Yesterday’s Belgian Grand Prix could prove to be a significant turning point in this year’s world championship.
Because with Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel, and Fernando Alonso all failing to score it could serve to turn the title battle in to a two horse race.
Lewis Hamilton now leads Mark Webber by an oh-so-slender 3 world championship points, one fewer than Webber led him by pre-Belgium. But the gap from Webber to third place Sebastian Vettel is 28 points, with Jenson Button a further 4 behind the man who ended his race- and perhaps his title challenge.
As fans we might not want the teams favouring one driver over the other until as late as possible, but for the teams themselves it’s all about putting the number one on their car for next year- so is it time for Red Bull and McLaren to back a winner?
Let’s look at McLaren first- should they throw everything behind Lewis?
Honestly, yes. Jenson’s had a good first year at Woking- two wins is more than many expected him to achieve at ‘Team Lewis’- but he’s been pretty well beaten for a while now.
Since Button’s victory in China there have been 9 races. In the five that both have finished Lewis has beaten Jenson every time; in the two Jenson retired from he was behind Lewis when he exited the race; and in the two Lewis failed to finish he was ahead of Jenson when he departed proceedings. Qualifying post-China is 8-1 to Hamilton. It’s pretty open and shut, really- Lewis represents McLaren’s best shot at the title and he needs to be the focus of their attention.
But then there’s the in-team harmony. Jenson is the reigning world champion, and he’s not going to like playing second fiddle to Lewis. He won’t kick up a fuss or try to sabotage his teammate’s title attempt, but it will be a tough order for him to accept. No matter how much he says he supports Hamilton he wants to beat him in to the dirt at every opportunity- and visa versa. It’s the nature of the game.
But ultimately Jenson Button is a team player, and he is a mature, forward thinking guy. When that almost-inevitable call to back Lewis up comes he’ll do it without complaint.
Because he’s he knows that in 12 months the situation could well be reversed. If he’s leading Lewis next year and he needs the team’s full backing he needs to show he’s a team player now. It’s about seeing the bigger picture, knowing, for want of a better phrase, that you can’t win ’em all.
So when should they sit Jenson down and suggest he backs Lewis? For harmony’s sake it’s got to be post-Monza. If Lewis outscores Jenson there the gap between them will be at around 40 points, a big number to make up over the remaining five grand prix when you consider Jenson hasn’t won a race since April. With the final five races being flyaways things have got to be done just right- mistakes and bad blood can’t be tolerated.
That said Jenson could take 25 points out of Lewis at the next race, and this whole discussion would be irrelevant. But the form book doesn’t suggest that will happen. If Hamilton finishes in Italy you’d expect him to be ahead of Jenson- and that should be the moment McLaren make him their number one. Privately, of course.
For Red Bull the decision to put the full weight of their title push behind Mark Webber any time soon will be a far tougher one- though Mark himself said yesterday that such a move “isn’t too far away”.
Because despite his recent troubles Sebastain Vettel is still capable of taking the title. In theory, he’s capable of winning every remaining race this season, something Button probably isn’t. Vettel has the quickest car on the grid, and of the remaining six races he’s a past winner at three. He’s been on pole 7 times this year, and you have to believe he will be again.
But then his head’s not in a great place at the moment, and if you wanted to back the driver in the best racing and psychological form you’d go with Mark- there’s no question there.
That’ll be tough though, because factions inside the Red Bull team favour Vettel. Whilst Christian Horner may want to treat his drivers equally it’s not his team- Dietrich Mateschitz pays the (massive) bills, and he’s getting his advice from Dr Helmut Marko, the man who ‘discovered’ Vettel and now acts as his biggest champion within the Red Bull team. If anyone suggests putting the team’s weight behind Webber Marko will blow a fuse, and he’ll quickly get Mateschitz on the case.
Horner has, as you’d expect, rubbished talk of favouring Webber at this stage. “I think it is still too early to be contemplating supporting one driver,” he said after yesterday’s race. “With the way the points scoring is, the gaps can look deceptive because, while they look quite large, in reality they can reduce dramatically very, very quickly. There are still 150 points on the board.”
They could indeed. But in the last 5 races Mark has outscored Sebastian by 76 points to 61. Recent events only point towards that continuing.
But it’s inevitable Red Bull will wait longer than McLaren to back a winner. Even if Vettel fails to score and Webber wins in Monza they’ll still be supporting both in Singapore- and Horner will be telling us that there are still 125 points on the board. Marko won’t want Webber made sole focus until it’s mathematically impossible for Vettel to be champion; Mateschitz will yield before that, but not until a Vettel title looks all-but out of the question.
And you get the feeling that this might just work in McLaren’s favour. They’ll be quicker to make the call and ask Jenson to support Lewis, and in a world championship as tight as this one that could be the difference between having the glorious number one on your car next year and the shameful number three.
But things are still up in the air on this one. Far more will be clear after Monza- which just makes this year’s Italian Grand Prix all the more fascinating.
So folks, when- if at all- will it be right for these two teams to put all their eggs in one basket? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.