Put two top drivers in a car capable of winning the world championship and there will inevitably be points of friction. That was certainly true of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel during their five years together at Red Bull, which came to an end at the close of this season.
Though closely matched at first, with time Vettel gradually asserted himself over Webber, to the point that in their final season together all 13 of Red Bull’s victories were score by Vettel.
This could be explained as Vettel’s precocious young talent maturing into one of the most formidable forces on the track today. But others perceived sinister forces were at work within the team, striving to undermine Webber. Which is the more compelling explanation for the superiority Vettel came to exert within the team?
The first season
In 2009 Webber began his third year with Red Bull. Both were yet to win a grand prix, but new team mate Vettel had brought cheer to the Red Bull project by scoring his first victory with sister team Toro Rosso the year before. That inevitably provoked questions why the rebranded Minardi squad had achieved the feat before the main team had.
Vettel put that right three races into his Red Bull career with a superb victory at a rain-soaked Chinese Grand Prix. But from the outset Webber was on the back foot – almost literally, having broken his leg in a pre-season cycling accident. Merely starting the season was a brave effort on his part, and in China he followed Vettel home to give the team a one-two.
In these early days there were times when the more experienced Webber was able to exploit Vettel’s lack of polish.
In the Turkish Grand Prix, their seventh race together, Vettel went off on the first lap and fell behind his team mate. Towards the end of the race Vettel caught second-placed Webber and, despite being ahead of his team mate in the championship, was ordered to hold position behind him. He did, and followed Webber home in third place.
This was unremarkable at the time but became significant in the light of subsequent events.
The Istanbul incident
Twelve months later at the same track a similar situation played out. Once again Webber led Vettel, who had been slowed by a brake problem in qualifying, with the two McLarens bearing down on them.
Vettel made to pass his team mate and was on the verge of completing the move when he edged back towards the racing line. It was too soon. The two RB6s touched, spinning Vettel into retirement, sending Webber into the pits with a broken wing and handing McLaren a one-two finish.
Television cameras caught an unimpressed Vettel making a ‘crazy’ gesture in reference to his team mate’s driving. Afterwards Red Bull’s Helmut Marko, the architect of the driver programme which had brought Vettel to the team, backed his young charge instead of the patently blameless Webber.
In any tension between the two team mates Marko invariably came down on Vettel’s side, which unquestionably undermined Red Bull’s insistence that the pair were receiving equal treatment. And the mishandling of a situation at Silverstone later that year did even more damage.
The team had brought two new front wings for the weekend, one each for Vettel and Webber, the latter trialling his team mate in the championship by eight points. When the mounting on Vettel’s wing failed during final practice, the sole remaining example of the new wing was allocated to him instead of Webber.
Vettel duly took pole position at Silverstone but first-corner contact with Lewis Hamilton left him with a puncture and Webber won the race. But his status within the team was fixed in the minds of many by his infamous post-race retort to Christian Horner: “Not bad for a number two driver”.
Despite the growing friction between their drivers Red Bull tried to use team tactics to their advantage when they could. During a Safety Car period in the Hungarian Grand Prix Vettel, who had pitted, was asked to delay the field to assist Webber, who was running in front of him and yet to make his pit stop.
However Vettel, whose radio was not working properly, failed to heed a reminder not to break the rules by holding up the field too much and inadvertently earned himself a drive-through penalty, handing the win to Webber. At the time the team kept quiet about the tactical error.
Vettel snatches 2010 title
In the second half of 2010, as Adrian Newey began to exploit the opportunities for boosting downforce by blowing exhaust gasses into the diffuser, Red Bull became increasingly unstoppable.
However it seemed Vettel was better able to adapt his driving style to access this extra performance than Webber was. What also helped Vettel’s cause in the latter stages of 2010 was that Webber was nursing another injury, this time to his shoulder, which wasn’t disclosed until after the season had ended.
Vettel went into the final races of 2010 as the driver to beat on race day, but at a disadvantage in the points standings after an error-strewn race in Belgium and a late-race engine failure while leading in Korea. Both drivers arrived at the Abu Dhabi finale with a chance of keeping points leader Fernando Alonso from the crown. But in the race Webber flailed, Ferrari missed an open goal, and Vettel sealed his first of four world championships.
The 2011 season continued as 2010 had ended. Vettel routed everyone – Webber included – and the deepening rift between them widened further following events in the closing stages of the British Grand Prix.
Webber was instructed to hold position as he closed on his second-placed team mate but showed how little he cared for the order by making a determined attempt to overtake Vettel. In the context of Vettel’s domination of the season it was inconsequential at the time, but later events would show Webber’s insubordination had made its mark.
That race saw Ferrari’s only victory of the season, which coincided with a one-off restriction on the use of exhaust-blown diffusers. The technology was further limited in 2012 which was welcome news for them and Webber, who regained some of the ground he had lost to his team mate.
The Pirelli factor
But it was the 2011 introduction of ‘designed to degrade’ tyres, provided by Pirelli, that was Webber’s real bete noire, and something he recently identified as part of the reason why he fell further behind Vettel.
“I think he’s been very strong on the Pirellis,” said Webber in India this year. “Obviously [on] the Bridgestones was probably a little bit tighter but on Pirellis he’s certainly been very strong and no real weaknesses on those tyres so it’s been strong for him.”
