- Don't buy into Vettel as the villain
- By Edd Straw
- Sport polarises. It thrives on its villains as much as its heroes. Perhaps more so, as it needs its villains to define that heroism. Often the line dividing the two is paper-thin.
- Nowhere is that dichotomy more starkly realised than in the Red Bull garage. In the wake of riding roughshod over team orders to steal Malaysian Grand Prix victory from Mark Webber, Vettel is seen by many as a cold, ruthless antagonist. He is the evil figure looming in the shadows in a melodrama, shrouded in a cape, after tying the heroine to a railway line.
- Webber, by contrast, is the hard-working, subjugated hero. He is the little guy who is never given a chance by the sinister Austro-Milton Keynesian empire. A luckless serf who is shoved back in his box every time he is about to upset the established order to the point where some, idiotically, suggest that his car's out-of-fuel and wheel-shedding moments were some kind of anti-Webber conspiracy.
- Both are caricatures, with only the most tenuous connection to reality. It's not a problem for Webber, who emerges as the all-Australian against-the-odds hero who everyone wants to go for a beer with. It's a shallow portrayal of a grand prix driver with unusually broad interests but that overwhelmingly positive, one-dimensional, portrayal is not too tough a cross for him to bear.
- Vettel, by contrast, is painted as the kind of guy you would cross the street to avoid. The sort who would sell his own grandmother for an extra world championship point.
- He isn't, of course. So what is he?
- First and foremost, he is a driver of whom the question is not if he is an all-time great, but rather just how great he will become.
- Some quibble about his right to that status. But triple world champions don't happen by accident or luck. So what if he has won three world championships for the same team during a period of dominance – that hardly did the legend of Ayrton Senna (three crowns in four seasons for McLaren from 1988-1991) any harm. Winning even one world championship is damned difficult, doing so three times on the bounce requires both fortune in having the right machinery and an unusually focused driver.
- Perhaps that success is at the heart of the popular view of him? After all, there is no greater crime in sport than the perception of having 'had it easy'.
- By winning all the time and showcasing your excellence, it inevitably becomes more interesting for people to pick at the flaws, real or otherwise.
- Granted, Vettel has had staunch backing from Red Bull throughout his career in cars. But that support was far from a guarantee that he would make the top as the 'silver spoon' as some characterise it as has been withdrawn from almost every other driver who has ever benefited from it.
- He is the one survivor of a brutal system, a reflection of his ability and work ethic, not favouritism. Is that so great a sin?
- Helmut Marko does have a close relationship with Vettel – one source close to him described it as almost "paternal" – but he is not as influential as some make out. After all, Marko was the one who wanted to retain Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi at Toro Rosso in 2012 only to be over-ruled by Dietrich Mateschitz, who is very much his own man.
- As 2010 proved, Red Bull was willing to let both drivers have a run at the world championship. After all, even the staunchest Webber fan would have to admit that without his shunt in Korea and poor performance in Abu Dhabi, he would have taken the title.
- That season, Webber used every opportunity to paint the team that had given him the best car in F1 and paid him several million to drive it as being against him, culminating in his infamous complaints ahead of the penultimate race of 2010 at Interlagos about Vettel being favoured by Red Bull.
- Here is where perception comes in. When Vettel asks for team orders to assist him, as he did over the race in Malaysia, he is vilified. When Webber has wanted the same thing, such as during the 2010 title run-in, the fact he does not get it is seen as the team not supporting him.
- Fernando Alonso, once seen, in the UK at least, as 'the enemy', consistently demands subservience from his team-mates. Jenson Button, arguably the most popular British driver, wasn't lampooned for demanding McLaren hold off the quicker Sergio Perez in Bahrain. Every single driver on the grid, quite rightly, expects the team to help them out in situations like this.
- That is not villainy, it's about trying to do everything to get the best result. After all, no driver wants to be a domestique.
- Another factor conveniently ignored during the post-Malaysia analysis is that Red Bull ordered Vettel to hold station behind Webber. How does that tally with the claim that Webber exists solely for Vettel's convenience? This fact does not sit easily with the pre-ordained storyline, hence is disregarded.
- What if the positions had been reversed? What if Webber had ignored team orders in Malaysia to overtake Vettel for victory? Most likely, he would have been hailed as a folk hero. And don't think he would not have considered it. After all, he has previous.
- Vettel's forthright press conference in China, unquestionably showed a hard edge. While harsh to say that Webber did not 'deserve' to win, this was Vettel drawing a line in the sand, publicly, for the first time. Again, think of the reaction had Webber said it.
- Vettel is hugely influential at Red Bull, no question. More influential than his team-mate largely as a consequence of the fact he was won 27 races and three titles compared to Webber's nine victories and no crowns. But that is the status befitting of a truly great driver.
- Alonso has similar status at Ferrari – in fact, there is plenty of evidence that he holds vastly more sway there. Yet he and team principal Stefano Domenicali do not get anywhere near as much criticism. The Spaniard has simply ensured that he is in the best possible situation to win the world championship, which is what it is all about.
- There will come a time when Vettel does end up in less competitive machinery. Were he to spend five years, as Alonso has, in largely good but not great machinery, doubtless people would see him differently. The storyline will change. Perhaps he would become the hero battling against some other dominant force? The perception would be completely different.
- Vettel is not perfect. Malaysia will remain one of the defining moments of his career. He has made some ill-advised comments about rivals. He has made mistakes (notably what happened in Turkey 2010, when he drifted into Webber while attempting to take the lead). But which driver hasn't?
- Alonso, for example, blamed Kimi Raikkonen for their clash at the start of the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix and seemed to get away with it, despite the fact that he drifted over on the Lotus. No driver has a monopoly on being right.
- The bottom line is that, in a field of rare quality and competitiveness, Vettel has proven time and again he is a winner. That he has been able to do so while being a charismatic and approachable figure, unlike some others you could mention, should by rights make him a beloved megastar.
- Unfortunately, there are those who would rather see him as a pariah, interpreting his every move in the negative. Vettel is a great. Alonso is a great, Hamilton is a great. None of the three are flawless. Why not sit back and enjoy the spectacular battles between them rather than letting support for one driver turn the others into villains? Don't place them above criticism, but keep a sense of proportion. They are racing drivers, not gods or monsters.
- Of course, Vettel is ruthless. But so is Webber (ask some of his former team-mates about that). So is Alonso. So was Ayrton Senna. So was Alain Prost. So was Jack Brabham. So was Jackie Stewart and so was Juan Manuel Fangio. Each manifest their ruthlessness in different ways, but they all had it. It is part of the skill set.
- "I don't consider myself being the bad guy," said Vettel in China during his impassioned defence of what happened in Malaysia.
- Neither should anyone else.
a guest May 1st, 2013 1,848 Never
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