x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

F1 title contenders tread cautiously

Despite the tension for the season finale, the title contenders opt to conserve energy by delivering politically correct lines.

Mark Webber, right, was clearly uncomfortable huddling around his rivals at the press conference in Abu Dhabi yesterday.
Mark Webber, right, was clearly uncomfortable huddling around his rivals at the press conference in Abu Dhabi yesterday.

Smoke and mirrors, schadenfreude and subterfuge.

Considering the four protagonists in the press-conference room continue to chase the same elusive goal, the words and actions of Formula One's quartet of potential world champions was perhaps unsurprising.

As Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber walked into the bustling and buzzing room - their conversations drowned out by the drone of the massed paparazzi - all four, it appeared, were relaxed and at ease in their surroundings.

However, when the questions began few would have guessed each of these four men - grouped somewhat bizarrely with AT&T Williams's Niko Hulkenberg - were on the cusp of becoming the undisputed champion of their sport.

Each man's monotonous, bland answers were as short as they were blunt. Webber initially appeared in such a rush to get the whole thing over and done with that when the quartet of contenders was asked to pose for photos, pre-conference, the 34-year-old had forgotten to button his trousers. Cue ice-breaking laughter.

Alonso, the Ferrari driver who narrowly leads the championship standings, instigated a group hug, yet Webber shrugged distantly, allowing his arms to hang loosely by his sides. This was not a man in the mood for friends, fun and pretence. His posture - rigid and muscular - said "Terminator", his voice - quiet and croaky - said "terminal".

When each driver was asked to detail his car's strengths around the Yas Marina Circuit, Webber, the Australian whose Red Bull-Renault is undeniably superior to the Ferraris, mumbled "same as him" and waved his hand towards the Spaniard. Alonso, for the record, had said his car does not have the same speed as his main rivals.

Cryptic or confusing?

Vettel, Webber's teammate at Red Bull, was in a more relaxed mood, his high spirits matched only by his low expectations. And it was he, not the quote-hungry journalists, who raised the issue that had so irked him at the post-race press conference in Sao Paulo last week: team orders.

"Forty years ago the drivers had no tactics - it was flat out," Vettel said. "The approach has been like that for the last few races for me.

"The target is clear. The speed has been there all season and it was not the easiest season for myself.

"We are still in the hunt and we will try our best, but the clear favourites going into the weekend are Mark and Fernando.

"I will just try to do my best race and then it depends on where those two are."

The German had said earlier in the afternoon that he would "tease" the media by refusing to reveal his strategy for race day and he was true to his word by immediately appearing to contradict his above stance on team tactics.

"With lots of things to do, there are better things to spend more energy on than what happens on Sunday," he said. "If the situation occurs on Sunday then we know we are driving for the team."

With the potential for Red Bull infighting palpable, it was thought that Alonso may have been tempted to try to stir up trouble between the two teammates. The potential was there. It is common knowledge that Webber and Vettel are not the best of friends.

Hate is too strong a word, but at times you could be forgiven for looking at the body language of the two men in the dark-blue caps, who sat at opposite ends of the table and barely glanced at each other throughout, and concluded they would rather be competing together in the Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship than the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

And yet when the opportunity arose for Alonso to mix it up, he skipped past it as easily as he would a stalled car on the starting grid.

In fact, it was Alonso - having chatted up both Red Bull drivers separately - who appeared most comfortable. He would not be disappointed, he said, if he leaves the UAE without the drivers' championship because he has taken many positives out of the season and is just happy to be back fighting for it following two years in the wilderness of F1 irrelevance.

When one member of the press corps decided to capitalise on the Spaniard's apparent ease and quiz him on his feelings were the title to be dictated by Red Bull team orders, Alonso steered around the issue with the experience of a two-time champion.

In doing so he also avoided the possibility of being labelled a hypocrite following his own additional seven-point haul at Hockenheim courtesy of Ferrari's use of tactics.

"Winning by seven, one or 25 points is not the most important thing in my mind right now," he said.

Winning, despite what the four contenders will have us believe, is why they are all in Abu Dhabi. Whether they plan to do that alone or with a little help from their "friends" will inevitably become clear in the coming days.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae