Mark Webber is a sports tragic. Brought up in a rugby-league household, he was also held accountable for his actions as an adolescent. You borrow something – you return it in the same condition. You break someone else’s property – you get a hiding. This same cultivation was evident in his assessment of former acquaintance Lance Armstrong, saying “he admitted he was a doper but he still didn’t see it as cheating… What’s staggering to everyone is the amount of people he was prepared to take out on the way up; people who were morally on the right side of the bridge. He wasn’t worried about the ramifications and the position he may have put these people in; it was all about Planet Lance”.
On Sunday April 24 in Sepang, it was all About Planet Sebastian. Incensed at being overtaken – and then being backed up – by his team-mate during tyre conservation mode brought back memories of Turkey 2010. Having just three laps to overtake Webber on merit before the call to turn down their engines was proving difficult. And so, with only two laps completed under optimum revs it was Mark who was instructed to turn the dial down on his Renault V8. Predictably, Vettel got the run on Webber that he needed. Mark, sensing more than a hint of subterfuge, gave Sebastian just enough room to execute a pass. As it was, Seb was probably told/expecting something completely different. A sense of entitlement took over, Seb jinked to the right and contact was made…
As in Turkey, Hamilton was the man looming large in Sebastian’s mind in Sepang, although Lewis had a similar issue to deal with in the form of a hard-charging Rosberg filling his mirrors. Mercedes Team Principal Ross Brawn brought things under control – and rightly so. That his equivalently ranked rival Christian Horner chose not to order Vettel to give back the place he took whilst breaking rank, is a window into how Red Bull Racing operates – maladjusted as it may be.
A brilliant start in Malaysia placed Mark in a race-winning position. Then, by running two laps longer than Vettel on intermediates, he made the cross-over to slicks at just the right moment. From there, he kept Vettel at arm’s length after the final pit-stops. Even a “Mark’s too slow” radio message from Seb was answered emphatically from Webber, by immediately pulling out 5-tenths.
It’s probably a fair call to say that Mark doesn’t have too many days like this – at least not under the glare of television cameras. Numerous times during his Jaguar days, Webber has reeled off consecutive qualifying laps in races that were only bettered by the all-dominant Ferrari’s during the Schumacher era. But there lies the rub Mark was referring to. We are no longer in the sprint age of refuelling and old hands like Webber have been forced to adapt their driving towards a conservative approach. A fact Webber admitted as much in the post-race press conference:
“You watch Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer play with each other and it’s playing with the lines, it’s playing with precision for a five set match and we all enjoy watching that but at the moment we’re driving at eight and a half tenths, eight tenths, conserving our pace and some more situations like this will probably happen in the future because there’s a lot of ambiguity in who’s (one the) pace…”
But in saying that, there comes a time to attack, make split-second decisions under pressure and do as much as is required to win the race. Mark’s Monaco wins are a testament to that. It’s all about playing within the lines, and Monaco is all about playing within the lines. In a Jackie Stewart or Alain Prost sense, Mark got this exactly right in Sepang. An oscillation from Vettel during his second pit-stop confirmed as much; Webber was turning the screws and the youngest three-time World Champion didn’t like it one bit.
And can you blame him? As early as his Formula BMW days, Vettel has been used to having preferential treatment. In Autosport’s Edd Straw’s interview with Seb’s 2004 team-mate Dominik Jackson, the Brit made no bones about the equal measures of awe and aura surrounding the young German.
“From a professional point of view, Seb was a tough challenge”, admitted Jackson . “He’s there 100% with effort… Our pre-season test was at Hockenheim and I was consistently faster than Seb. Before leaving I recorded my engine and chassis numbers, and when we arrived at the first round two weeks later they had swapped our chassis!… At the European Grand Prix support race I got pole and Seb was so pissed off that he ignored the chequered flag and tried again. He got a fine (but) when I got back to the paddock, pretty much the whole team stopped talking to me… I got on pole, yet there is a negative vibe”.
Humans are products of their environment. Just as Webber responds fiercely to challenges to his sense of fair play, so too does Seb when his prerogative is under threat. Without wanting to sound too psychological, such feelings come to both drivers as naturally as breathing. In Turkey the collision of such ideals was an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. In Sepang, the effect was more akin to mururoa atoll – prompting even the usually stoic Adrian Newey into eye-balling the wunderkind into a corner during the pre-podium briefing. A shocked Sebastian only then realised the gravity of his actions and quickly went into damage control during the press conference, stating: “I remember occasions where obviously people express their opinion about Mark and his career which I thought at some stage were very disrespectful. I obviously try to be aware of what he has achieved, where he has come from, not only in Formula One but also before that and I respect that, so I respect him as a driver”.
But where was this “respect” thirty minutes earlier, and how does Red Bull now fix this? Mark will never accept a charity win for all of the above reasons, just as Vettel won’t hand him one for… All of the above reasons. I’d suggest that had not the call for ‘Multi 21’ been given, Mark would’ve seen off the first legitimate challenge from Sebastian by forcing him to the outside of turn 1 and then covering him at turn 2 before pulling a safe gap… Only then were both drivers told to turn down their engines. Anyone claiming that Sebastian’s subsequent, “opportunistic” move somehow translates into Mark not having the bottle to win seriously needs their head examined.
A massive atonement is required now from Milton Keynes; both within and towards the sport in general. Vettel now leads the World Championship via a concocted victory, but has the opportunity win it from now on through real racing. Red Bull may risk it all by taking this approach, but may get back to what they were preaching at the start of 2010 when they were pretenders to the throne.
“I think of the clean cyclists who competed in the system Armstrong was fuelling week in, week out. We’ll never know but some of them on their day could have challenged the likes of Armstrong, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Alexander Vinokourov, Alberto Contador and so on… Sadly we won’t even know their names but in my reckoning they’re morally streets ahead of those guys”.
Sunday, despite statistics pointing to the contrary, was definitely Mark’s day.
Images courtesy of Diana Rosica and Octane Photographic