Red Bull appear to be having a bit of fun with the watching world ahead of the deciding race of the 2010 Formula 1 world championship.
With their drivers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel both trying to chase down the championship leader, Ferrari‘s Fernando Alonso, the big question heading into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend is whether Vettel will help Webber win the championship if the German cannot do it himself.
This is quite a likely scenario, given the positions of the three drivers in the championship standings.
Alonso leads Webber by eight points and Vettel by 15. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton is still mathematically in contention 24 points behind the Spaniard but is realistically out of the running, with only 25 points available on Sunday.
There are any number of potential permutations and if you want to explore them all fully, Spain’s Marca newspaper has produced a fun tool that does the job nicely.
On pure performance, Vettel, Webber and Alonso are likely to occupy the top three positions in Abu Dhabi, just as they did in Brazil last Sunday. If that happens, the permutations are relatively simple.
var emp = new bbc.Emp(); emp.setWidth(“512″); emp.setHeight(“323″); emp.setDomId(“brazil_101110″); emp.setPlaylist(“http://news.bbc.co.uk/media/emp/9160000/9165000/9165082.xml”); emp.write();
If Webber wins the race, Alonso must be second to win the championship; if Vettel does, the Ferrari man need only finish fourth.
But what if Vettel is leading going into the last lap and Webber is behind him and Alonso third or fourth? Would Vettel hand the lead to the Australian?
Given the fractious relationship between the two men at times this season, it would not be an easy thing for Vettel to do. But both he and team principal Christian Horner hinted after the Brazilian Grand Prix that he would.
Horner added: “Of course, if we find ourselves in a position where one of the drivers can win the world championship, then the drivers will do whatever’s necessary to ensure as a team we achieve the best result.”
Since then, though, Red Bull team owner Dietrich Mateschitz, the man who founded the drinks company and has since made billions from it, has thrown in a curve ball.
The Austrian told Gerhard Kuntschick, a reporter from the Salzburger Nachtrichten to whom he is close, that if they cannot win he would prefer his drivers to lose out to Alonso “in the correct circumstances”.
That is a reference to Ferrari’s actions at the German Grand Prix, when the team gave Felipe Massa a coded message to let Alonso by into the lead so he could maximise his points in the championship.
Team orders are banned in F1. Ferrari’s punishment, at the race and later confirmed at a hearing of the sport’s governing body the FIA in September, was a $100,000 fine.
Without the extra seven points he gained at Hockenheim, Alonso would be leading Webber by only one point and Vettel by eight. That would have made the Abu Dhabi race a winner-takes-all scenario for Webber and Alonso, and for Vettel if he headed a Red Bull one-two with Alonso third.
Mateschitz continued: “To interfere with the drivers was never a possibility for us. The whole world condemned Ferrari after what they did in Hockenheim, but we have turned out as idiots because we did not act in this way.”
Mateschitz said Red Bull had never considered getting one driver to back the other “as long as both our drivers remain in the hunt for the championship”.
He added: “A second place under correct circumstances might be better than a win on grounds of orders and confirmations.”
What does this mean?
Will Red Bull really refuse to intercede and risk losing the championship to Alonso? Will they leave it up to Vettel’s conscience?
Does the phrase “as long as both our drivers remain in the running for the championship” mean that Vettel will let Webber by to prevent Alonso winning the title (on the basis that Vettel, at that point, would no longer be in the running for the championship)? Apparently not.
Could Horner’s “best result for the team” conceivably mean what Mateschitz says – that it is better to lose the title because they have not resorted to team tactics, rather than win it because they have?
If Red Bull will not use team tactics, why not?
Is that a decision based purely on wanting to be seen to be competing in the right way – following the old adage that it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game?
If so, this is not, shall we say, a philosophy that is universally shared in the “piranha club” of the F1 paddock.
Or is there more going on here than meets the eye?
The cynics in the F1 paddock – and there are a lot – will have a field day with these conflicting messages from the leading figures at Red Bull.
Just how alone is Webber at Red Bull this weekend? Photo: Darren Heath
If Vettel is in a position to help Webber and does not, some will wonder if that is because Red Bull simply do not want Webber to win the title, and would rather wait another year for Vettel to become their first champion. If that is the case, why would they not want Webber to win? Is Webber, as was speculated in Brazil last weekend, leaving the team at the end of the year following his complaints of favouritism?
All of this adds an intriguing extra dimension to an already absorbing climax to one of the best F1 seasons there has ever been. And it seems fitting to be discussing it at the end of a season in which Red Bull’s perceived preference for Vettel over Webber has caused so much heartache within the team, and drawn so much attention from outside.
There was the fall-out from losing a one-two in the Turkish Grand Prix following a collision between the two drivers, when the team initially appeared to pin the blame on Webber, when most of the watching world felt Vettel was at fault. And three races later, there was the decision to take the only remaining example of a new front wing off Webber’s car at Silverstone and give it to Vettel.
What else has been going on behind the scenes that the outside world does not know about?
Horner has continued to insist throughout that the team have supported both drivers equally – he reiterated that view to me in Brazil last weekend – but it has not always looked that way. I have spoken to a number of people in F1 this season who believe there is evidence that some kind of team tactics have been employed behind the scenes at Red Bull.
After inflicting so much damage on themselves in Turkey, did Red Bull dictate that once a driver was ahead, the other was not allowed to race him? If not, what – to bring up just one example – did Webber mean after following Vettel home in the Japanese Grand Prix last month? “It was fun to bring the gap back down to Seb and after that track position is king,” said the Australian. “I know the rules and that’s how it is.”
If there have been tactics to control Webber, though, there is no hope of them happening in Abu Dhabi. With the title on the line, there will be no dutiful holding of position from whichever Red Bull driver is behind.
Of course, F1 would not be what it is without this added dimension of intrigue and politics – it’s part of what makes it so fascinating. Yet it is easy to forget that before any team tactics can come into play, there is a race to be run.
Red Bull enter it as favourites, for the race if not the championship. But Alonso – who has beaten them three times in the last five races – can never be discounted. Of the three main title contenders, he is the only one with the experience of being in this situation before – when he won his back-to-back titles in 2005-6 with Renault.
With the pressure on all the title contenders so intense, will that be a deciding factor? Or, with all the contenders worried about engine mileage under F1′s eight-engines-a-year rule, will it be reliability that wins the day?
One thing seems certain – it is hard to believe, after such an extraordinary year of shifting fortunes, that there will not be one final twist in the tale.