Consistent Rosberg deserves maiden F1 title

Consistent Rosberg deserves maiden F1 title

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Nico Rosberg claimed his first F1 world drivers’ title in Abu Dhabi

Loyalty can be seen as a fault in many sportspeople but for Nico Rosberg – F1’s newest world champion – it is probably his best quality.

Existing in a world of driver merry go-rounds, Rosberg has had just two teams throughout his 11-year F1 career.

Beginning with Williams in 2006, he spent four seasons with the British privateer team before joining the might of Mercedes in 2010.

Despite a difficult start, the German consistently outperformed F1 legend Michael Schumacher at the team and finally, in his seventh campaign with the Brackley-based outfit, his loyalty has paid off with a world title.

Rosberg is known for sticking to his guns. His system of operation is to study his car’s setup in forensic detail, chipping away at the balance throughout a race weekend until he has extracted the maximum performance from it.

In addition, this season especially, and despite being the title favourite before today’s season-ending Abu Dhabi GP, he has insisted he is just taking each race as it comes with his sole focus on trying to claim victory.

Rosberg’s studious approach has often undermined his talent – of which he clearly has plenty.

He comes from a racing background and has now emulated his father Keke, who won the driver’s title in 1982 through a triumph of consistency over victories, of which he took none.

Nico joins Damon Hill – 1996 world champion – as the only other driver to have won the world title after his father.

Of course, after 11 seasons in the sport, Rosberg has clearly had to wait a long time for world championship glory.

His feat took 206 races to accomplish – the longest stint in history – and is beaten only by Nigel Mansell’s 12-year drought in terms of timespan.

Rosberg also took 111 races to secure his first race win, which came in the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix. He has since gone on to take 22 more, benefiting from the outstanding Mercedes car in the new hybrid era.

However, he will always be compared to team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who had won the two previous championships in a straight fight between the pair.

This sudden projection into battle has tested their once strong friendship. The duo had grown up racing each other in karting and spent a considerable amount of time together on and off the track.

Now, their relationship looks strained, often frosty.

Perhaps the low point in recent times occurred when Rosberg threw his cap at Hamilton in the aftermath of Hamilton’s 2015 title win at Austin, when Rosberg had run wide when leading, gifting his rival the win he needed to clinch his third career title.

But there can be no doubt that the unmatched pace of the Mercedes car presented each driver with a unique situation.

They both knew that they would likely enjoy a private war for the title, such has been the superiority of their Mercedes car.

And there can also be no doubt that this driver pairing has forced the other to up their game.

For Rosberg, his aim has been to beat Hamilton – widely acclaimed as a faster, more naturally talented racer.

For Hamilton, his target has been to dominate races in the same way his idol, Ayrton Senna, did.

At times, the duo have realised their goals – but neither has had a true rule over the other.

Rosberg has had periods of dominance, such as winning the first four races of this season, that created a foundation for his title win.

Whereas Hamilton had been irresistible in July, winning all four races. His latest win in Abu Dhabi was also his fourth in succession and his tenth overall.

Rosberg has notched nine victories, but it is the same quality his father exhibited which has eventually taken him to his title win – consistency.

Looking at the numbers, he has put himself into a fantastic position in each Grand Prix.

For a start, he has never qualified adrift of the top two. He has made fewer poor starts than Hamilton and he has had fewer retirements – the only one coming during the pair’s infamous crash in the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Much has been made of Hamilton’s misfortune with power-unit failures. Realistically, his retirement when leading the Malaysian Grand Prix was his downfall – but Rosberg only finished third after a first-corner tangle with Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton’s other gremlins occurred in China and Russia during qualifying. His seventh place to Rosberg’s victory in Shanghai was the costliest, but he recovered to take second in Sochi, again behind his team-mate.

Hamilton had also been in terrible form in Baku and Singapore, leaving Rosberg to take easy wins.

There lies the difference. Where Hamilton has dropped the ball, his team-mate has invariably punished him. The triple world champion has also suffered a number of shocking starts from pole or second.

The getaway in Japan springs to mind as another major factor in his demise, having gone from second to ninth before the first turn. He later clawed back third place.

The bottom line is that Rosberg has raised his level and maintained it across the record-breaking length of this 21-race season.

He has not been intimidated by past failings against Hamilton, notably in wheel-to-wheel combat.

He has also appeared stronger mentally than his rival, whose emotions have notoriously fluctuated throughout the duration of 2016.

Adding all these equations together we are left with a simple answer: Nico Rosberg completely deserves to be the new F1 world champion.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

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Lewis Hamilton wins second F1 world title

The greatest measure of a modern racing driver is how they perform when they face adversity.

