There has been something of a phoney war going on this week with Fernando Alonso mischievously tweeting a photo of himself having dinner with Red Bull’s Mark Webber in Dubai. In the light of the climate of antagonism between Webber and team mate Sebastian Vettel after the team orders debacle in Malaysia, the photo assumed a different significance and that was exacerbated when it was mysteriously taken down.
There is nothing unusual about them having dinner together; they do it regularly. However, both drivers are celebrating 200 Grands Prix and on Thursday and ahead of this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, the BBC got Webber and Alonso to sit down together to talk through their shared experiences. Some of the chat was broadcast last night on BBC Radio 5 Live (listen Here) the whole chat will be shown during BBC TV’s Live Spanish Grand Prix coverage. There is some terrific banter, which shows how well the pair get along.
“What are your memories of your first race?” Webber asked.
“It was quite scary,” said Alonso. “I arrived at the first race and I hadn’t had any testing. I jumped in the car and I didn’t know all the buttons on the steering wheel, especially the neutral. I went down the pit lane and went down the gears, down, down looking for neutral, but I couldn’t find it! At the last moment I got it and missed hitting the car in front of me! That was a good start!”
Webber made his debut, also with Minardi, a year later and recalled, “I wasn’t comfortable in the car’ you’d been there, a short arse and so I had my knees on top of the chassis, the elbows in the side.”
“Was it strange making your debut in your home race,” interjected Alonso.
“It is strange yes,” said Webber, referring to the Australian GP 2002, where he finished fifth and scored points on debut. “Fortunately for you, you’ve won your home race. I was speaking to Jenson; he’s never won his home race, I’ve never won mine. I enjoy Melbourne, but I think I used up all my coins in that first race!”
“What was your favourite race?” Alonso asked.
“Probably one of the Monaco wins, the 2010 race, I think,” said Webber. “I was fortunate that you crashed in Practice 3, which helped me a bit, because you were quick, along with Robert (Kubica) and Seb. The win was between us. Yours?”
“Probably Malaysia 2012,” said Alonso. “It was completely unexpected. I started 9th and then the red flag. When you stop for an hour it’s really challenging for the drivers, to see how the grip has changed.”
Webber and Alonso have had some terrific battles over the years, not least their classic scrap at Spa in 2011, where Webber passed Alonso on the outside on the way into the Eau Rouge corner and you can sense the respect and cameraderie between them whenever you see them together, such as in the cool down room or off camera in the Unitateral TV studio after a race,
“We’ve had some really good times on the track (over their 200 races together),” said Webber. “There’s a few guys out there; you, Jenson, the racing can be really hard and fair and looking a bit more at the bigger picture.”
“It’s good to battle with someone you respect and the battle can be fair. I think we met in many starts at the first corner,” said Alonso. “The last three or four years we have been fighting for the first three or four positions.
“Some of the rookies that arrive in F1 with a GP2 mentality, it’s very risky,” said Alonso, possibly reflecting on last year’s Belgian GP start, where he was taken out by Romain Grosjean.
They also spoke about life after F1, Alonso said that he is interested in driving other cars because F1 is so restrictive in terms of testing bans and opportunities to have fun. They agreed that Fridays at Grands Prix do not satisfy them. Although they are compelled to drive in F1 by the challenge of racing at the highest level and competing against the best drivers in the world, they are conscious of there being more to life.
“We enjoy this category (of racing), but there are others and more fun cars to drive, ” said Alonso. There is a lot of pressure and the enjoyable moments are less and less. Sometimes we go in a kart and enjoy more.”
“There is life outside F1.”
You can read between the lines.
As my colleague Gary Anderson observed, in F1 you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
If the Dubai photo was designed to upset Vettel, he refused to take the bait,
“We all need dinner at some point and it’s quite boring to always have it on your own.”
It’s a classic piece of F1 gamesmanship by Alonso and Webber. Vettel accused the Australian of doing nothing to help him in their years as team mates. He knows now, if he had been in any doubt before, that his arch rival Alonso has an ally within his own camp.
* Look out for the full Alonso/Webber chat during BBC TV’s Live Spanish GP weekend.