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Can we just be friends?

23 Sep 2018

What is it with some F1 drivers? They are contracted to the same team but in reality it turns out that they simply can't get along with each other because of a personality clash. The term 'team mate' is a well known and often used term of endearment. The term can be broken down into two parts, firstly the word team, meaning the two drivers, the mechanics, the management, the people behind the scenes including the chef in the motor home to the receptionist at the factory. The word mate conjures up a more literal and direct definition, the drivers themselves. They are the face of the team, the two people the fans come to see and watch performing their craft, being F1 drivers in the fastest cars. 

 

Max Verstappen has recently publicly stated that following all the debate and arguments over whether or not Alonso was offered a drive with Red Bull Racing in 2019, that he himself weighed in on the decision and said, "No." Verstappen made his feelings heard based on the fact he couldn't see himself getting along with Alonso as a team mate. My question is this, should an F1 driver be making the choice on who the other driver in a team will be? Should it not be up to the team management to decide who they want to pedal their F1 cars around during the season? 

 

Examples of where the decision to put the word team first in the equation has clearly been displayed over time. This has of course cost teams on occasions the chance of clinching either the drivers or constructors championships. These drivers themselves clashed both on and off the track, losing wins, points and championships in the process. 

 

During 1986 and 1987, one set of team mates proved their absolute rivalry and dislike for each other. Nigel Mansell had been bought into the Williams outfit to show off his talent. Nelson Piquet, the well proven Brazilian driver of course wanted to the retain his position as being the top dog and number one driver. For Piquet, Mansell was just another target, a victim of his personal attacks. The difference here being that the two did not battle on the track, taking each other out. Instead, Piquet used his mental bravado to scare and pysch his rivals, namely Mansell. There was no way Piquet would accept being the number two driver in any way, shape or form to the Brit. To prove his worth, he even took the step of verbally insulting Mansell's wife (Roseanne). They were equal in skill, but 'The Lion' had the speed over his team mate and tamed 'The Cat'. Mansell won this battle in 1986, beating Piquet by one single championship point. 

 

 Mansell and Piquet - seen here together in a happier moment at Estoril in 1986

 

One of the greatest examples was the fierce battle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Team mates at McLaren for the first time in 1988, they won fifteen of the sixteen races contested that season. However the first cracks in the relationship began to appear when Prost had an instinct. Their relationship began to sour when Prost approached and held a meeting with in November of that same year with Nobuhiko Kawamoto, the then head of research and development at Honda's racing section. Prost shared his thoughts and stated his case, believing that Senna was being given preferential treatment by Honda. Prost's worst fears were confirmed as he was told that the engineers working with Senna had taken preference and admiration in his style of driving, seeing his passion for feedback of detailed data analysis. Promises were made that there would be an equal status in the team between both Senna and Prost by Honda as the engine supplier, but the promise was never kept. This was seen as the beginning of the end. 

 Prost and Senna, team mates but fierce rivals on and off the track. Seen here with the famous and unbeatable McLaren MP4/4

 

For 1989, the rivalry continued on and off the track. Prost continued to claim that preference was still being given to Senna, with more mechanics, sometimes numbering twenty working on his side of the garage, whilst Prost only had four or five. There were further claims that the V10 Honda was down on outright power and performance compared to the engine supplied to Senna's car. This idea of preference was further strengthened by Ron Dennis' statement that Senna was the future of the McLaren team. Prost came out with another clincher and informed the F1 world that he was taking his skills and would for 1990 drive for the Scuderia in red overalls. 

 

Prost who was now partnered by Mansell at Ferrari, claimed that he had been given a car that lacked power and handling compared to that of Mansell's. As a result, the cars were swapped without Mansell's knowledge. Senna and Prost continued their on track antics with Senna deliberately driving into Prost at the Japanese Grand Prix to claim the 1990 title as a driver and the manufacturers crown for McLaren. 

 

Prost and Senna coming together at Suzuka in 1990

 

At the end of 1993, Prost made the steps of the podium alongside his old nemesis Senna. This was Prost's last race as an F1 driver and as much applauded mark of respect, Prost was physically grabbed and hauled onto the top step to stand by Senna to stand alongside his rival. They embraced as rivals, but also as competitors with Senna placing his arm around Prost. This simple act by Senna was considered a sign that he had called a truce with Prost and they could now move on. As fate would have it, this was to be Senna's last victory. Following Senna's death in 1994, Prost fulfilled the roll of being one of the pallbearers of Senna's coffin. Prost's only comment about Senna's death and his actions at the funeral was to state, "A part of me died also." 

 

We move forward to 2007 and again the focus is on the McLaren team, and the chapter of it's history known as 'Pit lane gate'. Two new drivers were bought in to replace Raikkonen and de la Rosa after Montoya's very public departure. The garages were now covered by large boards with the names of Fernando Alonso and the rookie Lewis Hamilton. Alonso already had two drivers titles to his name and Hamilton, the name on everyones lips as a driver to watch. They saw each other, not as team mates but simply as team rivals. It was driver against driver, each seeking their own determination to be the best. This all came to a climax at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Qualifying was coming to an end, with roughly two minutes and thirty seconds left on the clock. 

 

Alonso again pitted in the McLaren pit box for fresh tyres, along with almost every other driver in the field. The McLaren crew held Alonso for about twenty seconds after the tyres were fitted. This was done as a stated attempt to give Alonso a clearer track, however, this reasoning was later rejected by the stewards as most other cars on the track had also pitted at the time as well. Hamilton by now entered the pit lane and was 'stacked up' behind Alonso waiting for him to drive away from the pit box. When Alonso was released by the lollipop man, he remained stationary for a further ten seconds, even though the pit crew were gesturing for him to leave. Hamilton then pulled in for his final set of tyres.

 

 Hamilton waits for Alonso to leave the McLaren pitbox at the Hungaroring in 2007

 

This delay tactic  by Alonso meant that there was insufficient time for Hamilton to get back to the start-finish line before the chequered flag was waived, signalling the end of qualifying. The clock was ticking loudly, with Alonso starting his flying lap with less than two seconds of the session remaining whist Hamilton missed out by around five seconds. The reaction of team boss Ron Dennis was well documented and visually shown to the world. Dennis, in his act of sheer disgust threw his headphones and verbally accosted Alonso's trainer. Dennis would not explain or discuss the matter, only saying that Hamilton had earlier on ignored a team order himself, putting the two McLaren's out of position with each other on the track. 

 

We move forward a couple of years to another fierce and open battle of two very distinct drivers. Red Bull Racing as a team had made it's mark in F1. It was a team that had a product to sell and wasn't clinical like the Ron Dennis McLaren outfit. It was cashed up and needed no outside assistance in terms of sponsorship. The only support the team needed was for two F1 drivers to deliver points and championships. For 2010, Red Bull Racing had on their books the outstanding and untouchable Sebastian Vettel. Alongside him in the other garage was Mark Webber. The Aussie who had worked his way up through junior categories and earned his drive in F1 based solely on skill and personal merit alone. 

 

The two as team mates were always seen to get along with each other. The team were running like a well oiled machine, they were grabbing every pole position they could and were the team to beat. The Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul Park was run on a Sunday afternoon on the 30th of May. Webber had again placed himself on the number one grid position. The five red lights went out and the race took place. On lap forty, Vettel saw an opportunity to overtake his team mate. Webber had backed off to save fuel and as Vettel over took, the two collided with each other. Vettel was forced to retire with Webber managing to hold onto third place and another podium finish. Despite post-race discussion, neither driver would accept they were at fault. Some senior members of the Red Bull Racing team later admitted that they believed that Webber had not given Vettel enough space to get around him. A big wedge had been driven between the two team mates, now team rivals. 

 

 Vettel and Webber argued who was at fault for the lack of real estate given to each other to allow a clean pass on lap forty at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix 

 

 

The bitterness and rivalry continued between Webber and Vettel for many more seasons. Their most public and well publicised coming together occurred in 2013. The Malaysian Grand Prix was always known as a challenging circuit. The intense heat and humidity boils over the driver emotions as well as for the fans watching in the stands. On lap forty-four, with twelve laps remaining Webber exited the pits and was again in the lead. Webber was captured on TV cameras giving Vettel a one fingered salute. Vettel was himself reminded by Christian Horner (team principal) to calm down. Vettel regained the lead and won the race. In the post-race cool down, Webber was over heard repeatedly stating to Vettel, "Multi-21 Seb, multi-21." It was later established and explained in the post-race interview that the team had made a call that Webber, in car number two was to take the win over Vettel in car number one. Webber publicly stated that Vettel had again ignored a team order, also implying that Vettel was the guarded and protected driver within the Red Bull Racing fraternity. This was the beginning of the end for Webber who later announced his retirement from Formula One racing at the conclusion of the 2013 season. 

