“Second is the first loser.”
So said Sebastian Vettel as he attempted to chase down Jenson Button for the 2009 world championship. His pursuit of the Briton would ultimately be in vain, the Red Bull driver finishing 11 points in arrears of his rival and duly taking on the first loser mantle.
Twelve months later he put that right and, barring the most bizarre end to a grand prix season ever witnessed, he will make it two in a row in the coming weeks.
Vettel is not the first man to make such derisory remarks about runner-up spot: the likes of Ayrton Senna, Gilles Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen all delivered such soundbites during their F1 careers.
More recently McLaren’s drivers have voiced similar sentiments. Asked about the battle for second, neither Lewis Hamilton nor Jenson Button sounded at all fussed about the prospect of taking runner-up spot.
“Anywhere below first you are just the first, second, third or fourth of the losers,” said 2008 champion Hamilton.
“It’s [finishing second] not really the aim, is it,” added Button. “If you haven’t won the championship it is probably different, but when you have, you just want to win.”
Meanwhile Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso – who currently sits a single point behind Button in the race for runner-up – sees things rather differently.
“Of course there’s motivation [to finish second],” Alonso told the media post-Singapore. “It’s hard but it’s something you want, to be runner-up in the championship. If I can finish in second it would be a very valuable thing for me.”
So who’s version is more believable? Do the McLaren drivers truly not care about taking second, or could Alonso simply be giving his team a bit more motivation whilst not really caring about the outcome?
Ultimately Formula One racers are driven by a fierce desire to beat every competitor they face, to prove that that they and they alone are the king of the sport.
But if you can’t beat the entire grid – if one driver-car combination is simply too far ahead, as the Vettel-Red Bull package clearly is – then it stands to reason that you’d still care deeply about beating the other 22 men on the grid. Runner-up spot may well equate to first loser, but by that logic third place is the second best loser, and so on. Hamilton said as much himself.
Not that runner-up spot would rank as the same sort of achievement for everyone. Whilst Button, Alonso and Hamilton can call second an achievement due to the superiority of the Red Bull car Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber has no such excuse. For him second place is meaningless, as the one man he absolutely has to beat has proved far to strong an opponent for him this season. There’s historical precedent for this.
Recall Rubens Barrichello’s two world championship runner-up finishes, if you can, taken in 2002 and 2004. How much do they mean given that the man who (comprehensively) beat him in the standings was his Ferrari team-mate Michael Schumacher. Ditto Ricardo Patrese’s second place in 1992, the year Nigel Mansell steamrollered the championship.
A year later Senna finished second to Alain Prost, who took a very comfortable stroll to the title aboard his Williams-Renault. But the Brazilian’s McLaren was simply no match for the awesome FW15-C, making Senna’s runner-up finish something to be proud of. No, it’s not the first thing we think of when recalling the three-time champion’s glittering F1 career, but study the stats a little closer and it starts to look rather impressive. That unforgettable win at Donington or his victory by close to a minute at Monaco stand out as evidence of his driving around lesser equipment. Could, for example, Jenson’s supreme drive in Canada this year be looked on in a similar way should he secure second to Vettel?
Perhaps a runner-up finish for Button, Alonso or Hamilton will be viewed as an achievement in itself a decade or so down the line. Yes they’re all champions, and it’s quite possible at least one of them will add to the title tallies, but second place in a year like this would not be something to scoff at. And that’s why they all should – and, it’s got to be assumed, will be – pushing like crazy for it over the next five races.