F1 Driver Power: Politics, Briefings and Dominion – All A Bit Much?

Jasper Dunning

After strong suggestions that Fernando Alonso was the driving force behind what is likely to have been an ugly severing of ties between McLaren and Honda (“it’s me or them”), the full might of star driver power is back in the Formula 1 spotlight again.

But Alonso is not alone in obtaining power among his bosses and holding favour in his team. The precedent was set long ago; as far back as Hunt and Lauda and as recently as Schumacher and Vettel. So how deep has it gone, and where has it happened?

Fernando Alonso

As a starting point, it is no secret that these names were all possibly the quickest of their era. To hark back and begin with Alonso, his influence and the weight of his ego are well renowned in the paddock these days. After his two world title wins with Renault in 2005 and 2006, the Spaniard developed a touch of the diva outside the car while remaining arguably the fastest man inside it.

Consequently, a public clash with Ron Dennis turned nasty during Alonso’s first stint at McLaren in 2007, which came to a head when he blocked Lewis Hamilton in the team pit-box during qualifying at Hungary. Since then, he has ensured his voice is heard behind the scenes with visible preferential treatment over team-mates and from bosses. First evident after a return to Renault under manager Flavio Briatore in 2008, and then during his infamous five-year stint at Ferrari – where he was always faster than Felipe (Massa), even when he wasn’t – Alonso packed a negotiating punch in the boardroom and on the track. Allegedly, he is also difficult to work with; to the extent Sergio Marchionne, as long as he is Chairman and CEO of Ferrari, has privately indicated Alonso will never return to the team because of his detrimental effect on morale.

Alonso sunning himself in Hungary after yet another Honda power failure (image source: Twitter).

 

Now his orange car will have a quicker Renault engine in the back of it for 2018, it seems Alonso has got his way once more. And he is not the only world champion to have had some men in suits wrapped around his little finger.

Michael Schumacher

Perhaps the obvious place to start is with the seven-time world champion. A large part of what made him so successful at Ferrari is the well-documented relationship he built with the powerful triumvirate of Luca Di Montezemolo, Jean Todt and Ross Brawn (plus designer Rory Byrne). Everything and everyone else fell by the wayside in his quest for championship success. Just ask Eddie Irvine and Rubens Barrichello.

The German began constructing his dynasty with a move to the Scuderia in 1996, outperforming the unreliable and slow F310 car that year – referred to by Irvine as “an almost un-driveable piece of junk”, demonstrated below – with three wins and hauling the team to second place in the constructors’ championship. Similar results ensued in the following years until his first world title in 2000, with Schumacher developing a natural feel for each of his cars alongside a reputation for excellent feedback to engineers and the design team.

By the time Rubens Barrichello joined Ferrari for that 2000 season, it was very clear he had to play second fiddle to Schumacher’s lead. Although the Italian team and Brazilian driver always denied there was such a line in his contract, the existence of a ‘Barrichello Clause’, ordering him to move over for Schumacher whenever asked, swept the media. Of course, the most blatant instance came in Austria in 2002, when he relinquished the lead on the run to the finish line. Barrichello has since revealed he was “told to think about [his] contract” on the team radio before yielding – exactly a year after ceding second place at the same track and allowing Schumacher to finish as close to championship rival David Coulthard as possible.

Ferrari attracted a lot of criticsm for their treatment of both Irvine – who was asked to deliberately lose time and block Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 at Japan among other examples – and Barrichello, particularly with the latter because they were so dominant in this era of the sport. But it spoke volumes of the confidence they had in Schumacher and ultimately the authority he held in the team at this time.

Mika Hakkinen

If Michael was Ferrari’s golden boy with the turn of the last century, then his fiercest rival Mika Hakkinen was almost certainly Ron Dennis’ and McLaren’s at the same time. He won two consecutive championships in 1998 and 1999 after receiving unanimous backing from the technical hierarchy and begrudging respect from team-mate David Coulthard, who was consistently slower.

Interestingly the Scot’s autobiography, It Is What It Is, suggests that after his team-mate’s serious qualifying crash in Adelaide in 1995 (below), Dennis and Hakkinen became much closer and results thereafter suggest an implicit favouritism towards the Finn. At Jerez in 1997, which is known primarily for the infamous Schumacher/Villeneuve collision leading to the latter’s world title win, Hakkinen took his first victory courtesy of team orders and a deliberate pit-stop switch.

Then, at the start of 1998 – with no championship yet on the line – Coulthard moved over to let Hakkinen win in Australia because the team had inadvertently made a mistake and penalised the Finn during the race. Dennis was supposedly keen to encourage a man who was, at that time, still recovering from the scars of his prior accident and thus considered it the right thing to do. Coulthard did as he was told, but both he and the McLaren team were criticised heavily, to the extent the issue would eventually make it to the World Motorsport Council. As a result, team orders became a particularly sore topic of contention in the sport, which made Ferrari’s actions a few years later in Spielberg with Schumacher and Barrichello even more controversial, and led to the FIA officially banning such interventions from the pit-wall in 2003.