At several points this season, one driver had faced such adversity and it looked as though his assault on the world drivers’ title would never bear fruit.

But cometh the hour, cometh Lewis Hamilton.

His performance this season, winning 11 times in 19 races, was at times glorious and at times ruthless.

However, from the very first race in Melbourne he had to battle back from a big points deficit.

After a catastrophic pre-season which threatened mass unreliability amongst the whole grid, it was perhaps no surprise that there were several casualties throughout the opening weekend.

Complex new hybrid power units, the cause of these problems, came complete with an intricate turbo incorporated into the design in the interests of green automobile technology.

Such sophistication under these new regulations warranted a massive learning curve for the teams but Mercedes, Hamilton’s team, had appeared to master them in the three pre-season tests.

Yet when the Briton pulled away from the start line in Australia to begin the formation lap his car was already experiencing problems and he retired shortly afterwards.

His teammate and childhood friend Nico Rosberg then cantered to victory and the scene was set for an intense battle between the two.

Hamilton, already 25 points down, would have to retrieve a desperate-looking situation.

In emphatic fashion, he did just that.

A dominant victory in Malaysia preceded a gripping wheel-to-wheel duel in Bahrain which conjured the best racing of the season.

Hamilton, disadvantaged on a harder compound of the Pirelli tyres, was being hunted down by a rampant Rosberg in the twilight of the race.

The German had planned his tyre strategy so that he would be the faster of the two in the last laps of the race and would then have the chance to overtake Hamilton for the win.

It was a good plan, in theory at least, but he had not calculated the tenacity with which Hamilton would defend his lead and despite being passed a couple of times, Hamilton brilliantly passed him back and held on for a psychologically crucial win.

He went on to consolidate that memorable drive with imperious victories in China and Spain to lead the championship by three points from a dazed Rosberg.

Then, a controversial moment in qualifying at Monaco rocked Rosberg’s credibility.

The German, pushing hard down the hill into Mirabeau, overshot the braking point on his flying lap and dived down the escape road, necessitating yellow flags.

Consequently, the drivers behind – including Hamilton – had to slow down under the FIA’s safety guidelines.

That meant that Hamilton could not beat Rosberg’s time and the German took a vital pole position at the famous street circuit which presents very few overtaking opportunities.

Rosberg managed to keep Hamilton behind him all race and he denied Hamilton what would have been his fifth straight win, snatching the championship lead to boot.

Further bad news was to follow in Canada when both Mercedes drivers hit brake trouble, only for Rosberg to manage the situation better.

Hamilton’s car was deemed too dangerous to drive and he retired, while Rosberg calmly found a way around the problem and took second place, extending his lead to 22 points.

All the momentum seemed to be with Rosberg and a blunder in qualifying from Hamilton left him languishing in midfield in Austria.

Typically, he made a stunning start and recovered to within a car’s length of Rosberg, but he could find no way past and Rosberg took his fourth win of the season.

At the next race in Silverstone Rosberg took pole again, but it was his turn to encounter reliability problems and he retired, leaving Hamilton without a challenger to claim a euphoric home win and cut the gap to four points.

Adversity soon caught up with Hamilton at the next three races, though.

Another glitch in qualifying saw his brakes fail at Hockenheim and he had to drive through the field to salvage a superb podium while Rosberg claimed a faultless home victory.

In Hungary, once more in qualifying, a car fire left him dead last while his rival took his sixth pole of the season.

Unusually for Hungary, it rained on race day.

Despite a nerve-jangling spin at the back of the field, Hamilton regrouped to pass Rosberg in the pit stops and then fend off his rival’s attempt at passing him for third.

Significantly, Rosberg had yet to prove he could defeat Hamilton in wheel-to-wheel combat – and so in Spa the German decided to erase those doubts.

Starting from pole, Rosberg lost the lead to Hamilton and on the second lap at the end of the Kemmel straight he clipped Hamilton’s left rear tyre, puncturing it and causing damage to the floor of his car, robbing him of downforce.

The damage forced Hamilton into retirement despite a game effort to carry on, but front wing damage sustained by Rosberg in the clash saw him limp to second – a measure of the dominance Mercedes enjoyed this season.

Rosberg did not intend to deliberately end Hamilton’s race, but the message that he would not be intimidated was plain for the world to see.

Spurred on by the incident, Hamilton turned up the pressure on Rosberg as he set about eating into the 29-point chasm between them.

At Monza, Hamilton relentlessly chased Rosberg down, forcing the German into a mistake at the Rettifilo chicane and he took to the escape road, allowing Hamilton to pass him and take the win.

Rosberg then suffered his second retirement of the season in Singapore and had to watch Hamilton score his second win in as many races to claim the championship lead by three points.

