When you are in the public eye, giving interviews, sometimes you get misquoted or a quote is mistranslated. It happens in F1 all the time.
But when that interview is in your own in-house magazine, you do not have that excuse. So how are we to read the comments this week in the Red Bulletin from Red Bull special adviser Helmut Marko appearing to slate the team’s own driver, Mark Webber?
“Red Bull puts him in a car – a possible winner – and suddenly along comes this young kid and he snatches the booty from under Mark’s nose. Psychologically it’s not easy, of course; this would gnaw away at anyone’s confidence. It’s more than understandable,” says Marko.
“It seems to me that Webber has on average two races per year where he is unbeatable, but he can’t maintain this form throughout the year. And as soon as his prospects start to look good in the world championship, he has a little trouble with the pressure that this creates.
“In comparison with Seb’s rising form, it seems to me that Mark’s form somehow flattens out. Then, if some technical mishap occurs, like with the alternator for example, he falls relatively easily into a downward spiral.
“No driver remains unaffected by this, because the tension is palpable. In 2010, it was particularly extreme. ”
There is no arguing with the results; in their four years together Vettel has won three titles and 25 races, while Webber has won 9 races. There is therefore some truth in what he says about Webber’s inconsistent form, especially in the closing stages of a season, but Webber did have a lot of reliability issues in the run-in last year. It’s still pretty harsh to couch it in these terms, especially this line: “he falls relatively easily into a downward spiral.”
One could imagine these comments coming from someone in a rival team, a bit of “sledging”, but it’s not normal for this kind of talk to come from someone inside the same team.
So why is it happening?
The conclusion most people will leap to is that it’s more of the same from Marko, who has obviously favoured his protege Sebastian Vettel over Webber for many years. We’ve had a couple of episodes like the front wing swap at Silverstone in 2010, while made it look like the team favoured Vettel. It will lead many fans to dislike Vettel, for his perceived “golden boy” status within the team.
Perhaps Marko wants this to be Webber’s last season to make room for another of his proteges, although there isn’t one obviously ready for the move.
But if you stand back and look at Red Bull’s situation, they have now won the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships for three years running, the team is tired due to longer hours than their rivals working on complex cars, their rivals like Ferrari and McLaren are super motivated and well prepared and there is only one way for the team to go; downwards.
They must guard against that at all costs, keep everyone motivated.
Now the oldest driver in F1 at 35, Webber performs best when his back is against the wall and, if he wasn’t before, he will certainly be fired up to start the season strongly and heap pressure on Vettel. There should be plenty of that anyway from McLaren and Ferrari this year, but Marko clearly feels that Red Bull need to keep the pressure up internally to drive everyone on to that fourth world title.
Ferrari had the same situation in the early 2000s when they kept the winning streak going for five seasons with Michael Schumacher, but there were some inbuilt advantages there, like bespoke Bridgestone tyres, endless testing and a weaker opposition. But the difference is that no-one ever publicly drove a wedge between driver and team, as is happening here.
The same is true with the Team GB Olympic Cycling Team; having won so many gold medals in Beijing, they exceeded that in the London Games last year. Extensive TV documentary output in recent months has shown that the team’s leader Sir Dave Brailsford, had the same philosophy as Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Jean Todt at Ferrari; leave no stone unturned, attend to every detail, look for any and every incremental gain. And it worked.
But again, you never heard Brailsford criticising one of his riders like Marko is doing here with Webber.
To make Webber feel a bit better about it, Marko also has a pop at Fernando Alonso for getting involved in “politics and funny comments”.
Alonso has thanked Marko for the comments; to him it shows that Red Bull feels threatened by him and such is the way of F1, that comments are often made when people feel under threat.
It’s all grist to the mill; polemic comments like these provide the oxygen of publicity to F1, which Bernie Ecclestone has always fostered and encouraged.
But this particular episode does feel out of the ordinary, at least as far as Webber is concerned and one feels that the ripples could continue throughout the early part of the season.