Monday 18 December 2017

Formula one: Wunderkind Vettel comes of age in sensational season

Red Bull's risky strategy produced a tense finale and a worthy champion, writes David Kennedy

David Kennedy

W hen you have suffered defeat as Mark Webber did in Abu Dhabi, you just want to hide from everyone. When your own team-mate is the victor, you want to hide from yourself. The din emanating from the Red Bull celebrations must have been torture for the Aussie.

It's a lonely walk through the paddock as people commiserate and shake a hand that doesn't want to feel defeat. The sound of sympathy just rubs salt into the wound. Sebastian Vettel might be 2010 world champion but, for many, Mark Webber is the people's champion. But that's no consolation either.

The title decider pitched four drivers against one another in an historic finale that was filled with tension and intrigue. The season culminated in the crowning of the youngest world champion in the history of the sport. Surely for Vettel it's the beginning of a Michael Schumacher-style career at the top.

But mentioning Schumacher's name in connection with Vettel is, other than a barbie-on-Bondi-Beach invite from Webber, the one thing that is guaranteed to wipe the impish dimpled grin from the 23-year-old's face. His Red Bull team don't think of him as the 'new Schumi'. It sounds a bit like that Monty Python scene from The Life of Brian when Brian's mother screeches, 'He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy'.

Certainly from Red Bull's perspective Vettel was a very naughty boy, leaving it until the 12th hour to deliver that Holy Grail -- the cup of champions.

The German is clearly sensational, given all he has achieved, but he's also been a diamond in the rough, prone to on-track mistakes -- such as his overeager pass on Webber in Turkey -- or occasional gaps in concentration -- such as those that helped his Australian team-mate to a string of mid-season pole positions.

He's not all sweetness and light either if you believe the stories of occasional outbursts behind closed doors, but that behaviour is often excused when it's a prodigy doing the sabre-rattling.

Webber, the underdog, reached dizzy heights at Red Bull but he failed to deliver at the final hurdle. The writing was on the wall after he qualified fifth in Abu Dhabi. He was brutally honest about it. "For the first time this season, I looked at the pit board (showing Vettel's time) and I thought, 'I can't do that'." Webber crumbled in the face of Vettel's irresistible pace. That's a tough place to be when they set their stall out again next March. For Webber, the season could well represent the zenith of his career. He summoned the motivation to take the fight to Vettel and in doing so earned a highly respectable five poles, four race wins and three fastest laps only to be beaten by ten poles, five wins and three fastest laps.

Still after being comprehensively outperformed by the Heppenheim driver in 2009, it spoke volumes for his bloody-mindedness to have made the comeback he did. But it's hard to see how he can repeat that feat in 2011 and expect to be even stronger.

Vettel's title victory provided welcome relief for the Red Bull management, ostensibly led by Christian Horner, though clearly directed by the press-shy boss Dietrich Mateschitz, who had steadfastly refused to consider imposing team orders in favour of either driver. That sense of fairness is the hallmark of Red Bull's various sporting events outside of F1, so hats off to them for winning two world titles, despite taking the risky 'let the best man win' stance.

Fernando Alonso must wonder if Ferrari had Ross Brawn still on board would they have made the error of reacting to Webber's early pit-stop which turned out to be flawed strategy. Finishing seventh instead of fourth, and thus losing out on a third championship title, was a heavy price to pay for someone else's mistake.

Alonso can hold his head high after dragging a clearly inferior Ferrari all the way to the 19th race to be leading the championship. For, in truth, every car on the grid lurked in the shadow of Adrian Newey's Red Bull RB5.

Lewis Hamilton, another Abu Dhabi casualty, in his case to a second title ambition, remains a thrilling driver, in that he is occasionally needy and petulant, but always willing to give his all. He dispensed with the challenge of reigning champion Jenson Button with relative ease once the early wet weather races gave way to dry races. McLaren, however, handed the baton to Ferrari to take the challenge to Red Bull after mid-season. Button might have been better advised to have stayed at Mercedes where he would surely have relished a pairing with Schumacher, as Nico Rosberg clearly did. If Schumacher thought his

return to F1 would be a masterclass in comebacks, he along with the rest of us was disappointed. His frightening accident in Abu Dhabi could so easily have ended in a fatality, and you wonder why he would bother to return next year at the age of 42 except he really believes he is the Messiah.

Rookie of the year was Kamui Kobayashi, a hard-charging racer in a weak Sauber team who did his reputation no end of good by putting away veterans Pedro de la Rosa and Nick Heidfeld. The other rookie, Nico Hulkenberg, scored an extraordinary pole position in Brazil in his Williams-Cosworth, but ironically he could lose his place in F1 if Williams drops him.

The extra six cars on the grid provided much needed added variety from HRT, Virgin and Lotus. Following the end-of-season points tally, F1 bosses Tony Fernandes (Lotus) won a bet against his friend Richard Branson (Virgin) which compels the Englishman to dress as an air hostess on an Air Asia flight, the airline company Fernandes owns. Maybe they could auction off the tickets for charity for their pantomime in the sky.

For the three drivers who didn't make it in Abu Dhabi it's a time now for regrets. The 'what ifs' will preoccupy and plague each and every one of them as they mull over their mistakes. But they'll get another crack at it next year.

Two races in the Middle East, the first in Bahrain, the finale in Abu Dhabi, neatly book-ended the best season of F1 for many a year, and one that was as unpredictable as it was sensational. It will be back to Bahrain soon enough -- 111 days to be precise.

David Kennedy is Setanta's F1 analyst

Sunday Independent

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