Starved of a duel between the two since Spa, the world watched at a saturated Suzuka circuit as Hamilton closed in on Rosberg.

It took a pass of breathtaking bravery around the outside of Rosberg at the high-speed turn one to wrestle the lead from his rival and he went on to take the win – later dedicated to colleague Jules Bianchi after he sustained brain injuries in a heavy crash.

Hamilton was the beneficiary of a Rosberg error in Russia when the German passed him for the lead, but flat-spotted tyres ruined Rosberg’s race and he drove terrifically to clamber back to second.

Hamilton again passed Rosberg convincingly in Austin to take his lead to 24 points, before an authoritative weekend from the German in Brazil set up a tense finish in Abu Dhabi with double points looming large.

Needing second to clinch his second world title, Hamilton duly qualified on the front row after Rosberg notched his eleventh pole position to underline his superiority in qualifying this season.

Under a setting sun at Yas Marina the tension was palpable as the cars lined up for the last time in 2014.

As the lights went out, Hamilton rocketed away from second while Rosberg was bogged down in revs.

Hamilton edged the gap to 2.6 seconds at the first stop but soon afterwards Rosberg’s ERS system began to misbehave and it deteriorated throughout the race.

Just as in Canada, though, the problem could have affected both Mercedes cars, meaning Hamilton had to conserve his car under late pressure from Felipe Massa while a wounded Rosberg slipped down the field.

But like on so many occasions this season Hamilton overcame adversity and held off Massa to record win number 11 and take the title by a whopping 67 points.

What made his second title win so impressive was the belief he had in his capability.

Despite falling behind in the standings three times and suffering reliability gremlins, Hamilton recovered each time and was a worthy winner.

Even though his performances in qualifying were unusually poor throughout the year, his ability to maximise his performance in race trim was unmatched – fatally so – by Rosberg, who continually had no answer to his rival when the two locked horns.

Adversity had given its utmost to prevent Hamilton from winning the title and at times Rosberg seemed destined to take his maiden championship victory.

Yet just when he needed it most Hamilton was able to reply with a stunning victory and with it, his second world title.

Cometh the hour, cometh Lewis Hamilton.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Sebastian Vettel – A true F1 ‘great’?

Formula One drivers come and go. Some may win races but most won’t. Others shrink into obscurity after a career spent hidden in the midfield. But there are an elite few, those who are recognised as ‘greats’.

Undeniably, after clinching a fourth consecutive title following victory at the Indian GP – his third in succession – Sebastian Vettel now joins a pantheonic group of F1 drivers who are freely regarded as ‘great’.

But sadly this historic achievement, for a significant proportion of F1 fans throughout the world, is being devalued with claims that he has had it all too easy during his short but illustrious career.

True, the 26-year-old has benefitted from an Adrian Newey-inspired Red Bull car for the past four seasons.

Red Bull’s rise from midfield runners to all-conquering world champions has coincided with a change in regulations in 2009 that mixed the ‘normal’ grid up.

The struggling Honda effectively forfeited their 2008 season, concentrating on the 2009 regulations and inventing the ingenious double diffuser.

Despite knowing the potential of their cars, the Japanese giant pulled out of the sport citing high costs and sold their operation to Ross Brawn, who promptly guided the rebranded ‘Brawn GP’ to a world championship double, with Jenson Button taking the drivers’ championship.

Since then, Newey has worked his magic, developing the Red Bull cars into a force so strong they have swept away all before them. It has been a Vettel stampede across the subsequent four championships.

To undermine Vettel’s ability during this period though, is to flirt with grave ignorance.

F1 bosses had long been aware of the German’s potential ever since an astonishing performance in 2004, when driving for Mücke Motorsport in the German branch of Formula BMW.

His team was not the fastest in the championship, but that did not stop the immensely talented Vettel winning 18 out of 20 races. To underline his brilliance he finished second and third in the two races he didn’t manage to win, amassing a staggering 20 podiums.

In fact, that title remains the last drivers’ title that Mücke won, further illustrating just how special Vettel is.

These are not the achievements of a man who has zero ability, or who would later rely on a superior car to win four F1 world championships. Moreover, it was a telling sign of the domination that was to come.

After progressing to Formula Three in 2005, he drove a so-called inferior car to fifth place in the standings, before earning the F1 test driver role with BMW Sauber in 2006.

The following season, Vettel was leading the Formula Renault 3.5 Series – a platform to F1 – when BMW driver Robert Kubica suffered a huge crash at the Canadian GP, sustaining concussion and forcing BMW to promote him to a race seat in the next race.

In another sign of his talent, Vettel qualified seventh and finished eighth, scoring his maiden point in F1 at the first attempt.

