x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Fans the winner in F1 title race

Red Bull-Renault chiefs are letting Webber and Vettel slug it out - and that can only be good for the sport.

The Red Bull-Renaults of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in the pits during practice for the Japan Grand Prix.
The Red Bull-Renaults of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in the pits during practice for the Japan Grand Prix.

Everybody loves a good scrap so it is great for Formula One that Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, the Red Bull-Renault teammates, are both being allowed to fight for the world championship. 

And the true winners of this open competition will be racing fans across the world as they are seeing a proper championship battle involving five drivers that is almost certainly going to go down to the wire in Abu Dhabi next month.

A number of guys in the paddock, including Niki Lauda, the three times world champion, and Flavio Briatore, the former Renault team chief, have all said publicly that Red Bull should have been backing Webber, who has been ahead of Vettel in the standings since early July, to ensure the drivers' championship goes to the team. But to their credit Christian Horner, the Red Bull team boss, and the rest of the guys at the Milton Keynes-based squad, have allowed their two drivers to race each other without any team orders.

There have been rumours in the past that the team have favoured Vettel, but much of that was probably speculation around the fact the team did not immediately rally around Webber when he began to lead the championship. There is obviously the risk that taking points off each other leaves a danger that the Red Bull drivers could be beaten by Fernando Alonso's Ferrari, but that is a risk the team appear happy to live with, and they want to see the championship won on the track rather than by decisions made off it.

In the past we have seen Michael Schumacher and Alonso win titles in teams where they were the clear No 1 and everything clearly set up around them. Neither of them were concerned about the good of the team. For them it was simply about becoming world champion. The approach clearly worked as they are both multiple champions, but I think it is to the detriment the sport As a driver I was not a fan of that style of team set-up. The public want to see who is the fastest and they are getting that this season thanks to the Red Bull and McLaren-Mercedes teams allowing their drivers to race freely.

But the risks of this strategy are well documented. In 1986 the Williams team allowed Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet to race each other and they were beaten to the title by Alain Prost's McLaren. Then, in 2007, Lewis Hamilton and Alonso were too busy squabbling at McLaren to notice Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari overturn a 17-point deficit in the final two races to take the championship. There have been plenty of other cases where not implementing team orders has ultimately proved costly, but it is admirable that Red Bull are playing fair with their two drivers, who have both done an excellent job.

Vettel went to Japan at the weekend knowing that he needed to beat Webber and win to keep his hopes alive and that is what he did. Webber, the championship leader, was consistent again and should be happy with his weekend's work, though he will know that he almost certainly needs to win one of the last three races of the season if he is going to be world champion. Alonso, while disappointed that his Ferrari was not a match for the Red Bulls, will have been happy that it was Vettel on the top step of the podium rather than Webber.

If Webber had won Alonso would have been trailing the Australian by 21 points. As it is he is tied for second place in the standings with Vettel, 14 adrift of top spot. Alonso is still in control of his own destiny as a result. He will be champion for a third time if he wins in South Korea, Brazil and in Abu Dhabi. One of those three drivers look the most likely winner as the McLarens appear a little off the pace with Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton having had just one podium between them in the last three races.

But you cannot completely rule them out as all it needs is one non-finish among the front runners or a bad race and it could be thrown wide open again. I am still favouring Webber, who I think has been the most consistent driver this season as well as the most improved. He has made very few mistakes but he would be a deserving champion. Johnny Herbert is a former Formula One driver who completed in 161 races, winning three times