McLaren look to profit from Red Bull infighting

All the intrigue ahead of the British Grand Prix centred on how the rivalry between McLaren teammates Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton would play out in the fiery cauldron of a home race.

If there was any friction behind the British duo’s public bonhomie, it wasn’t evident at Silverstone.

The only divided loyalties were among the 115 000 home fans—and further down the pit lane at Red Bull, where life is far from harmonious for the greatest threat to McLaren’s Formula One supremacy.

The infighting that has been ravaging Red Bull in recent weeks boiled over at the midway point of the season.

Forced to hand over a key car part to teammate Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber publicly accused Red Bull bosses of favouritism in the hours before the race, which both drivers both started on the front of the grid.

A first-corner battle on Sunday saw pole-sitter Vettel pushed wide by Webber, who went on to win the race while the German was forced off with a puncture sustained in that early fight and ended up finishing seventh.

Meanwhile, championship leader Hamilton, who started from third, rose to second and Button made up 10 places from his 14th-place start on the grid to stay second in the drivers’ standings.

Coupled with Red Bull’s feuding, it was the perfect outcome for McLaren on a weekend where planned upgrades failed and were hastily abandoned on Friday night.

“A lot of people speculated on the relationship between our two drivers,” McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said. “I hope there are cracks and divisions in all our competitors and they all fall apart.”

When Webber was denied a new version of Red Bull’s front wing for qualifying and the race, he publicly questioned why he ever signed up to the 2011 season amid clear favouritism.

“Not bad for a No 2 driver,” he quipped over his radio after winning the race to move up to third in the championship, just ahead of Vettel.

“You have to think carefully about decisions,” Whitmarsh observed. “Drivers are immensely competitive people, so if they perceive something is not even-handed or fair, then you are going to have some trouble.

“There is always a potential tension with two drivers in the same team fighting for a championship.” Just as McLaren discovered in 2007 when Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were feuding teammates.

Alonso—the reigning world champion at the time—believed Hamilton was getting preferential treatment from the British team and he left.

Lessons learned
Hamilton claims to have learned from that episode and continuously reinforces how harmonious life is alongside the 30-year-old Button, who succeeded Hamilton last year as the Formula One champion.

“If there was a rift between us it would divide the sides, and we don’t have that,” the 25-year-old Hamilton said. “It’s a real team.

“We work together. No one is blinding anyone, there’s no holding anything back or hiding anything.”

Not that anyone believes it, Button accepts.

“I think everyone’s been taking the mick out of us that we get on well as teammates and as a team, but it’s what works for us,” said Button, who is in his first season alongside Hamilton. “Lewis and I, if we both qualify well, will be fighting wheel to wheel, and we will fight as hard as anyone, but we still work together well.

“Both sides of the garage work for us, and although they obviously want our car to beat the other car, you don’t get this split garage.”

As Red Bull tries to paper over the cracks ahead of the German Grand Prix on July 25, the team has been quick to tell how Webber and Vettel took to the stage with their bosses post-Silverstone to unite with a rendition of the Don McLean karaoke favourite American Pie.

“I don’t think there is any driver in this pit lane that doesn’t push for themselves, as well as the team,” Red Bull principal Christian Horner said. “They’re competitive animals, sportsmen, at the end of the day, and that’s what we employ them to be.”

Horner claims it’s the team spirit that enables Red Bull to “punch above our weight and take on the likes of McLaren and Ferrari”.

Since first racing in 2005, Red Bull has quickly established itself as a force, coming second in the 2009 constructors’ championship, while Vettel was second to Button in the drivers’ standings.

This year alone they have secured nine out of 10 pole positions, producing five race wins—three for Webber and two for Vettel.

“We have come an awfully long way in a very short period of time, against some huge and iconic opponents,” Horner said. “I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve managed to make over the last couple of years to cement Red Bull’s position as a genuine frontrunner.”

The next challenge—now that it’s at the front of the pack—is keeping both drivers happy.—Sapa-AP

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