Four races later he replaced Scott Speed at Toro Rosso. The Italians, Red Bull’s sister team, were perennial backmarkers but Vettel took an outstanding fourth place finish at the Chinese GP.

This convinced Red Bull enough to place him in a full race seat with Toro Rosso in 2008, where he again surpassed expectations.

Bouncing back from four retirements in the opening four races, he took the slow Toro Rosso to five points finishes before a breakthrough moment set his career on a fast upward curve.

A wet Monza qualifying session was the stage on which Vettel needed no second invitation to demonstrate his capabilities. He surged to pole position – the first of his career and, to date, the only one during Toro Rosso’s short time in F1.

On race day, his achievements rocketed even higher. Despite his lack of experience and a wet start to the Grand Prix, he showed extraordinary skill to guide his Toro Rosso to victory.

It was the type of lights-to-flag win that would become gut-wrenchingly familiar to his opponents over the next five seasons.

He went on to finish eighth in the 2008 championship, ahead of established names such as Rubens Barrichello and Jarno Trulli.

Red Bull came calling after the retirement of David Coulthard, and suddenly Vettel was winning races again.

In a season where Brawn were dominant, Vettel managed to outperform team-mate Mark Webber to take second in the championship behind Button. He took four victories in amongst a total of eight podiums.

His record since then is scary.

He has won 31 times more, taking his career race win tally to 36 – the fourth-highest ever.

With 43 pole positions, he has started over a third of the races in his career from the front.

He has also been on the podium 50 times in his four title-winning seasons, recording 59 in total.

That means that of the 117 races he has started in F1, he has been on the podium in 50.43% of them – a mind-boggling display. Additionally, over 30% of those races have been victories – hardly an example of a driver who relies solely on his car.

These are the kind of statistics that remain unchallenged in modern F1. Nobody even comes close to the achievements that Vettel has carved out.

His meticulous approach to everything F1, including a unique visit to the Pirelli tyre factory, is a trait of a winner, a champion with a fierce desire for success – and success he has grasped.

It is clear that his unpopularity this season largely stems from the ‘multi-21’ incident with Webber in Malaysia. The team had instructed the drivers to respect track position after the first pit stop, but Vettel relentlessly chased the Australian – who had dialled his engine power down – before passing him for victory.

Webber, himself a popular figure in the paddock and with fans around the world, was incensed. Nevertheless Vettel, although sheepish in victory, displayed a ruthless streak compatible only with that of a champion.

He has since been booed on the podium during victory, something which has been on the wane in recent races – particularly in India where it was perhaps non-existent and if not, inaudible.

Unfortunately, the fans have also attacked the sport because of his dominance, claiming it to be boring – whether that would be the case if ‘greats’ Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton were to have been as dominant is extremely unlikely.

His driving style may be win at all costs and some may frown upon that, but out of the cockpit he is as personable and friendly as they come. His cheeky and fun personality is always engaging and makes him a wonderful ambassador for the sport.

It is doubtful too whether the steadfast Alonso or the cocksure Hamilton would show as much humility as Vettel has done in the wake of four consecutive world championship triumphs – if they even get there.

Vettel’s record alone is worthy of the ‘greatness’ tag. Add to that his almost limitless talent and ability – displayed with crushing victories in junior and senior formulae – and you have a driver who should unquestionably be lauded as a true F1 ‘great’, joining names of the calibre of Schumacher, Fangio and Senna.

He really is that good – and the scary part for his opposition is that he is improving all the time. Are title numbers five, six, seven and eight feasible? For Vettel, anything is possible – and with the talent at his disposal, it is entirely probable.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

A Great British Sporting Weekend

Everything went perfectly – almost.

This was a Great British sporting weekend to rival any other in history.

It began on the other side of the planet as the British and Irish Lions took on Australia in Sydney. They knew that with the series locked at 1-1, a win would hand them their first series triumph in 16 years, and their first in Australia since 1989.

With ten Welsh players in the starting XV, the Lions were dubbed the “Llions” in some areas of the media, while coach Warren Gatland had come under heavy criticism for his decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll from not only the starting line-up, but the match-day squad too.

Within two minutes of the whistle the critics had been hushed as a rampant Lions scrum punished a knock-on from Will Genia at the kick-off with an Alex Corbisiero try.

The Lions were making mincemeat of a dismal Australian scrum, forcing the Wallabies to concede penalty after penalty in their own half to gift the tourists a 19-3 lead – Leigh Halfpenny clinically dispatching five kicks at goal.

But a late first-half twist saw the Aussies haul themselves back into the game with a converted James O’Connor score. Suddenly, the Lions were wobbling rather than bouncing into the break.

