James Hunt used to keep what he called a mental filing cabinet on drivers. When in racing close company, he’d automatically recall previous experiences with the driver in question and make an instant assessment of the potential risk. In Hunt’s championship year, 1976, drivers such Clay Regazzoni and Vittorio Brambilla would have ‘Caution’ against their name.
Assuming Sebastian Vettel has a filing cabinet, you have to wonder why he didn’t look under ‘V’ on Sunday afternoon. He’d not long had an uninterrupted view of Verstappen’s uncompromising style as Max metaphorically kept his foot in it after locking up into the chicane at the expense of Seb’s teammate.
This is not the moment to get into a debate about the 5-second penalty handed down to Verstappen, if only because it invokes endless and generally pointless comparisons with drivers running wide at Suzuka and elsewhere and the subsequent punishments that varied greatly. In each case, it was the view of the race stewards whose decision, like it or not, was final.
More interesting is the narrative that accompanies any driver’s assessment of Verstappen. Max has established a hard-nosed ‘don’t mess with me’ reputation that he and his advisors clearly have no problem with. Such an occasionally brutal sense of entitlement is not to everyone’s taste but, for as long as he’s not brought to book by officials, you can be sure this total refusal to yield will continue to inform everything he does in a racing car.
Whether or not you agree with such a competitive ethic, it should have been writ large into Vettel’s necessarily rapid assessment as they rushed towards Spoon. The Red Bull’s flashing red light, indicating a comparative shortfall of power, created a dilemma for Seb. Here was an open invitation to go for a gap that, rightly or wrongly, was always going to close, even if the Ferrari was halfway alongside with its left wheels forced onto the kerb.
As Vettel spun to the back of the field, the impending loss of vital championship points should have had absolute priority over any comparatively meaningless thought that the stewards should penalise his rival. Go for a gap, certainly – but on the understanding that this potential overtake would not be as straightforward as previous moves during Seb’s impressive charge from eighth on the grid.
That’s the point, of course. Vettel had been put in this position thanks to Ferrari messing up – and not for the first time as they (and Vettel) seem intent on throwing away the championship for a second season in succession. Regardless of the failed wet tyre gamble at the start of Q3, you have to ask what happened to the driver/car combination that looked set, following a crushing victory at Spa, to give us a title fight down to the wire?
If we’re talking about a shortage of fundamental thinking when discussing Vettel’s driving, then the same applies to a team that seems to be paying the price for an absence of racers at the helm. That’s ‘racers’ in the sense of Toto Wolff, Niki Lauda, Helmut Marko, Christian Horner; people who’ve been and done it in the motor sporting environment; bosses whose understanding of a driver’s thought process tends to be more practical than having an intimate knowledge of how to market cigarettes and prioritise personal interests within an internecine power struggle.
McLaren management needed to understand their driver’s thinking at Zandvoort in 1977 when a furious James Hunt was forced to abandon his damaged car five laps into the Dutch Grand Prix. Defending his lead, Hunt had found Mario Andretti running round the outside of Tarzan hairpin and refusing to back off as James tried to ease the Lotus off the road.
As related to his biographer a few months before, James had carried this note on the tough and experienced American: ‘Mario is a real charger. He can be quite rough in the early laps.’
Sometimes in the heat of the moment, it seems you can either forget to flick through the mental filing system or, like your rival, assume you have a rite of passage. Either way, as we saw on Sunday, the ending is usually messy.