Vettel’s fourth title puts him in pantheon of greats

Sebastian Vettel’s fourth world title came last weekend in a race which required him to drive from the back of the grid. This is usually unnecessary for the German, and although there are many arguing now about Vettel’s true worth in a historical context, his Indian performance adds more lustre to his already glowing reputation. The allegation dogs him, however; it’s Newey the genius.

The case for the defence. To paraphrase a famous evaluator of Shakespeare: in what area of our sport has Vettel not shown himself worthy? In what situation has he faltered? How has he not proven himself? The detractors must answer convincingly.

It is to be conceded that usually (mark it, not always) he has enjoyed the benefit of the most dynamic and effective machinery. In F1 as perhaps in few other top level sports, this confers a significant advantage and with it comes suspicion. Regardless of the effort or talent of the driver, his competitors and their fans carp in the first instance and then mutter. Glib as their conclusion may be, pitch sticks. And Vettel is tainted.

But it is in looking more closely at these rivals that we find redemption for the young German. Then: while Schumacher had Hill, Villeneuve and Hakkinen, Senna had Prost, Mansell, Piquet and Schumacher. While Ferrari had Williams and McLaren, now: Red Bull have McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and effectively Renault. And Vettel has Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Webber, to say nothing of Rosberg or Massa or pre-2011, Kubica.

Arguments to this end are often rendered null and void by the assertion that it is impossible to compare and contrast sportsmen from vastly different eras. That holds true, and it is not this column’s intention to contend that Vettel is better in any obvious sense than were the aforementioned greats. But as sport evolves, so too do sportsmen: one only has to look at the swiftness of movement, deftness of touch and preternatural understanding of today’s Bayern Munich or Barcelona to see that it constitutes a significant step up from yesteryear.

It is in this category that Vettel belongs. He has taken the game and absorbed it, processed it, spat it out with such nonchalance that is almost disdain. He has evolved the nasty, too, as Mark Webber knows. From his initial promise when he entered the sport in 2007, his regular showing is now simply a masterful performance that embarrasses the opposition. For that reason alone he must be among the greats, but it is very easy to argue he must be very high among the greats. We shall see this weekend in Abu Dhabi what type of Vettel fits into this new dawn where he really is the best.

And because that whiff of Newey still lingers, Vettel will have something to prove in 2014 and onwards. He won’t be giving up just because he has ground the opposition into the dirt. That’s yet another characteristic of the very great. Watch and see just how good he will get.

Vettel dominance boring? Perspective, please

And so to Japan, where it is mathematically possible for Sebastian Vettel, of Red Bull Racing, to wrap up the 2013 F1 world title. Such is his margin of dominance that with five rounds still to go, Vettel will win it if his closest challenger, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, finishes no higher than ninth. Even if Alonso does manage to score well, there is a distinct sense that he would only be delaying the inevitable.

Cue much navel-gazing and gnashing of teeth. Gadzooks, they cry, how dull is this? Vettel waltzes into the distance, pulverising at will, and comfortable enough in his superiority to make wisecracks about his car having illegal traction control. Hamilton feels sorry for the fans, writers feel sorry for the fans and the fans feel sorry for themselves, particularly when they get up disagreeably early on a Sunday morning to watch the denouement of the championship in far flung lands.

It is boring to watch, frankly. The last two races have only been made vaguely palatable (even to hardened F1 nuts) by battles for fourth place and thereabouts, and in Korea’s case by Felipe Massa, Adrian Sutil and the chap behind the wheel of that fire truck. Otherwise there hasn’t been much to say, and those whose job it is to comment and bring insight inwardly curse, because their job gets quite a bit more difficult. The temptation to bleat ‘something must be done!’ is almost irresistible. Bernie’s artificial rain showers, anyone? Strategically deployed fire trucks? Added time multi-ball?

No, no, no. As Vettel reminds us as if to excuse himself, Schumacher was much worse. He was. Senna and Prost swept all before them in 1988-9. Mansell was yawningly crushing in 1992. It’s not unprecedented, and it has been more mundane. Doff your cap to Vettel (because it’s not just Newey’s brilliance that is on display here). Salute the German wunderkind and his Red Bull team. Tolerate a couple more races where your instinct is to go back to bed.

