Thursday, 28 March 2013

A product of his own success, Red Bull’s ‘Golden Boy’ won’t settle for the silver spoon.

Since the chequered flag dropped in Malaysia, the headlines have been alive with opinion surrounding Sebastian Vettel's seemingly infamous victory. 

Some opinions have been laughable and some more plausible but what is clear is the fallout created from Sunday's result is simply not going to be swept under the carpet by Red Bull Racing. The main issue Christian Horner has is the majority of this soap opera between his two drivers was played out openly in front of the world’s media. Not being able to contain the incident and deal with it internally opens Red Bull up to fierce criticism from its closest rivals and figureheads within the sport. Airing your dirty washing in public is an Achilles heel for RBR. It enables opponents to openly offer opinion and destabilise the RBR environment furthermore. External forces fuelling the fire will only serve to hinder the unity within the team. This is a prime example of the importance of good management so these incidents are contained and dealt with internally, away from the prying public eye. 

How badly will Sebastian Vettel's actions on Sunday affect the performance and unity of RBR?! Only time will tell. Mark Webber was not the only victim on Sunday. Vettel has not put only himself in a difficult position but various other key figures within the team too. Luckily for Vettel, immunity seems to be among his strongest suits. Are Red Bull Racing creators of their own downfall regarding this scenario?! I'll come back to this later. 

There are various key issues surrounding Vettel’s actions. I have touched on one above but I think the primary question on the tip of everyone's tongue is: Was Sebastian Vettel right to overtake an unsuspecting Mark Webber?! 

'Multi 21' was the call from the pit wall meaning hold position. Vettel, buoyed by being slowed by Webber earlier on in the race, chose to ignore this call. Was it a request or an order from Christian Horner? We will never know the contractual obligations regarding 'Multi 21' if any, but what we do know is the understanding surrounding the command is very different between the two RBR drivers. Mercedes had no trouble containing their drivers, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, clearly understood the situation. Is there a respect issue between Vettel and Webber?! Of course and coupled with a 3 time world champion’s insatiable appetite to win, you can sort of understand why second place behind Webber was not an option for Vettel.

So was Vettel right to pass Webber?! No is the simple answer to that. Within elite sport, the margins between success and failure are very slight. Some would argue the margins are almost invisible. At the weekend, Sebastian Vettel came very close to recreating the infamous 2010 incident between the pair, where they clashed during the Turkish Grand Prix. ‘Multi 21’ is a procedure in place for very obvious professional reasons. I personally do not agree with starving the fans of a race but understand the merits of doing so for the teams involved. On top of potentially creating a repeat of Turkey, Vettel has created a very ambiguous situation moving forwards, not only for him but also for the team and various key figures within. 

It is clear that Sebastian Vettel should not have done what he did but I understand why he did it. At Red Bull there is no clear No.1 and No.2 driver. Or shall I rephrase that: Red Bull openly state that each driver is treated with equal merit. There are no team orders. Unfortunately, historically, this has clearly not been the case. Vettel is the Red Bull ‘Golden Child’; a product of Dietrich Mateschitz and Dr. Helmut Marko. Vettel knows this, Mark Webber knows this and seemingly so does Christian Horner based on his sheepish reaction to the situation as it was unfolding on Sunday. 

To go back to my point above: Are Red Bull Racing creators of their own downfall? Dietrich Mateschitz and Dr. Helmut Marko have created through the Red Bull Driver Program a very confident, calculated and self assured individual in Sebastian Vettel. After all, he has 27 of RBR's 35 race victories. He has been pivotal to the success of the team. Who wouldn't feel invincible? So strong is Vettel's belonging, self-belief and relationship with Dietrich Mateschitz and Dr. Helmut Marko, it has almost rendered Team boss Christian Horner powerless. Never more was that so obvious than on Sunday afternoon. Vettel believes he has earned the right to do what he did in Sepang. He is also a clever and clinical winner. Winning is part of his make-up and it certainly comes before dealing with the consequences of his approach.

Interestingly enough, post-race Vettel did show weakness. Sebastian wants to be liked, he likes to be liked and that has wrongly been diagnosed as a facade by some. But no doubt about it, Sebastian Vettel does not wear the hatred of his actions as well as some of his peers would! There was definite guilt on show during the post race interviews, leaving him even more exposed. He would have been better off showing complete conviction and admitting his actions as being calculated and deliberate. However, he felt the pressure and did not. Having said that, do not expect a different Vettel come China as in the heat of battle winning matters to him and consequences do not. But how it affects his human element away from the confines of his crash helmet will be interesting to observe. It all depends on how this is dealt with internally. Personally, I cannot see the Sebastian Vettel wagon being destabilised which leaves Christian Horner in an almost impossible position.

Where does Red Bull go from here? I think it is Christian Horner's position that gives Dietrich Mateschitz the biggest headache. In Vettel, Red Bull has created a winning machine that cannot be suppressed or deflated. They do, however, need someone who can control his direction; an individual who he respects and understands. Can Christian Horner deliver this? Based on Sunday's performance, no!

As for Mark Webber, sadly, nothing can rescue the damage done in Sepang. It is disrespectful towards Webber to expect him to buy into any remorse from Vettel or to buy into any promises made internally off the back of this fallout. Webber is too mature and too professional to openly seek revenge but should the situation ever arise that Vettel needs his help, I don't think he'll be taking the call.

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Million Dollar Question.