Hakkinen himself continued to hold Ron Dennis and the McLaren board’s affection long after he left McLaren for what was then a temporary sabbatical in 2001. He was promised “a return at any time” and had a test in 2006 with a view to a race seat the following season, but grew frustrated with the car’s mechanical problems and opted not to take up the option. Earlier this season, Coulthard memorably let slip on Channel 4 coverage that Dennis would enter McLaren pre-race briefings during the late 1990s and ignore him entirely, focusing only on Hakkinen’s strategy and securing him, and him alone, the best possible result.

What separates the Finn from others is his temperament: more laid back and far less egotistical. To speculate, you get the impression he would not have asked for preferential treatment or behaved like a prima donna – driver power of a different, perhaps unwanted kind. Alonso and Schumacher almost certainly have gone above their station on multiple occasions.

Sebastian Vettel

A not dissimilar situation occurred in 2010 at Red Bull Racing. At this point, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber had been team-mates for a year and, thanks to a rapid Brawn GP and unreliability problems, had not shared much of the same track at the sharp end of the grid until the second season they were together.

Webber’s autobiography, Aussie Grit, tells how Helmut Marko and the Red Bull bigwigs treated Vettel “like a favourite son”. He suggests that much of the quarrel during his time with the Austrian team was not with actually with Vettel – multi-21-gate aside – but with the men upstairs and Christian Horner’s duplicitous treatment of his drivers.

Webber won in Monaco that year but Vettel was apparently incredulous as to how the Australian could get the better of him – to the extent the German asked for a car swap in the belief his team-mate had some unspecified advantage (as it happened, he had a cracked chassis). Ensuing events “said a lot about what was going on at the heart of the team” to Webber, and while the next race in Turkey contained the infamous coming-together between the pair, there had been drama the day before too. Webber led the championship and had won the previous two races from pole position, but for that morning’s free practice in Istanbul, Vettel was given the one available upgraded rear wing with Webber’s only arriving minutes before qualifying.

Post-crash, it was widely considered Vettel’s fault, and Christian Horner’s interviews initially suggested as much. However, Helmut Marko chose to lay responsibility at Webber’s door in the German and Austrian media. Vettel was intriguingly excused from attending the post-race team briefing too, where Horner reversed his opinion and decided to side with Marko in blaming Webber. According to him, Red Bull management were desperate for “the blue-eyed boy from the Red Bull Junior Program” to win and did not mind what they did to “the old Australian in the other car”.

Again, this was apparent at Silverstone when Vettel was given Webber’s front wing after the former’s fell off during qualifying. The team had brought an upgrade but only had two units available, so Webber lost his and had to revert to an old specification – Vettel took pole with the new one from his sister car. Justice was somewhat done the following day when a puncture ruined the German’s race and cued the “not bad for a number two driver” comment in light of the Australian’s victory.

Clearly, team harmony began and ended with Helmut Marko and stretched to Vettel’s side of the garage during this era, very much fueling the driver power the German became renowned for. If his mechanics were happy and motivated, the car went like a rocket, and Marko was happy. Four straight world titles suggest it worked, but Webber unwittingly became a mere after-thought – this continued until he retired in 2013. Such events demonstrate the political nature of modern Formula 1 and make many yearn for simpler times, when racers were racers and everyone did their talking only on the track.

James Hunt and Niki Lauda

At this point, 1976 springs to mind immediately, when James Hunt and Niki Lauda dueled ferociously over the course of one of F1’s most epic seasons. Both men swept the floor with team-mates Jochen Mass and Clay Regazzoni respectively to command the full attention of McLaren and Ferrari throughout the campaign, winning 11 of the 16 races between them.

Hunt and Lauda were two of the most respected and powerful drivers of their generation (image source: Twitter).

 

What made the contest further intriguing was their contrasting approaches to the sport. Hunt’s reputation as a drinker and womaniser is well documented and he would often appear at the car much worse for wear (or late), but McLaren let him get away with it because more often than not, he got the job done – and ultimately Hunt won the title that year (although Lauda suffered serious misfortune with his horrific accident at the Nurburgring) to prove a point.  On the other hand, the Austrian was a true student of the sport with an appreciation for detail and studying what little data was available. He demonstrated a strong commitment to testing and improving the car away from events and this proved both vital and endearing to his team. Hunt just turned up to a race weekend and drove.

The duo drove fast – both Hunt and Lauda had it nailed in this sense. No backroom arguments, no whingeing  –  but an unrivaled commitment to their cars and respect for each other on and away from the track. It was driver power of a different sort back then. One can argue the sport is different now in size and stature, so the men in helmets and overalls have to play a different game with the cards they are given. But even so – wouldn’t we all love a bit less talking, manipulation and just some more driving? Those off track have far too big a say about what happens on it.

 

 

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