Because it would be incredibly surprising if this is the case come March 2014. The rule changes are the principal saving grace, but also the teams whose 2013 efforts have been conspicuously hampered when they realised that this season was probably a lost cause. McLaren, you say – but also Mercedes and possibly even Ferrari. There are a number of teams for whom it is imperative – in some cases for the sake of their own survival – to be competitive in 2014. And that’s quite apart from what Dietrich Mateschitz might do when he catches on that his brand is under a great big BORING headline.

Vettel will win this championship, here in Japan or in India, and at an outside shot in Abu Dhabi. He utterly deserves it and plaudits that haven’t yet come his way will certainly do so when he is crowned with a fourth straight title. And his brilliance is enhanced rather than created by the talent around him, both in terms of his team and of his rival drivers. And so any criticism of him, or booing, or whatever, is definitely lacking in perspective.

*Perspective, too, for it was this morning that we received news of the death of Maria de Villota, the erstwhile Marussia test and reserve driver. Although I never met her, she was well-known for her lovely character in the paddock and her passing is as untimely as it is tragic. It is most sincerely to be hoped that some good, particularly for the Women in Motorsport foundation, will come from this sad day.

Rush: review

Last week’s Hugh Podmore was invited to a screening of Rush, the Ron Howard film based on the story of the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Here is his review.

The overriding sensation going into this film was one of dread. Having been warned by various F1 folk that Rush would play havoc with history, deploying the cop-out of artistic licence wherever it could, I thought I’d be staring frostily at the screen and furiously jotting down each blatant falsehood. The story was good enough, I’d thought; tell it how it was, because by God was it an epic tale.

And yes. There were numerous instances where Hollywood (or not Hollywood, or whatever) served up factual inaccuracy, brazenly in some cases. But it didn’t bother me as much as I’d thought. The story began with Niki Lauda’s narration, which then faded out throughout the film, to return at the end as some sort of valedictory salute to its original intention to tell it from Lauda’s perspective. It documented Lauda’s inexorable rise and 1975 championship win, while Hunt languished in a charismatic but ultimately unsuccessful Hesketh team. Hunt and Lauda’s 1976 battle was the central focus of the film, the ins and outs of which were relatively accurately rendered, including Lauda’s fiery Nurburgring crash and his rehabilitation. The climax of Rush was at the final grand prix of the 1976 season in which Hunt triumphed by coming third once Lauda had retired.

There were lots of good things about this movie. The colours and ambience of the seventies was usually impressive and glorious at best. The characterisation of the protagonists seemed accurate – after all, Hunt and Lauda had very different approaches to life in general and the racetrack specifically. They were both, however, blisteringly quick, and the film paid appropriate tribute to the foolish glory of grand prix racing in an era when death was an ever-present companion. Lauda’s graphically painful recovery from his crash evoked that particularly well. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) was confident and brash and convincing; for Lauda, Daniel Bruhl gave a beautiful and wonderful performance which lived and breathed the Rat.

Some absurdities, however, could not be forgiven. The starkest was the cars’ movement. While close-ups were thrillingly loud and fast, long shots gave the unfortunate impression of having been sped up at edit. At times, it really did look as though it must have been filmed – with drivers pootling round, anxious not to damage the historic machines. Brands Hatch unconvincingly and frequently doubled for other more exotic locations. Rush’s attempts to show realistic overtaking were derisory. F1 cars racing each other on the limit in reality is a ballet. In Rush it was more an old people’s home Christmas ball.

Secondly, Simon Taylor (redoubtable and estimable pundit that he doubtless is) ain’t Murray Walker, and so anyone – anyone – with the slightest knowledge of F1 would be immediately conscious that this was a reproduction. How much, Mr Howard, would it have cost to buy the rights to Murray’s commentary? Or even pay the great man to say the same things again? Or even cast someone who sounded like him?