More nervous energy was to be expended amongst the 30,000 Lions fans inside the ANZ Stadium when Christian Leali’ifano kicked two penalties to make it 19-16.

The Lions’ response was tremendous with Jonny Sexton, George North and Jonathan Davies all cutting through the Australian defence to score tries in a mesmeric ten-minute spell.

At 41-16, the Lions had crushed the Australian’s spirit and the series was theirs.

A couple of hours after that momentous win, British attention switched to the Eifel mountains in Germany, where Lewis Hamilton wrapped up pole position for the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

He did so with a stunning lap, beating home darling Sebastian Vettel by 0.103 seconds on the final lap of qualifying.

British sport fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the day was not going to get better than this but 778 miles away from Hamilton in the Pyrenean mountains, Chris Froome had other ideas.

Froome, favourite for the Tour de France, had targeted the eighth stage in his quest to pull on the famous yellow jersey worn by the leader of the race.

After showing composure to gradually reel in a dangerous attack from Nairo Quintana, Froome’s Team Sky ripped up the road en route to the summit finish atop Ax 3 Domaines.

Froome then attacked with 6km remaining – to devastating effect.

So fierce was his acceleration on a climb peaking at a gradient of around 10%, he had shattered the race – leaving his rivals gasping for air.

He continued to power to the finish, cresting the summit with 1km to go and speeding over the false flat to claim his second career Tour de France stage win.

Froome claimed not only the yellow jersey and a stage win, but several minutes on his rivals. Alejandro Valverde was the least damaged of them all, but even he came home over a minute behind.

Alberto Contador and Quintana finished another 30 seconds later, while the explosive talent of Joaquim Rodriguez had been tamed, with the little Spaniard finishing over two minutes down on Froome.

All this had happened on Saturday, but the best was reserved for Sunday as Andy Murray faced world number one Novak Djokovic in the men’s singles final at Wimbledon.

Murray was aiming to win his second career Grand Slam, and in the process end a 77-year wait for the first British male winner at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.

In 40 degree heat, it was a battle of stamina as much as physicality.

Outrageously long rallies – some stretching to 30 shots – were becoming normal and a first set which took just over one hour was eventually won by the Scot 6-4.

In typical fashion, Djokovic mounted a quick recovery. Breaking Murray in the fourth game of the second set, he raced into a 4-1 lead.

Murray was stumbling at this point but swiftly picked up his game and broke the Serbian back, winning three games in a row to level at 4-4.

With the duo holding their next service games it was Djokovic who blinked first as Murray broke him for a 6-5 lead with his second break point. Nerveless, he served out the set to love for a 2-0 lead.

Djokovic was clearly out of sorts, perhaps hindered by his exhausting semi-final win over Juan Martin Del Potro, and he dropped his serve at the start of the third as Britain dared to believe this was Murray’s year.

He seemingly did too, as a sudden crash in his level of performance combined with Djokovic’s best tennis of the match resulted in two breaks of serve for the Serbian.

His 4-2 lead would diminish immediately though, as Murray stirringly chased down a flurry of drop shots to break Djokovic twice more and earn himself a 5-4 lead and a chance to serve for the championship.

The crowd, whose shrieks of support reverberated around Centre Court, were ecstacized as Murray fought crippling nerves to surge into a 40-0 lead.

Yet three championship points disappeared as quickly as they materialised, with Djokovic thriving on the pressure steeped on Murray’s every shot to win five straight points and a break-back opportunity.

Somehow summoning the strength to save the game, Murray twice more offered break points to Djokovic, and saved each of them with courageous defensive work.

On winning his fourth championship point Murray would not be denied and when Djokovic dumped a forehand into the net, a nerve-shredded Wimbledon exploded with relief as much as celebration.

The only disappointment to arise from this now fabled weekend was Hamilton’s performance in Germany. Swamped by both Red Bulls off the start, the Mercedes driver never recovered and could only finish fifth behind Vettel – who took the first home win of his young career.

Britain’s competitors were not finished yet – Graeme McDowell carded a superb 67 to win by four shots in the French Open. But by that time it was conceivable that golf, along with many other sports, had paled into relative insignificance as the nation basked in the rays of Murray’s success.

And so this Great British Sporting Weekend finished with a nation united and sun-drunk. We hadn’t felt this good since the Olympian summer of 2012.

Now, where did Andrew Strauss leave that little urn?

Vettel vs. Webber – A volcanic F1 rivalry

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber have long been intense rivals at world champions Red Bull, but now it seems Formula One’s most high-profile rivalry has erupted again after a spell of dormancy.

As with most volcanic activity there is heat, poisonous smoke, and a history of violent eruptions – a perfect metaphor for the Vettel/Webber rivalry.

