The 2009 Formula One season is shaping up as a beauty with enthralling battles throughout the field. There will be an intense technical fight between the teams for supremacy under the new regulations, and the drivers will also be at each other to conquer the new spec machinery.
Some of the most exciting contests this year will take place between teammates. The fight at Ferrari with Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa is going to be intense with the score at one-all, and the atmosphere at BMW will be just as heated where Robert Kubica feels the teams insistence to help Nick Heidfeld last year cost him a World Championship challenge.
However, the most absorbing teammate battle will be at Red Bull where Sebastian Vettel lines up alongside Mark Webber. The tussle for top dog status will be a fight that defines the careers of both men.
Mark Webber is an established star in Formula One but is not regarded as one of the best on the grid. If he is swept aside up by youngster Vettel it will confine him to a role as an F1 journeyman and a place forever in the midfield.
Vettel also needs to emerge as the stronger of the two, but for totally different reasons. The fresh German is one of the brightest stars to burst onto the Formula One scene in many years and is already being dubbed ‘Baby Schumi’ by his local press. He is awesomely talented but will need to beat Webber if he wants to continue his rise through the sport. If he gets soundly beaten it will stump his career at a crucial stage and he could end up being the next Fisichella as opposed to the next Schumacher.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the competition at Red Bull is that no-one can be sure exactly how it’s going to pan out.
Vettel might be the more successful of the two having won a Grand Prix, but pairing up with Mark Webber is going to be his fiercest challenge yet.
Sebastian has only had a few teammates in F1 and has never totally trumped any of them. In fact, he can consider himself a little lucky to have compared so well against Vitantonio Liuzzi and Sebastien Bourdais at Toro Rosso.
At the 2007 Chinese Grand Prix Sebastian Vettel scored a remarkable fourth place for the Red Bull junior team. It was a fantastic result but was largely due to a one-stop strategy that was timed perfectly with the changing weather. Liuzzi was actually faster that day in the same car and his sixth place was arguably more impressive, but Tonio’s performance went largely unnoticed in the excitement of Vettel’s result.
It could easily have been the other way around.
The same situation occurred last year at Monza where Vettel claimed his breakthrough victory. It was an incredible drive, but Sebastien Bourdais was actually quicker all afternoon and might have won the race himself if his Toro Rosso hadn’t failed on the grid. As it was, Vettel ended up with the year’s best fairytale all to himself.
Both Liuzzi and Bourdais were quicker and more consistent than Vettel on occasions, and whilst the young German certainly had the measure of both men he didn’t blow them into the weeds.
Vettel is an awesome talent but there is plenty of hype surrounding him and it’s important to keep that in mind. He had four first lap crashes at the start of last year which highlights his inexperience, and whilst he might be the youngest ever driver to take pole position, score a point, take a podium, lead a race, and win a Grand Prix, he still has a lot to learn.
He is going to learn even more in the next twelve months.
Mark Webber has never been beaten by a teammate. He destroyed the highly rated career of Antonio Pizzonia and practically embarrassed David Coulthard during his farewell season. He also compared quite favourably alongside Nick Heidfeld in much the same way that Robert Kubica does today at BMW.
The Australian is not a pushover. It seems inconceivable that superstar Vettel could get smoked by Webber but it shouldn’t be ruled out.
Webber is a great driver and is one of the most underrated in F1. He has always made the most of his machinery and has combined that with the occasional spellbinding drive. His rain soaked qualifying lap at Monza last year was probably the best from any driver througout the whole season. If it wasn’t for the fact that he has retired from 40% of the races he has started Webber would have more than just two podiums to his name. If he had he joined Renault in 2005, or even Toyota, instead of Williams he would be a race winner and who knows what doors that might have opened?
Webber has to beat Vettel if he wants to have any chance of realising his true potential. His time in the sport is running out and if he wants to break out of the midfield and into a top drive he will need an incredibly strong season. A vacant seat could be up for grabs at either McLaren or BMW in 2010 and Webber will be a strong candidate if he gives Vettel a hard time at Red Bull.
Mark suffered a highly publicised setback during the off season when he broke his leg in a charity bike race, but that will have almost no effect on his preparation. Not only was he was ready in time for the cars launch last week but a broken leg is not as big an issue as it might seem. Michael Schumacher was out of action for three months when he broke his leg at Silverstone in 1999, but most of that recovery was spent dealing with a cut on his heal and not the actual break itself.
Webber’s injury shouldn’t be a factor in his battle with Sebastian.
Both drivers are very strong, and they both represent each other’s biggest challenge.
The likely result in 2009 is that Webber will be more consistent than Vettel and will usually be in front, but Sebastien will land more podiums and take more headlines because he ultimately has more raw speed. They certainly won’t be far apart and the balance between the two is going to be thrilling.
The battle is going to be especially intense for both drivers since there is every chance Red Bull has a very strong car this year. Adrian Newey is a proven master when it comes to working with new regulations and there is every indication that his latest creation is another winning design.
Red Bull gave Newey more time than usual to conceive the RB5 which has very much worked into the teams favour. They lost some track time by launching the car later in February but most of the other teams had their testing interrupted by bad weather so it didn’t become much of a disadvantage.
The RB5 has a number of special features that make it look like a genuine contender. The front wing is the most complex of any of the 2009 models and the team has also reintroduced pushrod suspension which hasn’t been seen in F1 for eight years. The sidepods and rear wing endplates are shaped differently to everyone else’s, and the cooling outlets are also unique amongst the teams.
In addition to all this the Renault engine will have more grunt compared to its rivals than last year because it has been ‘equalised’ under the new homologation rules.
Red Bull could be onto a winner and there is every chance they’ll have a better car than the Renault R29. With a mixed up pecking order and two highly motivated drivers this could be a very big year for the team.
That would make it a particularly big year for Webber and Vettel.