Thirdly, and most heinously, the script was eye-bleedingly awful. It was trite, cliché-ridden, tell-rather-than-show, limp rubbish. A hugely talented cast, including the criminally underused Julian Rhind-Tutt as Bubbles Horsley and Stephen Mangan as (I think) Alistair Caldwell, were seriously let down by the writing. Allusions to the ‘will to win’ would have been overkill – the context is entirely sufficient – but the film’s creators felt it necessary constantly to invoke it in dialogue. The scene where Hunt and Lauda chat when signing autographs is the worst – the script demands they fill each other in on what has been happening in the film. Note to American filmmakers in general – European or any audience with a brain does not need a recap every two bloody minutes.

Having vented all that, I did still enjoy the film. It was truly a joy to see the decade I just missed out on brought so beautifully and carefully to life. And it was, it will be, good for F1 insofar as it glorifies the romance of the sport. The only problem is, when they then tune into F1 2013-spec, they’ll be bored to tears and go back to thinking that it isn’t how it used to be. Which is true – it isn’t. But all-too-rare films like Rush do make an admirable effort to bring it all back for us. As long as you don’t mind listening to a crap script.

Raikkonen back to Ferrari: a great idea, Fernando?

Yesterday it was confirmed that for 2014 Kimi Raikkonen would be leaving Lotus to rejoin Ferrari, the team with whom he won the 2007 world championship. Here, Hugh Podmore analyses the news from the main players’ perspective.

For Kimi, this move is probably a step up in most respects. His (reportedly improved) salary will be guaranteed as it could not be at Lotus; he knows the team well; Ferrari are redoubling their efforts to become championship contenders again. Only in this last might he have cause for concern in 2014 – Maranello does not have an exemplary record when it comes to reacting to major rule changes – but the presence of James Allison and the massive resources the technical team have at their disposal can go some way to reassuring the Finn of some level of competitiveness. In the same way, there was no proof positive that Lotus would be able to reproduce their form of the last couple of seasons. Ferrari are an altogether sunnier proposition for the Iceman, and having failed to reach an agreement with Red Bull, his best option.

For Ferrari, the capture of Raikkonen is something of a coup. Their last world champion, a man well-liked by the tifosi and a consummate exponent of his craft, Raikkonen is intelligent, experienced and fast. Reportedly, his icy demeanour and Scandinavian stoicism sometimes defeat the Italian mechanics’ understanding – and Stefano Domenicali has practically admitted as much – but when things are working smoothly, that won’t be an issue. Di Montezemolo cannot be disappointed with his manoeuvres now they have paid off. Despite saying earlier this year that he did not want two roosters in the same henhouse, he now has two of the top four best drivers in the world in his cars. There’s no doubt that Raikkonen is a better driver than he was when he left. It could – and should – be a recipe for wins.

What about for Fernando? Here the fairytale marriage hits the rocks. Alonso has effectively had Ferrari as his private domain for three years, so cuddly was the threat from Massa. It has been a team that, albeit ineffectually, has been solely dedicated to helping Alonso win races. And the darker recesses of Fernando’s mind will now be chirping that if the team could not bring championships when their focus was just on him, what hope does he have with another rooster there? Then Alonso’s conscience will remind him of 2007 at McLaren, the last time he was an equal number one. If he’s given to paranoia, Alonso might also see the signing of Raikkonen as Ferrari’s revenge for the public disloyalty of saying he wanted another car as a birthday present (an utterance which would not have escaped the attention of the upper echelons of the marque). Worse, he might even think they think he’s not capable of leading the team, and after all he’s done for them…Fernando could be plumbing the psychological depths at the moment.

The reality is that Raikkonen is too good not to trouble Alonso, and they will end up on the same piece of tarmac next season. Whether that is at the front or the back, it will be great to watch. Hurry up, 2014.

Dull Monza race shows up Italy’s ugly underbelly

Sebastian Vettel yesterday won a rather uninspiring Italian Grand Prix at Monza. He was followed home by the doggedly heroic Fernando Alonso, punching far above his weight as usual, and a front-wing damaged Mark Webber in the other Red Bull. The only men with theoretical pace enough to challenge the front runners, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen, finished ninth and 11th respectively after a combination of poor qualifying, misinformed strategy and bad luck contrived to force them both out of contention.