The compelling Malaysian Grand Prix was the latest explosion where Vettel, who was mindful of the 25-point advantage he would gain over title rival Fernando Alonso following the Spaniard’s early retirement, overtook Webber in a gripping wheel-to-wheel contest with just over ten laps remaining.

Webber had twice been assured by the team that the win was his. This resulted after a team meeting on race day which stipulated that the driver in front after the final pit stop would pull rank over the other. Vettel seemingly ignored that discussion.

Instead he showed a hunger which threatened to destroy the team’s 1-2 position in the race to pass Webber for the victory and incur the wrath of the Australian and, on the surface at least, his team.

The fight between them has intensified in recent seasons, as reigning world champion Vettel has romped to three consecutive drivers’ titles with Red Bull claiming successive constructors’ crowns in the same period.

It is, without question, the German’s team – and how Webber detests that fact.

Red Bull veteran Webber and Vettel first clashed when the then 20-year-old German, driving for sister team Toro Rosso in his debut season in F1, smashed into the Australian under safety car conditions in the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji.

Webber had been second at the time with Red Bull (a small team back then) primed for a hugely valuable podium.

Vettel was third in his slower Toro Rosso in monsoon-like conditions, and was caught out by leader Lewis Hamilton’s erratic driving behind the safety car, embarrassingly clouting Webber from behind and ending both their races.

It prompted Webber to say in a post-race interview to ITV that, “It’s kids isn’t it, kids with not enough experience. You do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

The straight-talking Webber later criticised Hamilton, also in his debut season, for his “shit” driving behind the safety car.

Webber was hurt by the incident, and three years later those old wounds were to be opened again – in even more dramatic fashion.

Now team-mates at Red Bull, Webber and Vettel were pushing hard for a win in the 2010 Turkish GP under increasing pressure from the McLaren duo of Hamilton and Jenson Button.

With Vettel getting a tow on the long back straight he swept to the left of Webber, drew alongside and then veered across him before the braking phase into the following hairpin, causing a high-speed crash which punctured his tyre and forced Webber to stop for a new front wing.

The gleeful McLarens took a straightforward 1-2 while Webber took third with Vettel retiring from the race with irreparable damage. Team boss Christian Horner and chief designer Adrian Newey were in utter despair after that inter-team crash, but another incident was shortly in the offing.

In trying to reassure Webber that Vettel was not their favoured driver, Red Bull gave the Australian an updated front wing for the British GP later in the season.

Only one model of the front wing was built but, when Vettel damaged his old-spec wing, Red Bull took the decision to take it off Webber’s car and give it to Vettel.

It was a call that served to infuriate the Australian, but he would have the last laugh as he romped to a superb victory before relaying the infamous “not bad for a number two driver” message to his team on the cool-down lap.

The spotlight was firmly on the duo’s battle and in the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi the conspiracy theorists were again out in force.

Webber entered the race behind leader Alonso in the standings, with Vettel in fourth and also within reach of the title, but he had qualified poorly and showed a lack of race pace.

Red Bull decided to use the slow Webber as a decoy to fool Alonso’s Ferrari team into covering his every move – and after a tactical pit stop they resumed in traffic on a track with notorious overtaking difficulties.

Vettel sailed off into the distance and took the title from Alonso – and Webber.

Few could have argued that Red Bull had nailed Vettel’s colours to its mast that season, and the old war resurfaced in the 2011 British GP when Webber, eagerly chasing the German down, was told to “maintain the gap” to Vettel in second.

Webber ignored those veiled orders, in much the same way as Vettel did today, and continued to race his colleague to the final lap.

By now the Australian seemed determined to race for himself, utterly disgusted by Red Bull’s favouritism towards Vettel beneath their public affirmations of neutrality.

Vettel went on to take the title with four races remaining, and later took his third drivers’ crown at Brazil in 2012 – but with little help from Webber.

Vettel collided with Bruno Senna on the first lap and worked his way up to take sixth – a position good enough to deny Alonso the title – but later said that Webber did little to help him.

It has been alleged that the incident in Malaysia today was revenge for that perceived lack of help, but the fact remains that Webber has backed off at the team’s behest to conserve Vettel’s superior racing positions on numerous occasions over the past few seasons.

With Webber’s past obedience to such orders in mind, Vettel’s overtake will sicken Webber further.

Will the Australian enter into a similar situation with no trust of his team-mate and look for retaliation? Will their rivalry spiral into another catastrophic crash? And can Red Bull regain control and authority over their drivers?

All these questions remain unanswered, but for now the focus will be on Formula One’s most captivating rivalry and the tremors that will continue to rumble from Mt. Red Bull in the coming weeks.

