This was not meant to be some grand finale. It was only the second contest of the season, yet the two young toreros squared-up as if it were their last. Pistons flaring, slick-shod Pirellis lashing-out against the screaming torso of bloodied machines.
By the wall, two old maestros watched-on as their charges clashed; fists clenched, heads lowered, faces contorted. Radio buttons, firmly in-hand, sharing their torment with the listening world. The thoughts of men, so normally reserved, often so-considered, now laid bare and exposed.
And in the gallery, another stands alone. Whoever might win this duel, theirs, and the fates of all concerned would be his to decide. His alone. This is his world. His money talks.
“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.” – Ernest Hemmingway
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There have been countless columns written about the antics of Sebastian Vettel on Sunday. The triple world champion; the racer destined to become one of the greatest of modern times; the young man driven to succeed: The moment of madness.
But for all the accompanying vitriol, all the admiration for his hapless team mate, and all the wisdom spewed at the Team Principal, there is one man whose actions will mean more to this saga than any other’s: Dietrich Mateschitz.
As I watched last Sunday’s race, I found myself reflecting on Formula One’s greatest drivers; Fangio, Clark, Stewart, Alonso, Moss, Schumacher? But despite Michael’s huge tally of wins, he’ll probably never be considered a great champion. There’s no doubting his results, but we enjoy our sports for the way they symbolise a competitors battle over adversity while retaining their humanity.
Sport is not about life and death, it’s about the honour of accomplishing success within a set of agreed rules.
Vettel is undoubtedly ruthless – a cage fighter of the same ilk as Alonso, Raikkonen and Hamilton. And of course winning requires a degree of self-focus and determination sustained over a full grand prix season, but there’s a line between ‘winning with honour’ and ‘winning at all costs’. That’s the line Vettel crossed last Sunday.
This had nothing to do with team orders, and everything to do with sportsman-like competition. There’s no beauty in cheating, no honour in stabbing your opponent in the back.
Not long ago we considered Lance Armstrong a champion, but a champion beats his opponents using the same equipment, and playing to the same rules. What difference is there between Vettel’s breach of the team’s détente and passing a back-marker under yellow flags? Does it matter if you win by driving your opponent off the track? (Schumacher/Hill, Senna/Prost) Or perhaps parking your car at Rascasse corner to secure pole? (Schumacher, Monaco 2006).
I believe it does matter. That winning at all costs, is not winning and a driver without integrity can never be called a champion.
What Christian Horner and Adrian Newey have achieved at Red Bull is remarkable. Pitched against the best of the best, they exceed. Yet it wasn’t until Sebastian Vettel arrived from Toro Rosso (to replace the retiring David Coulthard) that the team tasted true success.
Of course, some might argue that the young German is only as good as his car, but this simply isn’t true. Webber is as good as the car; but Vettel is better. And no one recognises this more than the Red Bull boss. The Austrian tycoon has no need to employ diplomacy, although he has recently tried to down-play his perceived antagonism against Webber.
Nevertheless, everybody at Red Bull knows that what drives them forward, starting with the man at the very top, is the pursuit of victory. Horner’s vision, Newey’s presence and Mateschitz’s millions make for a formidable team, yet still, everybody who knows, knows that until Antonio Felix da Costa comes of age, there is only one driver capable of bringing the silver ware back to Milton Keynes: Sebastian Vettel.
So what is Horner expected to do?
Vettel clearly not only disobeyed pre-agreed team orders but also blatantly ignored the increasingly desperate radio messages from the pit wall. He’s broken the trust of his bosses, the crew and that of his team mate (who he may well need to rely on later in the season). Moreover, he’s created a huge amount of embarrassment for many, Horner especially.
Yet despite all this, he’s the reigning World Champion, and he, and Horner and Mateschitz all know that he is Red Bull’s best, probably only chance, for chasing history. This is likely to be the closest of all recent seasons and Horner is all too aware that his paymasters at Red Bull and Infiniti want this issue dealt with swiftly and without lingering recriminations. If Horner were to suspend or even fire Vettel (which in any other realm would be the reasonable course to take), he won’t just be penalising the driver, he’d be penalising the whole team.
And what of his own actions? Telling Vettel that it was “getting silly now” was hardly an affirmative instruction to “stay behind, do not pass, hold station”.
This isn’t the first time that Red Bull’s front men have been at the centre of the storm. Remember Turkey back in May 2010? Neither driver willing to give position, and the resulting collision, taking both out of the race. Afterwards, Horner said this. “Drivers are strong-willed individuals but they drive for the team and it’s important they recognise that.”
Well it’s clear that whilst Webber heeded the message, his team mate did not. So who is to blame? The driver who made a conscious decision that he needed the extra 7 points, ignoring Webber’s twitching finger, the coded agreements and the pleas of his elders. Or, is Horner at fault? For four seasons now, allowing a simmering feud to spill over and bring the entire team and its name bearers into disrepute.
At the end of the day, Mateschitz won’t like the fall-out this has caused, but he’ll understand why his protégé did it. On the other hand, Horner’s actions seemed hesitant and half-hearted. Somebody will pay the price for Red Bull’s spilt blood, but rather than blame the drivers, perhaps the ultimate responsibility lies with the team.
Pictures: Infiniti Europe @InfinitiGB