The predominance of automotive manufacturers may have lessened in F1 since Senna's day, but the pressures associated with F1 success have only increased. Red Bull may not have the battle scars of championships won and lost that McLaren and Ferrari do, but it's feeling the heat now, and how it responds will make the second half of the season even more fascinating.
DOUBLE PUNCH A TWO-EDGED SWORD
McLaren's team drama of 2007 paved the way to defeat
The debate of whether “co-No. 1s” are better or worse for a championship challenge is as old as Formula 1, with plenty of fodder for argument on both sides.
For every 1986, where Williams giants Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet canceled each other out, there is a 1984, where Alain Prost and Niki Lauda cooperated in the development of their McLaren en route to a 1-2 in points.
McLaren's effective marshalling of two top talents was tested shortly thereafter, when Lauda retired and Ayrton Senna arrived. The team's technical superiority was such that no one was in a position to capitalize on Senna and Prost's eagerness to score points off each other, but when a similar situation arose for the squad in 2007, it was a different story.
In a way, the '07 McLaren pairing of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton was reminiscent of Williams in 1986, with a proven champion landing in a team alongside an unproven talent, confident that he would quickly establish the “proper” pecking order. Immediately, though, Hamilton matched his ace teammate on pace and refused to be intimidated, so cracks in Alonso's assumptions of domination soon grew into frustration and bitterness at what he perceived to be the team's double dealing in favoring Hamilton.
The full ramifications of Alonso's disillusion with McLaren played out amid the backdrop of the “spygate” scandal with archrival Ferrari that resulted in McLaren's disqualification from the constructor's championship. In simple math, though, the objective results of the season showed Hamilton and Alonso splitting the team's eight wins evenly, while Kimi Raikkonen's 6-3 win margin over Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa positioned him to scoop the title at the final race.