Alonso the Alchemist: 2013 F1 season preview

Formula One cars are ugly – that is, before they are painted in their respective liveries.

Their skeletal shell is one of carbon fibre – a substance resembling a black synthetic cloth.

Had Fernando Alonso, in his carbon fibre Ferrari, actually pulled off his amazing assault on the 2012 F1 drivers’ championship, he would literally have turned his beastly car into gold – becoming an alchemist in the process.

So slow had the Spaniard’s scarlet machine been in pre-season testing, few had given him hope of getting into the points on a regular basis.

That Alonso led the drivers’ championship for much of the season, until the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel finally overhauled him, shows what a fierce competitor the man from Oviedo is.

This season, testing has flowed rather more smoothly for the Italian marque, and the hope is that they have finally given Alonso a car capable of exploiting his exceptional talent from the first Grand Prix in Australia this Sunday.

In theory, if Alonso had the ability to push a faster car all the way to the final race last season, he should be able to win it in a car which is vastly better than one year ago.

Formula One is never that simple though.

The ‘Prancing Horse’ will have to hurdle the imposing obstacle of Red Bull, who have fatally gored their opponents for the last three years to establish themselves as the dominant team in F1.

Their ‘lead’ driver, Sebastian Vettel, will be hunting for a fourth consecutive drivers’ title, and in Mark Webber he has a team-mate who is capable of winning any race on his day – despite the in-house nepotism built around his young colleague.

In McLaren, Alonso will also have cause for concern. The British team have elected to start afresh for 2013, rather than evolve a car that finished 2012 as the fastest on the grid.

Their thinking behind this move is that the new car will open up a new path of development which the old car lacked – and should their calculations materialise they will get stronger as the season wears on.

Despite losing Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, McLaren have a powerful line-up, with Jenson Button and newcomer Sergio Perez both likely to excel in an era where looking after the delicate Pirelli tyres is key.

Then there is Lotus, a team who arguably conceive the most inventive cars on the grid. Having been pioneers of the tricky passive DRS system, the team based in Enstone is rumoured to have mastered it – a potentially crucial advantage in the race for the title.

Their driver line-up, of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, remains unchanged for 2013 and their target of third in the constructors’ will depend on Grosjean’s ability to rid himself of the costly first-lap crashes that blighted his comeback season last year.

Mercedes too, seem to have made a step forward. Their car finished ‘fastest’ in pre-season testing – however the headline lap-times are to be taken with a pinch of salt as fuel quantities, setups and a number of other variants are religiously hidden by the teams (there is little way of knowing which car definitively looks quickest at this stage).

The addition of Hamilton also helps the German giants in their quest to bridge the gap to the ‘top four’, while his team-mate Nico Rosberg faces what is widely reckoned to be a career-defining season.

Aside from the top five teams, the midfield battle is microscopically close. Williams appear to have evolved their race-winning 2012 car into what is debatably the sexiest on the grid.

The sometimes maladroit Bruno Senna has been replaced by Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas – who outpaced 2013 team-mate Pastor Maldonado in several FP1 sessions last season – and the team certainly look ready to score consistent points.

Sauber and Force India are joined by Toro Rosso in the midfield race, with the latter looking likely to make a notable step up in performance from 2012, where they languished within the clutches of backmarkers Caterham and Marussia.

Sauber will hope that the exciting all-new partnership of Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez can bring instant dividends to a team that finished on the podium four times in 2012, while Force India need to improve on a season which was hallmarked in underachievement.

Scottish driver Paul di Resta is joined by Adrian Sutil, who returns to the sport following a one-year lay-off as a result of a GBH conviction, and their instant aim for 2013 is to score a podium finish.

Caterham and Marussia, meanwhile, have each brought in two new drivers as they try to stay afloat in Formula One’s money-guzzling environment.

Marussia were most visible in pre-season testing for their employment of ‘pay-drivers’ rather than their pace, as Timo Glock and Luiz Razia both lost contracts due to a lack of sponsorship – Razia rather more unfortunately so because of a last-minute U-turn from his financial backers.

They are replaced by British rookie Max Chilton and Ferrari academy prospect Jules Bianchi, whose rich reputation very nearly landed him a drive at Force India.

Caterham, like Nico Rosberg, face a defining season in the sport. Consistently finishing fastest of F1’s newest teams they have threatened, and failed, to catch the midfield and earn their first world championship point. If they are to show signs of progression their driver line-up of Charles Pic and rookie Giedo van der Garde must score that elusive point to keep their sponsors interested.

With testing indicating very little about what shape the grid will take in Melbourne, a unanimous verdict would be to say that the pack of 22 cars looks closer than it has ever been in recent seasons.