Nonetheless with the value of exhaust-blowing greatly reduced an injury-free Webber enjoyed a much more competitive start to 2012. As late as round 11 he headed Vettel in the points table following victories in Monaco and Britain.
But a succession of misfortunes blunted Webber’s championship chances in the second half of 2012: gearbox change penalties in Germany and Belgium, a differential fault in Hungary, and contact at Suzuka and Abu Dhabi.
Parallel to the claims of Red Bull persistently favouring Vettel there have been insinuations of Webber receiving inferior or less reliable equipment. But the data from the five years they spent as team mates debunks the view that either driver had considerably worse or better machinery at their disposal.
Vettel’s race-ending technical failures outnumbered Webber’s seven to four during their five years as team mates. And taking non-terminal failures into account shows the pair were reasonably closely matched in this respect.
The final race of 2012 pitted Vettel against Alonso in a straight fight for the championship, with Webber long out of contention. The support each of the title rivals received from their respective team mates could hardly have contrasted more strikingly.
In the penultimate round Felipe Massa had accepted being given a gearbox change he did not require, in order to earn a grid penalty which moved Alonso one place forwards. In the Brazil finale Massa twice made way for his team mate.
Webber, however, made no concessions to his team mate at the start, squeezing him hard at turn one. Vettel fell back and was involved in a collision that nearly cost him the championship. Another marker had been laid down between the pair, and this would have repercussions just two races later.
“I was racing, I was faster, I passed him”
According to Webber he made his mind up about his future before the first race of 2013, at which he took a group of journalists out for a meal. One week later they were writing about the latest episode of the Webber-Vettel soap opera.
On a wet track in Malaysia, Vettel threw away the lead by pitting too soon, ending up behind Webber. In a scenario not dissimilar to Istanbul three years earlier Vettel found himself staring at his team mate’s rear wing while under attack from another team – in this case the two Mercedes drivers.
Professional sportsmen and women have no time for niceties in the thick of battle and Vettel is no different. “Mark is too slow,” he told the pit wall, “get him out of the way”. But Red Bull showed no desire to change the running order.
Later in the race the threat from Mercedes dissipated and Webber emerged from his final pit stop ahead of Vettel. Now Red Bull laid down an order and it was not what Vettel wanted to hear. The infamous coded instruction “Multi 21″ – meaning car number two followed by car number one – was an order for Vettel to stay behind Webber, and one which does not fit a narrative of Webber always receiving second-class treatment from the team.
Vettel, of course, did not comply. He behaved exactly as Webber had done at Silverstone in 2011 but with one significant difference: unlike Webber, he made a move stick and won the race. A furious Webber chopped across Vettel’s bows after they took the chequered flag.
At first Vettel indicated remorse for what had unfolded. “For sure it’s not a victory I’m very proud of,” he said after the race, “because it should have been Mark’s”.
But after a few days his view had hardened. “He didn’t deserve it,” Vettel said in China. “There is quite a conflict, because on the one hand I am the kind of guy who respects team decisions and the other hand, probably Mark is not the one who deserved it at the time.”
“I don’t like to talk ill of other people. It’s not my style. I think I said enough. The bottom line is that I was racing, I was faster, I passed him, I won.”
This was an uncompromising verdict on his team mate. Yet at the same time it was clear Webber’s chickens had come home to roost. This was not a view widely heard in coverage of the race, which largely ignored the four-year history between them and portrayed Vettel as the villain.
Time to move on
Malaysia was one of few occasions the pair went wheel-to-wheel on track during 2013. The ever-widening gap between them had grown even further, and by the end of the year Vettel had almost double Webber’s points tally.
It’s easy to forget how highly regarded Webber was before his five-year pummelling at Vettel’s hands began. And that even towards the end of their final season together he could still keep Vettel honest – as he did by snatching pole position in Abu Dhabi.
It’s not hard to understand why any racing driver would baulk at being ordered to let his team mate past or stay his hand in the heat of battle. But those who try to claim that only Webber has been asked to make those sacrifices for Red Bull, or that only Vettel has defied them, are selectively ignoring the facts.
Does the Silverstone wing decision reflect badly on Red Bull? Yes. And the same is true of the crashingly unsubtle partiality of Helmut Marko. But points like this do not come close to accounting for why Vettel won 31 races more than Webber during their five years together. That is a reflection on Vettel’s skill as a driver, and especially how well he has adapted to post-2010 Formula One.
Given Webber’s recent lapse in form the timing of his departure from Formula One seems to be very well-judged. It will add much interest to next year’s World Endurance Championship to see him campaigning a works Porsche on the kind of classic old circuits he thrives at, such as Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps and the mighty La Sarthe.
Before he joined Red Bull Webber already had a reputation for misfortune. Whether it was a string of car failures which always seemed to strike when he was on the point of some giant-killing feat, or the unfortunate timing of his switch to Williams, Webber often seemed to have more than his share of bad luck.
But his greatest misfortune probably occurred when he finally got his hands on car that was capable of winning races and championships – at the very same time he was partnered with the prodigious talent of Sebastian Vettel.
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