Winning might make you famous but it doesn’t always make you friends. It ensures you’ll be remembered, though it’s the manner in which one wins that marks out those who are ultimately revered. Schumacher’s will to win at all costs meant reverence has not nearly been as forthcoming as respect. For the nature of his sacrifice – which proved to be the ultimate – Ayrton Senna is ultimately worshipped.
Nico Hulkenberg’s herculean performance to take pole for the Brazilian Grand Prix showed that being top of the tree for the first time creates its own heady mix of novelty and euphoria. Translating that approach to a further 71 laps of the Sao Paolo circuit will require depths of mental and mechanical strength that may well prove beyond him and his Williams team.
The young rookie went from a soldier of fortune to a master of chance in but a few laps. Today though he will no doubt witness a sea of inevitable spirit chomping relentlessly at his heals in the form of the four title contenders. A spirit born out of a culture of winning and innate inner-belief that is indeed hard to come by.
While Fernando Alonso may be starting 5th on the grid, ‘Number 1’ status and absolutely no compromise makes him an intriguing enigma, with his all-out will to win sitting alongside a peculiar undercurrent of personal entitlement. Alonso cares little for the nostalgic narrative and everything for statistics. Aside from the words ‘World Champion’ next to his name, what is written in the press means little to him. What it takes to achieve victory is similarly inconsequential. In Korea it required relentless consistency and ability to keep his Ferrari on track when others were less able to do so. Today staying out of trouble will be his main aim, knowing that real glory only comes in Dubai.
Alonso’s ability to play the long game makes him a perennial threat. His willingness to engage in warfare of the mental kind makes him a master puppeteer. Be it his teammate or the team itself, if Alonso can control it, he can bend it to his will. In the instances he can do neither, he’ll simply kick the door off its hinges, as he reportedly did in China ’07. Alonso isn’t so interested in how he wins so long as he does.
Such is his level of success in shaping his environment that his team-mate Filipe Massa was conquered by half season, with both the press and the FIA willing to forgive by September 8. No matter the controversy, Alonso’s stance stays firm throughout.
For an unflinching approach in the face of adversity there’s also Lewis Hamilton. In that self-assured trait he shares at least some similarity with his former teammate. To a large extent he does care about public consensus. Hamilton knows his battle for supremacy is a war, not a popularity contest. His Achilles heal to some degree is his desire to leave an indelible mark on the sport. He demands respect for his talents and admiration for his approach.
For the greater part of this season Hamilton has not had the car to match such driving ambition, yet the door hinges at McLaren have stayed on. Then again none of us were privy to his quarters after the premature race end in Singapore. His propensity to focus on the future however, means this seasons list of what-could-have-been turn quickly to what can be. Brazil and Abu Dhabi await.
The televised interview with Mark Webber prior to the Singapore Grand Prix was a telling one. That killer question regarding his newly found killer instinct required a moment to assess his delicate – but ultimately telling – shift in thinking. The question was as provocative as the answer was considered. Is he prepared to be that little bit more selfish in order to win the championship? In one word: yes.
Webber may be missing that warm and fuzzy feeling of support from within the Red Bull camp, yet despite his vocal displeasure, he comes across as a man who knows himself; and one who’s comfortable in his own skin. He is able to provide a context for his numerous hardships and recent successes. Korea’s clash with the barriers and the seemingly constant clashes with his team amount to no more than a hard-knock than a story of hardship for this tough competitor.
A bright November horizon has seen him recalibrate his mental approach to accommodate a distinctly single-minded attitude. That new, more determined version will be required now the season has reached its ultimate biting point. Given his position in relation to Alonso on the grid for the start of today’s race. Webber has been able to see the sunny side up after some very unpredictable weather.
Events as far back as Turkey confirmed not only his right to compete fairly within the team, but the ability to grab destiny by the neck and give it a good talking to if need be. ‘A fair crack at the whip’ is all the Australian has demanded. He has taken care of rest.
Where a notable shift of thinking may have been apparent on one side of the Red Bull garage, Sebastian Vettel’s dominant win in Japan merely confirmed a seemingly uncomplicated yet ultimately demanding approach to racing.
In Vettel’s mind if you win, you win. Winning is exactly what he’ll be required to do from now until Abu Dhabi. Even in the immediate press interview it was pretty clear that his approach and attitude remained unshaken. For all the talk of potential supporting rolls and team tactics playing themselves out for the season run in, Vettel will be given every chance to become the sports youngest champion until that opportunity is no more.
As the ‘future’ of Red Bull racing, the weight of expectation rests heavily on the shoulders of their young protégé. It may not come with a smiley Aussie face but does come with a strong element of support. Vettel being greeted at the garage entrance by Dr Helmut Marko was telling of Red Bull’s commitment to ensuring that his spirits remain high, even in the face of such bad fortune. Vettel has the tools at his disposal to become a future champion, not least the apparent focus of the team. If the rocket ship of an RB6 proves fragile as it has on too many occasions this season, it will be important that his mental approach remains robust enough to deliver on that long-term expectation.
Amongst drivers, any cracks in the armoury garner short supplies of sympathy at the cutting edge of the season. Thoughts of anything other than number 1 will prevent that same number finding its way onto the front of said drivers car. The idea of a winning mentality as an easily manageable construct is one of pure misconception. There’s no ‘I’ in team but there are two in winning.