A question I am asked frequently: ‘If I were to do it all again, how would I get to Formula 1’? To which I answer, ‘Well, I never got anywhere near Formula 1, so that is a good question.’ That is a quipped reply as I never fulfilled my potential because of injury and not bad decision making. However, you are never far away from a bad decision when it comes to negotiating the minefield up to Formula 1 and I think, in hindsight, many drivers past and present would agree with that statement.
The crusade from an everyday school kid with a dream to a fully-fledged Formula 1 superstar is not by any means a well trodden path. It could be likened to winning the lottery; in fact, I think you would probably get better odds for winning the lottery than you would for occupying a slot on the grid in Melbourne.
The cynics amongst you are probably already screaming ‘MONEY’ at your computer screens and I do not disagree with that opinion. I cannot hide the fact that money is very important nor can I pretend that talent will be enough. What I will say, though, is that you do not have to be a millionaire in order to realise this dream. With the current economy and the way the sport is structured at the moment, money will always precede talent but that does not mean that the drivers being promoted onto the big stage are lacking in talent, it just means that the numbers capable of realising a Formula 1 seat are greatly diluted.
Not many of you will argue that the likes of Vergne, Ricciardo, Grosjean, and Bianchi do not deserve their crack at the big time, but what most of you will argue is that there are individuals that are lost on every rung of the ladder that were capable of emulating these guys. This is something I cannot change, but what I can do is give you a brief insight into how I would approach realising my dream if I were to do it all again.
One of the things lacking in our sport for youngsters is the correct advice and guidance. However, there are plenty of individuals offering bad advice and guidance and worryingly earning money out of promising the world and delivering nothing. Chasing a dream can lead us or those around us to become blinkered and detached from reality. Staying grounded and realistic is very important when making career defining decisions. Determining what is good advice and what is bad advice when you have no experience within the sport is tough. Most drivers are inherently partnered by their Dads and it becomes a team effort: you versus the world. Do not be scared to recognise that you know very little about what you are trying to achieve. That does not mean jumping into bed with the first time waster that knocks on your door (and there will be a lot of these), but actually carefully researching who to speak to and why. Personally, I think, in this modern day and age, this should be a service provided by the MSA. Sadly, it is not and so you need to do it yourself.
Seek out individuals that have achieved the dream from similar circumstances. Approach individuals who do not have a hidden agenda and so will offer impartial advice. There are only a handful of individuals capable of picking up the phone to a Formula 1 team and nine times out of ten they will not be knocking on your door, you will be knocking on theirs. Generally, they will advise you that without a reasonable amount of personal backing or the ability to generate funds, they cannot do much to help your cause. However, what they can do is advise and guide you correctly and if you are lucky they will do this. Romancing these contacts and keeping them abreast of your progress is important. They will be of use later in your career, not at the beginning.
The gulf of affordability between karting and single seaters is growing year by year. The elimination of certain junior formulas and the pressure to spend as little time in each category as possible due to financial constraints means the pathway you choose initially has to be correct. The most important thing for a young driver graduating to cars is seat time. A young driver should be focused on their learning curve and potential and not results at this stage in their career. Success is born on failure. Making mistakes is part of it and while I realise results are important in shaping a profile for investment, it is actually seat time and what you learn at this level that will really shape your career. Long term development has to be in preference to short term development and sadly, that is not always the case dependant on your environment and Team YOU. As a driver climbs the ladder, seat time diminishes and so developing a comprehensive skill set at this level is vital. That might not mean racing; that might mean testing. Spend your money wisely and avoid chasing unrealistic goals.
While I believe that, in order to be the best, you have to beat the best, I am also aware that as a driver, you are also effectively a marketing project. Yes, competing in the highest profile championships is always attractive, but it is not a necessity at the beginning of your career. Creating confidence through a winning habit carries no negatives regardless of the profile of the championship. If you are committed to learning the right lessons and it means saving valuable money, then go for it. Too many drivers get sucked into competing on the big stage, learning nothing, shattering their confidence and spending all their money. For what? Winning means winning whoever the opposition. A winning brand gives you something to market. Yes, at some stage you will need to do it against the best but please do not rush your learning curve.
I cannot cater for every eventuality so it is impossible for me to specifically outline what is best for you and your circumstances. What I can do, however, is showcase what direction I would go in if I had my time again. With the demise of British Formula Ford and Formula BMW UK, (and Formula 4 UK being an unproven entity) I would look abroad for my first step. First stop France and the Autosport Academy. I cannot speak highly enough about the facility the FFSA provide here. Budget capped at 55,000 Euros, French F4 offers an affordable learning environment and importantly a stepping stone where success can potentially open up further opportunities. From here, I would stay in Europe and focus on Formula Renault and the ladder that precedes it. Renault has created a structure for young drivers second to none. Their championships promote learning and talent with the end piece being World Series by Renault. The Renault approach caters as best it can for underfunded drivers and personally, I like the ethos they’ve created.
Being a purist, historically, I would love to say Formula Ford, Formula 3 and GP2 is the way to go but the reality is for all but a handful it isn’t. Formula Ford has lost its USP, Formula 3 is in a state of disarray created by escalating costs and GP2 is bleeding to death with the same issues. Yes, the Renault ladder is still a distant dream for many but for the rest, it offers hope.
Finally, be yourself; do not be frightened to address weakness and surround yourself with the right people who share your goals. Follow your dream but never lose sight of reality.
Please feel free to ask me any questions you may have. I am more than happy to share my experience and to help, advise and guide you where possible.