09 July, 2011

The Modern Teammate Dynamic

After qualifying for the British Grand Prix concluded today, I had a conversation with a friend of mine on the subject of teammates. It was an interesting reflection to have a year after Mark Webber drove one of the most determined races I have ever seen after his team nonchalantly threw him under the bus following Vettel's front wing mishap. To this day I still think the quip "Not bad for a number two driver" was one of my most favorite things a driver has ever said. It was succinct, pointed, curt and it said a ton about the situation. Props to the Aussie for saying it after his fabulous victory last year, and props to the team for sticking with him (this coming after recurrences of his ongoing feud with bicycles).

"I guess I always thought of teammates as getting along," my friend revealed in the car today.

I shook my head and proceeded to tell stories for a while (which probably sounded like babble. After all, a short time later we nearly rear-ended a vehicle), and it really got me thinking about Webber, Vettel and the teammate dynamic.

As I started to explain, when it comes to teammates in Formula 1, it's business first and friendship later. I'm sure Webber and Vettel can get along in a professional setting, but would they voluntarily visit each other or trade gifts at Christmas? Of course not. That's far from being detrimental, though, as we saw with Mark's drive at Silverstone last year. He hip-checked his hotshot teammate at the start, refused to look back, drove flawlessly and won the race at the exact time a profound statement like that was required. He wanted to send a message to his team that he is not washed up and not going to concede to a younger, quicker teammate despite Red Bull's best efforts. Good on ya, Mark, I thought that was fantastic.

If only all teammate rivalries could produce such results with so little drama (comparatively, I mean, to the incidents at McLaren in 2007, per se). Many still remember the seething hatred that ripped the Silver Arrows apart when a proud Fernando Alonso was suddenly upstaged on the year of his big McLaren break by a smiling, steely Brit named Lewis Hamilton. The on track battles said so much, yet it was accompanied by the complete disdain showcased whenever the drivers had to be in close proximity with one another. It was illustrated also by the pit stop which came to define the hatred the two shared for each other (with Alonso purposely pausing before leaving his shared pit stall so that Hamilton would not have a shot at pole position before time expired).

What many forget is the mammoth battle McLaren were having for the championship this year. They forget how much of a non-factor Alonso was that year, save for a handful of victories that failed to outshine the wondrous results wrought by young Lewis. They also seem to forget just how close McLaren came to winning the World Drivers Championship that year. That heated rivalry simultaneously brought McLaren's pilots to the brink of a championship, but it also lost them the world title given how evenly the points were distributed between them. This has been the scenario at Ferrari when Michael Schumacher was selected by his team over Rubens Barrichello, and it was similarly what Red Bull Racing faced last year with a talented squad in Vettel and Webber.

So yes, having the rivalries may prevent a team from having a driver win the championship, but honestly I would rather have natural performances and a lost title than manufactured points totals in the hopes of getting one driver on top (last year, Massa with Alonso, anyone?). Just like any sport, competition breeds better performances. F1 inherently knows that on an engineering level given how fast the technology and advancements progress, but this year many argue that since the sport has become The Vettel Show, the rest of the competition is just lacking. Ferrari have admitted that, depending on the results of the next couple of races, they may give up on this year's championship and focus on next year's. I have no doubt that other teams will follow suit, and rightfully so; remember the advantage the Brawn team enjoyed in 2008?

Even my usual group of race watchers admits that while we really like Vettel as a person, it would be neat to see him get beaten now and again. That pushes him to improve. That pushes his team to improve. It's good for the sport. I still remember the days not so long ago when Schumacher was dominating every year, and quite a few people stopped watching. Some tuned in just to see if he would lose. Of course, this brings me back to the teammate battles, as it is still debatable how many races Barrichello lost because his team told him to let Schumi by somehow. I respect the fact that eventually he couldn't take that anymore and began to speak about it before leaving Ferrari, but his countrymen still remember those days in the same breath with the Brazilian's name. It just shows how intense and deep-seeded these rivalries can go.

Today I talked quite a bit about another great example: Gilles Villeneuve. He was young, he was talented and his rivalry with his veteran Ferrari teammate Didier Pironi eventually ended under tragic circumstances.

Known as one of the greatest drivers never to win the Formula 1 World Championship, Villeneuve was loved by his fans worldwide and became Canada's patron saint of motor racing. His name became synonymous with Ferrari, driving both with Jody Sheckter and then with Pironi. Villeneuve was long considered one of the most purely talented drivers the sport has ever seen. In his brief stint in the sport his win percentage fantastic as was his finishing record (when he finished the race, that is). Come the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, though, the already-present rivalry between the Canadian and Pironi came to the front.