One of the advantages of being able to watch the footage back at one’s own pace, however, is that one can pick up on things that others may have missed. Especially considering the flaccidity of the action on offer. Commentators’ best efforts to wake the masses up focused on the possibility of gearbox failure of one or both the Red Bulls, and you know things have got bad when even F1 nuts are praying that something happens to the leader. A friend of mine once said that during the Schumacher procession years, he sometimes wished he could run onto the track wearing some thick shoes and jump onto the back of Schumacher’s car, to slow it down a bit and make a race of it. Such fanciful notions might have returned to him yesterday.

But anyway. Given the lack of entertainment on the actual racetrack, one is forced to focus on something apparently deeply unsavoury that happened just off it. Lap 8. First Lesmo. Lewis Hamilton has just hove into view tussling with a Toro Rosso and a McLaren. A thrown object flickers across the camera screen. No one appears to notice. Sky+. Rewind. Play. Pause. It is a banana skin.

Now. If one wanted to take a patrician, kindly, benevolent view, one would argue that lots of people eat bananas, and lots of people toss bananas to the four winds – out of car windows, onto city streets, and yes, onto racetracks. And that same person could also contest that it was a coincidence that the only black driver in F1 happened to be passing at that very moment.

But then that does seem rather a stretch. Context is everything. The Ferrari fans in the crowd, just like in Spain, don’t like Hamilton because of his history with their darling Alonso. Just like in Spain, crowds are not averse to making their feelings known by any means possible. And this contextual evidence is quite apart from the real issue Italy has – racism.

Ask Kevin Prince Boateng. Ask Mario Balotelli, then ask him again. Ask the first black politician in Italy, Cecile Kyenge. High profile cases, all of them. So this latest pathetic incident is a drop in the ocean. But what was singularly depressing here is that one has an idea of F1 fans as generally fair-minded folk, only in extremely rare cases given to vitriol. Racism, another step beyond the pale, just isn’t ok.

Obviously, the vast majority of the crowd yesterday wouldn’t have dreamed of doing such a thing, and a sizeable number would equally condemn it. But one racist incident is too many, and it makes me feel physically sick to think my sport might be the latest arena for the airing of racist abuse. In fact, despite this being a tiny minority, they have sullied the image of Monza. And the chorus of condemnation should be loud and it should be long.

McLaren at 50

This weekend’s Italian Grand Prix marks another return to hallowed ground – Monza, like Spa, is part of the fabric of the sport, and synonymous with Ferrari and the tifosi. But it is another team the limelight is on this weekend. Started by a New Zealander in 1963, they can proudly state they have won more races than any other since their involvement in F1. McLaren are 50 years old this weekend.

Any tribute to a team like this must necessarily be personal. My memories of McLaren are of the 1980s and 1990s, principally Senna in the Marlboro red-and-white with which they will always be associated, and then the stories: the stories of Fittipaldi and Hunt, of Lauda and Prost. They were just as romantic as any semi-mythology the Italians could recount. Senna’s yellow helmet in the rain at Donington in 1993 – the stuff of legend.

Then Hakkinen provided the chrome antidote to Schumacher’s Red Baron in 1998 and 1999, before the German became just too good for him. McLaren and their partners Mercedes Benz seemed like a good match, although it was during this period that a reputation for corporate-speak and clinical coldness was forged. David Coulthard and Juan Pablo Montoya the victims, but Raikkonen still thrilled us and McLaren were always a force to reckon with.

The late 2000s were the Hamilton era for McLaren. Always a team planning for the future, they had nurtured this boy to fulfil his blisteringly quick nature. Alonso was a bad choice to bring in and the sour taste lingers to this day – the Spygate scandal not the team’s finest hour. Still, they stuck to some of their principles. Ron Dennis said recently that McLaren exist to win, but not at any cost. In 2007, they refused to bow to Alonso’s reported demands for number one status – to Hamilton, it would have been like bringing up a horse to run the Grand National and then putting him in callipers.