 

The next chapter of team mates and their rivalry will cast the spot light on two old friends. They had been friends since their carting days together and had been competitive since they were small boys. Nico Rosberg, the son of a former world champion, fluent in five languages and having a blood line for racing at the top level was a racer at heart. Hamilton had come across to Mercedes from McLaren and was hungry for more drivers championships. The line in the sand between these two friends was drawn at the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix. Rosberg used an engine mode that had itself been banned by Mercedes to give him a power advantage over Hamilton in the closing stages of the race. Hamilton saw red and knew that he would have to stake his claim, the friendship was over. Hamilton returned fire by himself using the banned engine modes at the Spanish Grand Prix a few races later. The war had begun!The on track dramas continued for 2014, with numerous instances of Hamilton and Rosberg backing each other up into slower cars and running into each other with clumsy moves causing tyre punctures.

 

In 2015, the F1 entourage went to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Hamilton was on course to claim his third drivers title and his first as a Mercedes employee. There was the usual on track battles, but one instance of Hamilton pushing Rosberg wide at turn one cemented the anger in Rosberg. Hamilton grabbed the lead back off Rosberg when he made a mistake and ran deep coming into turn twelve. Hamilton was crowned as the 2015 F1 drivers champion and race winner. Rosberg, languishing back in second wasn't happy. In the cool down room, the scene of so many fierce and fiery encounters before, another chapter was about to be written. Rosberg, seated in a chair, reminiscing on what had occurred was all of a sudden in possession of the second placed cap that had been passed to him by Hamilton. As an act of retaliation and expression of his anger, Rosberg picked the cap up and threw it straight back at Hamilton. Any hope of a reconciliation of the friendship had been well and truly been lost that day. 

 

 Hamilton passes the second placed cap to Rosberg before it was thrown back in anger

 

The 2016 season again saw the spotlight well and truly cast on the Hamilton and Rosberg relationship. The first incident occurred in Spain. Engine mapping and steering wheel controls came into the debate as Rosberg got the launch set up wrong during the formation lap. As a result, Hamilton had gained the lead and was quicker than Rosberg. Hamilton saw his chance to take the lead, but Rosberg was closing the gap across the track out of turn three. Hamilton dropped his right hand side wheels on the grass verge and lost control. Hamilton was now a passenger in his W07 and slammed into Rosberg. Both drivers were left with damaged cars sitting in the gravel trap. Their race was over.

 

Hamilton and Rosberg retire from the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix without having completed a single full lap of the race

 

Again in 2016, we witnessed another incident which sent the F1 community into meltdown with the debate about who was at fault. The scene was set, it was the last lap of the Austrian Grand Prix. Rosberg needed a break from the brake issues that had plagued him throughout the race. Rosberg made a mistake at turn one on his way to the finish line and an expected win. Hamilton pounced on the fault and as they came towards turn two, Hamilton took the outside line. Rosberg on the inside line turned, but appeared to not apply enough steering lock to carry out the manoeuvre? It appeared not to be enough for the turn to be completed as Rosberg sailed into the right hand side of Hamilton's car as he himself attempted to complete the right hand turn from the outside. Rosberg lost his front wing as a result of going straight on and ended up fourth, without a podium place or the much desired win. Hamilton continued on without as much damage to take the chequered flag. The debate as to who was at fault carried on for weeks, with the Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff breaking another desk with his renowned fist pumps and stating that team orders would be enforced if the two drivers kept carrying on in this manner, treating the championship like it was a bumper car ride. Rosberg was pin pointed as being at fault by the stewards for failing to leave enough racing space. Rosberg was in his own mind, simply trying to show that he was not the number two driver at Mercedes. This was confirmed at the end of the season when he took out the drivers title and a surprise announcement that he would retire. Rosberg took his bat and ball and went home. 

 

 Rosberg takes the long way around turn two at the Red Bull Ring, colliding

into the side of Hamilton 

 

So to answer my question, every F1 driver wants to win and claim the drivers championship. It's the dream that every racing driver has, no matter what category they're racing in. If you drive for a team, I believe that it is not up to an individual driver to dictate to the team bosses who they want on the other side of the garage. Its is up to the team to decide who will be the drivers mate, rival and counterpart in the garage. Who can the team place in the seats of their cars to best deliver the results and being home the prize. Your greatest competitor is always your team mate, the one you always want to beat. 

 

 

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