The dominant Ferraris' only real competition in the race, the Renaults, dropped out of the race early, leaving Villeneuve leading Pironi for many laps. Their lead was enormous, and given the Ferrari's reliability issues (both mechanically and fuel-wise), the team instructed the drivers to slow down to make sure both cars finished the race. From here the story gets a bit mysterious, as we will never really know what happened for sure.

Supposedly Villeneuve heard the order and believed that meant the cars would both slow and finish the race. Pironi supposedly thought that meant they would slow but that he and Villeneuve were still free to race.

After the message the Canadian's lap times dropped by two to three seconds, but soon he was overtaken by his teammate. He was initially surprised and claimed that he thought Pironi was doing it to spice up an otherwise boring race, so he re-overtook and once again thought it would stay that way. His lap times dropped back to the slower times, but Pironi eventually ran a normal race speed lap and overtook him again. Villeneuve responded and re-overtook, beginning to wonder what was happening, but he slowed and maintained the lead for the next few laps. On the final lap of the race Villeneuve took a slower line through a corner and in doing so left it open. Pironi dove underneath of him and rocketed to the finish line in front of a stunned Villeneuve. Ferrari had maintained their one-two finish, but an overjoyed Pironi was overshadowed on the podium by an angry and confused Villeneuve who felt as though he had been betrayed.

Pironi shrugged off the incident, believing that is what the team intended, and because of his response Villeneuve, in part blinded by anger, swore never to talk to his teammate again. Two weeks later, during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at the legendary Zolder circuit, Pironi chose not to talk to Villeneuve who was still fuming about the race a fortnight before. With the end of the qualifying session near, Pironi was 0.6 seconds ahead of Villeneuve with both drivers still in the top ten. The team believed Gilles was on an in-lap, but some believed he was trying to do one more lap to try to better his teammate.

Either way, a collision occurred with a couple of corners to go when a slowing car tried to move aside for the Ferrari, which at the time was traveling over 120mph. Villeneuve's helmet was torn from his head and his car launched skyward for over 100 meters. When it finally hit the ground the young Canadian was thrown from it and landed in the catch fence nearby. A neck fracture irreversibly put Villeneuve on life support for a period of time before his family chose to turn it off, and Pironi regretted the feud and his relationship with Gilles for the rest of his life.

While we may never know what happened in the final days of Gilles Villeneuve's life, it cannot be denied that this competition between teammates became tragically immortalized after the events at Zolder (where a corner is now named for the late Canadian). Whenever teammate rivalries are brought up, I believe this one ranks right up there in its legendary status.

But let's bring this babble back to Webber and Vettel. (I hope in the meantime I didn't cause any car accidents or missed appointments.) Contrasting them with the semi-healthy relationship Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton have, I can't help but feel that this balance is exactly what is needed for Red Bull right now. Webber's hand-me-down situations have inspired him, but like Zorro always preached, he has never thus attacked out of anger. It has always been a quiet determination with him that normally leads to consistent and strong finishes. These, in turn, keep him within striking distance of Vettel's heels, and that temptation alone is enough to keep him going.

Inevitably there will be days like today when the Aussie is able to get the best of the dominant German (the younger one, not the one with the red helmet), and I would like to think that so long as Webber can pull one out from under Vettel's nose every once in a while that he will still be deemed an asset to RBR. It would be a shame to see retirement come early for this seasoned vet merely because his younger teammate not only beats him consistently but because the team helps perpetuate that finishing order. Don't get me wrong, I'm not insinuating that Vettel's fantastic string of wins would not have happened without unequal treatment by Red Bull. I'm more referring to the few instances where favoritism has occurred like with the front wing. It's situations like those when a guy like Webber (who could use some reassurance from his team now and again) might feel a bit slighted, and you know, I would not blame him for a minute.

'The Modern Teammate Dynamic' can either be a blessing or a curse. The key is to finding the right balance, and to do this the team needs to make sure things don't get out of hand. Where will we someday view the animosity that may or may not be present between Seb and Mark? At this point it's tough to tell, but I have a feeling that the events of tomorrow morning's race, in a season where the young German is hot on his way to a second World Drivers Championship, may be extremely telling.

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