Lately, despite a few wins in recent years, they have not been at the very top of the sport. This year in particular has been severely disappointing, but Hamilton will also see 2012 as a title lost because of his team’s failures. Whether they are capable of bouncing back is barely worth questioning. They are a behemoth of an organization; a living, breathing organism dedicated in the most part to the pursuit of glory in F1.
The McLaren Technology Centre is awe-inspiring in its size, complexity and ambition. Everything is clockwork. The wind tunnel has its own separate foundations; the trophy cabinet is located where employees are forced to walk past it every day; the hospitality generous, the grounds verdant.

All is nothing without grand prix victories, though. Their road car division is equally pristine and efficient, but may be a distraction for senior management. Elsewhere, senior figures like Paddy Lowe have moved on. It seems to be an entity in some kind of evolution, but there is stability in facilities, staff and – in all probability – drivers. This makes their return to the winners’ enclosure not so much a matter of ‘if’ but of ‘when’. Their reuniting with Honda is as astute a move as can be made in this era of unsigned Concorde Agreements and uncertain direction for the sport.

The colours of McLaren were orange, with the kiwi on the car, then red and white, then chrome and red. They are an incredible team and despite their origins are proudly British. Ferrari – the only team which can rival the Woking outfit in stature – know that McLaren are the one longstanding fighter with whom the battle is not over. Here’s to another 50 years.

Ricciardo for Red Bull Racing – safe and obvious, or dull and damaging?

Red Bull Racing recently announced they would be employing the Toro Rosso driver Daniel Ricciardo for next season, to replace his outgoing countryman Mark Webber. Having impressed in his first seasons in the sport, the affable Australian will enjoy a promotion to the senior team in the Red Bull stable opposite Sebastian Vettel for 2014. But was it such a no-brainer? Was it obvious? Or was it in reality a pedestrian choice?

On one hand, signing Ricciardo up was clearly the path of least resistance for the team. An opening had arisen, he has acknowledged speed, and is a product of the in-house driver programme. With a rejection of Ricciardo, what message would Red Bull have sent to all the young proteges on their books? He has F1 experience, has had the better of the highly-rated Jean Eric Vergne, and also is reportedly a clear and useful source of information to his engineers – to the end that the Red Bull engineers he’ll be working with won’t have to be schooling the boy. Then look at the other options. Raikkonen? Fast, but disinclined to do the even slightly more onerous of the sponsors’ chores. Alonso? A massive name, and potentially a massive distraction. And, looking it at all from a brutally practical viewpoint, why would you need another speed demon in the team? RBR have enough experience of two drivers being close enough to race each other, and it didn’t end well. No, Ricciardo is a safe pair of hands, and the default choice.

From the other point of view, some fans are sighing a deep sigh of resignation. There is all too much predictability about the opting for Ricciardo. He is clearly not going to challenge Vettel overmuch, especially in his first year. Why? Because he is not as good, the argument goes. Take 2008 (Vettel in an STR) vs 2012 (Ricciardo in an STR) with roughly comparable levels of experience. Vettel won a race and ended the season in eighth place in the standings. Ricciardo gained a measly ten points all year and ended the season in 18th place in the standings. For argument’s sake, variables are ignored but the point remains – no graduate of the Red Bull school has stood out like Vettel did, and Red Bull Racing know it. They want one more year with Vettel in his element, untroubled, with a fighting chance of an incredible fifth straight world title.

The reality is that Ricciardo makes sense for RBR the team, as distinct from Red Bull the energy drink. With the upheaval of the rule changes for 2014, bringing a Raikkonen or an Alonso in would be destabilising at best and at worst, would gift the title to the likes of Mercedes or Ferrari. It’s just a bit of a pity that the Austrian team didn’t live up to their brand’s risk-taking reputation. Presumably, Ricciardo’s recruitment was sanctioned by Helmut Marko with the tacit acquiescence of Dietrich Mateschitz. But is Vettel and his dominance, weirdly and ironically, starting to hurt the brand through his relentlessness? Time will tell, and maybe the rule changes will come at the right time to jazz it all up again and make RBR cool rather than boring. But it would have been even cooler to have Kimi Raikkonen in the other seat.