In that type of situation, the most consistent team and driver will usually come out on top to win the respective championships – an observation which favours F1’s resident alchemist Alonso.

The Age of Pay Drivers in Formula 1

Timo Glock’s departure from Marussia yesterday confirmed that “pay drivers” have taken control of over a third of the Formula 1 grid in 2013.

Currently there are three seats available for 2013, at Force India, Caterham and now Marussia, and they are all expected to be filled by drivers with vast financial backing.

A total of 8 pay drivers will therefore race amongst a field of 22, with Mexican youngster Sergio Perez the most high-profile.

The newly-signed McLaren driver, hastily appointed as successor to Lewis Hamilton after his move to rivals Mercedes, has backing from Carlos Slim – the richest man in the world.

Arguably, Perez has fully earned his seat at McLaren after a string of impressive drives in 2012 which included two podiums. Had he not ran wide in pursuit of Fernando Alonso in Malaysia, he may well have notched a maiden victory in just his second season in the sport.

His ability to look after the sensitive Pirelli tyres more carefully than any other driver on the grid (while still lapping as quickly as the leaders) is a highly-coveted trait that McLaren deemed irresistible – a point highlighted by the speed with which they swooped for the 22-year-old.

While his talent is obvious to see, his alarming drop in form once he signed with the Woking-based team led some to accuse McLaren of being too hasty in the signing of Hamilton’s replacement.

Another high-profile driver, Pastor Maldonado, has huge backing from Venezuela – his homeland – but has proved to be as reckless as he is quick.

A maiden victory in Spain last season gave him no shortage of confidence, yet it is this confidence (at times unshakable) that continues to undermine his ability.

Maldonado has a history of deliberately colliding with other drivers – notably with Hamilton at Spa in 2011, and with Perez at Monaco in 2012 – and his aggressive driving style also led to a crash in Valencia last season which led to Hamilton’s dramatic retirement from the race.

Perez and Maldonado graduated from GP2, Maldonado impressively so after winning the title, but they have yet to follow Hamilton’s lead and take their driving onto the next level – and this is causing an increasing number of problems in the sport.

Pay drivers are replacing more experienced drivers in the smaller teams towards the back of the grid – and the sport is seeing more accidents as a result.

Take Romain Grosjean for example. The Franco-Swiss driver was involved in seven first-lap incidents in 2012 having won the GP2 title in 2011, and, although he was not signed by Lotus for his cash, he has failed to translate his speed into error-free racing.

It seems also that long-term contracts are no longer honoured as the sport becomes increasingly costly for smaller teams.

Glock’s departure is a case in point. The German’s multi-year contract with Marussia was mutually terminated as the Russian-owned team look for more money to sustain their existence.

Similarly, in early 2012, Italian veteran Jarno Trulli was ousted from his seat at Caterham, despite having driven in the first test at Jerez, and replaced by Russian driver Vitaly Petrov.

Heikki Kovalainen, his team-mate and a highly-valued driver, was thought to be safe after three superb seasons with the minnows, yet Caterham disagreed and a lack of funding has seen his F1 career dissolve with heartless rapidity.

Kovalainen had enjoyed a distinguished career, competing in two seasons for McLaren in 2008 and 2009 (winning one Grand Prix), but his unwillingness to secure financial backing – instead arguing that his talent should be enough to keep his drive – ultimately led to his exit.

At Sauber, a similar story befell the exciting Kamui Kobayashi.

Kobayashi, noted for his daring overtaking manoeuvres, was an extremely popular figure in Formula 1, but again a lack of funding led to his seat being filled by Mexican 22-year-old Esteban Gutierrez, a driver who also enjoys backing from Carlos Slim.

Even a podium in the Japanese Grand Prix, his home race, and a subsequent fundraising campaign by the Japanese public (still recovering from the devastating effects of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami) which raised €8 million to try and keep him in the sport, was not enough.

It is only a matter of time before pay drivers infiltrate the very top teams such as Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.

Perez is the first man with significant financial backing to take a seat in one of the top three teams, and with expensive new regulations coming into the sport in 2014, he won’t be the last.

Genuine proven talents are being dismissed from the sport as the costs needed to remain on the grid continue to escalate. Sadly, pay drivers are being fast-tracked to the midfield and tailend teams and their inexperience will continue to hinder a sport which once nurtured the brightest talents from the slower teams to the front (think Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, both Minardi graduates).

Until the cost of Formula 1 is seriously addressed, the age of pay drivers, no matter how able, will endure ever longer.

Think of pay drivers as a toxin and Formula 1 as your body. Would you honestly allow these toxins to circulate around your body, poisoning you until your death? Thought not. So why should Formula 1 be any different?