Saturday 17 February 2018

Nature of the best sets tone for further conflict

David Kennedy

Last week the Malaysian Grand Prix was reminiscent of that epic dice between Ferrari team-mates in 1982 at Imola. The team stipulated that whoever led on the last lap should hold their position. Gilles Villeneuve was the leader having battled with Didier Pironi for most of the race. Pironi blatantly disobeyed team orders and won the race. But tragedy was to follow. An enraged Villeneuve was killed in qualifying the following race weekend at Zolder.

There's an ancient fable about the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asks the frog if he can he ride on his back so he can cross the river. The frog is reluctant at first but then he decides to take him. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog who asks incredulously as he is dying, 'Why did you do that?' The scorpion replies, 'Because it is in my nature'.

In Malaysia, Sebastian Vettel didn't take himself and Mark Webber out of the race, but he inflicted grievous harm on their already fraught relationship. To win is in Vettel's nature. If you wanted to compete in a nice sport you wouldn't choose Formula One, unless gallows humour at 290kph is your thing.

Imagine you are Vettel. You've won three consecutive world titles and you're still only 25. You feel invincible. You can seemingly do no wrong. You're revered by fans; you're a global icon. Your bosses worship the hallowed ground upon which you walk. You're hell bent on beating the all-time greatest title-holder and fellow countryman Michael Schumacher. Your perma-smile belies your inner resolve to do this at any cost. You are pre-programmed to win. It is in your nature. That cost reached a premium last weekend when you were told to stay behind team-mate Mark Webber.

As the coded message came through your radio 'Multi 21' – an unambiguous order to let Webber's car number two hold his position ahead of yours, car number one, you immediately computed the folly of this directive.

Don't those illiterates know that V comes before W in the alphabet, and that's how it's going to stay as long as you're capable of beating your team-mate? Championships aren't won at the end of the season. Every race counts, every point is a prisoner. You don't win titles by playing Mr Nice Guy. The ferocity of the Vettel/Webber dice was stunning. Obstinacy was the paper-thin measure between their raging wheels as they edged toward a pit-wall that was preparing to engrave their epitaphs.

In a display of bravado and brilliance, Vettel's wheel-to-wheel combat was unnerving. The killing fields of Sepang wasn't exactly the final resting place that Webber had in mind for his demise. He looked like he was fighting for his very survival as his recalcitrant nemesis doled out a brutal display in how to beat and humiliate your team-mate.

No wonder Webber was seething, he had every right to be. He has toed the party line and helped Vettel in his quest for glory. Now, at payback time, he was hung out to dry.

But Mark Webber is a big boy. He's been in Formula One for ten years. He knows the drill. However much that betrayal by Vettel will drive a deeper wedge between them, in time he will come to understand that Vettel did what he had to do.

Webber will, in the meantime, bide his time for a counter-attack. Revenge is a dish best served flat out. The team has a lethal cocktail on their hands. Internecine wars have a bad habit of handing the opposition points. They may need to rebuild the Berlin wall to keep these team-mates apart.

Now will come the test of Vettel's psychological mettle. Can he wear the bad boy badge as easily as the triple crown? Will this weaken or strengthen his resolve? In the court of human emotions Vettel has shown his hand. The velvet glove deftly disguised the iron fist. He has much in common with John Malkovich's character in Dangerous Liaisons because Vicomte De Vettel seemed to offer up in post-race press interviews 'It's beyond my control' excuses.

By contrast at Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton's relationship with Nico Rosberg is going through the happy honeymoon period. When the faster Rosberg was asked to hold position behind third-placed Hamilton, he acquiesced. It's not something Rosberg is going to put up with indefinitely. It tears at the very fibre of your racing instinct. You are in Formula One to be the best, not a stooge for the benefit of your team-mate.

The Chinese Grand Prix is in two weeks. Webber and Vettel have had time for reflection and contrition. Don't expect much of the latter from Vettel. The terribly talented trio of Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso are a breed apart; they push boundaries and tear up rule books. Because it is in their nature.

Irish Independent

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