Why does F1 foster such intense teammate rivalries?

Sean Keywood13 April 2011 - 09:55



Recently, Helmut Marko, the director of Red Bull’s young driver programme, took a break from his favourite pastime of writing ‘Number Two’ on Mark Webber’s front lawn in weed killer to say that Lewis Hamilton could one day become Sebastian Vettel’s teammate. However, before anyone got too carried away with the idea of the sport’s two youngest world champions joining together to defend the honour of fizzy drink Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner had scotched the idea, saying that having two world champions in the same team was a recipe for disaster, something which prompted most experts to nod sagely.

The thing is, from an outsiders point of view this seems insane. After all, having several of the world’s best players in the same team doesn’t hurt Barcelona in football in the same way that it didn’t hurt the 1980s West Indies cricket team. In sport, when the best come together, everyone expects them to win and win and win. Except, apparently, in F1. Why?

The Best Of Enemies

Of course, the first example that everyone brings up when the idea of world champion team mates is mooted is Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. When they came together at McLaren in the late 1980s, the fallout was more titanic than anything Leonardo di Caprio has ever seen. What began with standard inter team fighting grew via Senna trying to plant Prost in the pit wall at Estoril to the collision in Japan at the end of the 1989 season which saw them take each other out in the hunt for the title. The team was divided, and team boss Ron Dennis was forced to transfer Prost out of the team to end the carnage, vowing never to make the same mistake again. Ever since, whenever the dangers of having two top drivers in the same team have been debated it is the Prost and Senna partnership that gets held up to prove it can’t be done.

Fine. Except for one small thing. Because while Prost and Senna were together, McLaren were totally unstoppable. Over the two seasons they were together, they won 25 out of 32 races, winning one title each and bringing McLaren two constructor’s titles. Admittedly, it can’t have been much fun for either of the drivers, who would both probably have preferred a more Maldonado-ish team mate. But from the team’s point of view, things could hardly have been better if they’d been granted exclusive media rights to Charlie Sheen. So why do we remember this partnership as a failure?

Number 1 In Team?

Well, it’s important to remember at this point how F1 differs from other team sports. In football, for example, Man United fans couldn’t care less whether Wayne Rooney wins player of the year as long as the team is successful. In F1, however, things are different. Although Frank Williams has always said that winning the constructor’s title is his priority, for all the other teams having one of their drivers win the title is their number one goal. Even for Ferrari, the only team to have more fans historically than either of their drivers, this is the case. And while Prost and Senna may have both won drivers titles while they were together, the received wisdom is that two strong drivers in the same team will take points from each other and allow a rival to snatch the crown. For more details, see McLaren in 2007, where Alonso and Hamilton’s civil war at McLaren allowed Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to snatch the title without even bothering to wait for a UN resolution.

From Christian Horner’s point of view, there is also specific evidence that a more focused, single minded and above all German approach should bring success. In the early years of this century Michael Schumacher won 5 titles in a row for Ferrari whilst paired with a teammate who even if he had been fast enough to challenge him was contractually forbidden from doing so. So it’s perhaps not surprising that when Horner looks at his own pointy-chinned German he thinks that this is the model to copy.

Of course, the fact is that as fast as Schumacher was, he had a car that was so superior to the rest of the field that Ferrari could have put Barry Chuckle in the other car and still romped to the constructor’s title, but even if Red Bull don’t have a car that dominant (and the evidence from the first two rounds suggests that they might) from a drivers title point of view the logic seems flawless, as with no strong teammate to take points from the lead driver they have a clear path to the title. And since the FIA overturned their ban on team orders, there should be nothing to stop a team principal bringing in such a policy if they wanted to

Catch Number 2

So from Red Bull’s point of view, it now seems a no brainer. Why hire Hamilton, put up with inter team squabbles and rivalry, only to see a rival driver in a slower car nick the title anyway, when you can put all your bratwurst in one hamper and watch Vettel waltz to the crown? Well, I believe there are two reasons. The first is that while a strong second driver can take points off his teammate, he can also take points off his rivals and in races where the team’s car has the upper hand can help bring home a one-two finish. Whereas, as Ferrari proved last year, pairing a number one driver with a subordinate can backfire horribly if, as in the case of the demoralised Massa, the second driver is too slow to be a factor at the front, making it impossible for the lead driver to finish more than one place ahead of his rivals or make up more than a few points on them per race, costing him the title.

As for the second reason, it may well not be one that Christian Horner would be inclined to agree with. But the fact is that if, as happened with Schumacher and Ferrari, a clear number one driver is paired with a dominant car, the ensuing championship will have all the edge of the seat excitement of a lazy summer’s day in the country as filmed for an independent film festival, causing viewers to switch off faster than Bernie Ecclestone can say ‘Where’s all my money gone?’. And rest assured, if that situation was ever allowed to rear its head again, there might just be some surprise rule changes around the corner. And they just might involve telling any teams whose cars resemble cans of fizzy drink to stop what they’re doing and go away.

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