Malaysia GP reflection: Bull Fight at the KL Corral

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

* * *

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.

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.

Infiniti-RBR-Malaysia_G2Infiniti-RBR-Malaysia_G1Sebastian Vettel, a winner but perhaps not yet a champion.

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

  • Steve Hindle

    To Infiniti . .

    Timing, they say, is everything.

    Yesterday’sannouncement that Sebastian Vettel can now add “Director of Performance” at Infiniti to his LinkedIn profile underpins the strategic importance of the young German to Nissan’s luxury auto brand. On any ordinary day, this would just be another piece of carefully crafted PR, designed to influence the
    growing status of the Hong Kong based manufacturer. But as we witnessed last Sunday, these are not ordinary days.

    Infiniti’s relationship with Red Bull’s F1 team is one of the most influential in the paddock. At a cost of €100m over four years, it represents a shrewd yet significant investment by Nissan who are keen to progress the appeal of Infiniti beyond its traditional North American boundaries. Moreover, in building the relationship into a technical collaboration, it also provides a hint that the long term future of the team might ultimately see a role reversal where Infiniti become the principal and Red Bull the sponsor. If this proves to be the case, yesterday’s announcement in New York demonstrates that if Christian Horner wishes to carry-on calling the shots, then he might just be forced to lay-down some friendly fire first.

    Entering the Easter break, and with no outward sign of a resolution to the Vettel vs Webber spat, I’m beginning to feel Horner’s pain. He knows that opinion within his team is fragmented, just as it is throughout the media and with the public. And he knows that from the team’s perspective, he has to restore harmony, both on and off the track. Yet ironically, the longer the issue remains an issue, the more the public are drawn into this saga, especially those whose knowledge of F1 is entirely fuelled by populist headlines.

    As it stands, Mark Webber easily holds the moral high ground. His behaviour during Sunday’s race and beyond has been calm, measured and professional. He’s the very essence of a good story. Yet his
    contract at Red Bull expires this year, and Infiniti have over three years left on theirs. And if ever markets for Infiniti’s product could deliver serious and immediate returns, then China and the ASEAN, traditionally difficult territories for Nissan, are primed.

    So what is Horner to do? The Chinese Grand Prix is just two weeks away and for the team’s sake, this matter has to be resolved in Milton Keynes and not Shanghai. Yet for the spectacle of F1, how many more millions will be glued to their tv’s, awaiting the charge down into the notorious turns 1 and 2 as the red lights fade? For Red Bull, it’s a “win / win” situation. The world is talking about them and they’re going to achieve more brand exposure than anyone else. For the drivers, they just want to get on with racing and let their talent do the talking, but for Infiniti, the stakes are now a little higher.

    As I said in my original piece, Horner really has been pushed into that corner. He’s there to manage the team and he can’t do this successfully if he’s losing the trust and respect of key individuals within it; at the same time, neither can he deliver a true resolution if he has conflicting interests to consider. So perhaps for everybody’s sake, the only way for the business of Red Bull Racing to continue will be for the drivers, Webber and Vettel, to work this one out between them. I’m pretty sure that Webber is man-enough to do this, and I have to hope that Vettel the champion, and Vettel the brand ambassador can now step-up and deliver
    on his responsibilities. If he doesn’t, the prospect of Webber seeing-out his contract as Infiniti Red Bull aim for title number appears dim.