Friday, 4 June 2010

How the battles within are building

The aftermath of the Turkish grand prix has seen the spotlight firmly on the key personnel of Red Bull as well as the tactics and messages that were being discussed on the McLaren pitwall last Sunday. Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber collided on lap 40 before Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton banged wheels fighting for first in the closing stages. Red Bull and McLaren were clearly the fastest 2 teams in Istanbul but both of them have no clear number 1 driver with all 4 determined to take this years title.

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It's been a week of conflicting messages from Red Bull. Post race on Sunday many fans felt that Sebastian Vettel was at fault for the incident which ended his race and cost Webber a potential win. However, Christian Horner pinned blame on both drivers while advisor Helmut Marko made it clear that he felt Mark Webber had been at fault, a response that has provoked much anger and made some question whether there is favouritism towards Vettel in the team. Ex-driver Marko is good friends with Dietrich Mateschitz and looks after the Red Bull young driver programme which Vettel is the main product of. Christian Horner then issued a statement which said that things had be cleared up and that both drivers should have played things better but that the team was now looking ahead to Canada. More allegations were to come out though. What we do know is that Vettel had saved more fuel than Webber earlier in the race and Webber on lap 40 had gone into a fuel saving mode. What this means is that the engine is using a leaner mixture of fuel so using less at the expense of less performance. We also know that as Vettel moved in on Webber, he used his 'overtake' button. This isn't a push to pass button like KERS last season but rather means that Vettel would have maximum revs at his expense to aid his challenge. The teams don't run the engines at full power throughout the race but rather try to take some strain off them while optimizing power at the important moments of the race.

Webber had asked the team to back Vettel off but they couldn't do this as both Hamilton and Button were close behind. It rumoured that Horner ordered Webber's engineer to tell him to let Vettel through but this message wasn't passed on to the Australian. On paper it could be argued that Red Bull would prefer Vettel to triumph over Webber. However Webber has had the upper hand recently while Vettel's challenge has been blighted by car issues. Will his RB6 survive the Montreal mayhem next weekend? Little things have seemingly been against Webber in the pecking order like pitstop order and runs in qualifying. All could be down to circumstances, indeed i believe Vettel pitting first last Sunday put Hamilton in a catch 22 situation and forced him to cover the German, hence reducing his chances of jumping Webber. This is the biggest challenge of Horner's career in managing 2 men determined to take their best chance yet of winning the championship. Even David Coulthard refers to the importance of controlling the team rivalry before the race on the Red Bull Racing podcast. Three years ago seen the Alonso/Hamilton begin to get feisty, Red Bull can't afford their title ambitions to be ripped apart by a driver feud.

It was mostly smiles at McLaren on Sunday, as you would expect after a 1-2 but race winner Lewis Hamilton was pretty subdued. Was he trying to maintain calm with 12 races still left or was he miffed at having to fend off his team mate in the final laps? Hamilton was in fuel saving mode but his only competitor was Button who was also needing to save fuel. The teams are pushing the boundaries more in regards to how much fuel they are putting in the cars and the fierce pace in the early laps coupled with no safety car periods meant that McLaren had little margin and needed to turn the wick down. Hamilton put his dropping back to Button down to a miscommunication. Hamilton confusion and annoyance however becomes clearer after FOM released the race edit video for Turkey on the Formula 1 website. In it, a radio conversation is broadcast between Hamilton and the team before Button makes his pass. Here is what was discussed:

Team - Lewis we need you to save fuel. Both cars doing the same.

Lewis - Jenson's closing in on me you guys.

Team - Understood Lewis

Lewis - If I back off is Jenson going to pass me or not?

Team - No Lewis... No

So Hamilton clearly and rightly expected no challenge. What we don't know is what Button was told. It was Lewis who asked about Button so i would take a guess that Button had no orders to hold station and seeing the opportunity tried to take advantage. He almost did and had he made it stick, then McLaren may have had a bigger issue on their hands. They know very well what division amongst the team can do and Martin Whitmarsh needs to ensure the battles remain relatively clean like the one in Turkey.

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Button leads the McLaren challenge for the time being and has confounded critics who felt he would struggle to live with Hamilton. He has greatly impressed me this season in his clever driving as well as his sheer determination in trying to win another championship. This is most definitely a man not resting on his laurels. In a way, an improving McLaren could favour him more than Hamilton. At tracks where McLaren have been off the pace this season, Hamilton has tended to fare better, more capable of driving around car issues. Yet when the McLaren is hooked up, Button is more confident and able to match the 2008 world champion. Amidst the drama of Istanbul, what we seen was a McLaren much closer to Red Bulls raw pace and if developments keep coming then the probablity of another British world champion is a good one. It is a fantastic rivalry that is building and one that is making for compelling viewing.

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