Whoever wins the world championship this year, they will be remembered not only as the driver who won with the most points, but also the victor in the tightest season battle in memory.
Inevitably, racing that is so close and at such a high level becomes more than just a straight shoot-out on the race-track, but a psychological battle in which each competitor attempts to gain an edge over their opponent both on and off the track. There have been some subtle mind games taking place between the leading contenders this season that are beginning to become more pronounced as the run to the championship intensifies.
Not surprisingly, the hunted man at the head of the championship, Mark Webber, has been in the midst of the psychological games, and by all accounts seems to be relishing it.
As desperation sets in amongst the competitors, the mind games have become more apparent. On the eve of the Singapore Grand Prix, Jenson Button launched his own salvo on the championship leader when he speculated that Webber might fall victim to anxiety given that this is possibly his last realistic chance to win the championship before age overtakes him.
Button mused, "It can be a bad thing, because you think to yourself 'I've got a good car and experience of 10 years but this could be my last chance to fight for a championship’."
Perhaps sensing that Button was up to mind tricks, Webber used the post-conference in the Japanese Grand Prix to inform everyone that of the five drivers still in contention, any one of them could potentially win it, except for Button who is capable of winning only in wet conditions.
Button could only respond by announcing Webber's team mate Sebastian Vettel now had the best chance of winning the championship because of his better qualifying and race pace than Webber, which was effectively an admission that his own chances were now remote.
Webber 1 - Button 0
Button and Webber are known to be friends with immense mutual respect shown, so the recent round of sledging—which was hardly tongue-in-cheek—was surprising. But it reflects a more extensive psychological battle that has been unfolding throughout the season between Webber and the other leading drivers.
None has been more intense than between Webber and his own teammate. Webber perhaps assumed that at the start of the 2009 season that he would leave Sebastian Vettel in his dirty air.
Vettel, brimming with confidence and immensely quick, had other ideas, and ultimately finished with more race wins and points than Webber. Going into this year, Webber knew that his only chance to gain an edge over his teammate was to beat him psychologically on the race track.
Neck-to-neck in championship points for the early part of the season, the stage was set for the ultimate mental showdown between the two, which occurred at the Turkish Grand Prix.
Renowned for his aggressive weaving on track to push opponents off the racing line or even into the wall, Vettel decided he would try this stunt on Webber while the Australian was leading in the race.
To Vettel’s surprise, Webber held his line and Vettel careered into him, taking them both off the track.
Webber recovered and went on to win 15 valuable points (ironically almost the number of points that he currently leads over Vettel). It was a strong message sent by Webber to Vettel—one that he would subsequently send to Hamilton in Singapore as well—he won’t be intimidated on the race track.
Webber’s win in Hungary after a foolish and costly error by Vettel in following too far back from the safety car, and second place in Belgium after Vettel clumsily took out Button in an incident in which McClaren’s Martin Whitmarsh would label Vettel “the crash kid”, would have given Webber confidence that desperation had begun taking a hold on Vettel and he was losing his nerve.
Webber 1 - Vettel 0.
The Turkey incident set the stage for an even bigger psychological battle for Webber, surrounding the support of his own team. In the aftermath of Turkey, Red Bull team adviser Helmut Marko criticised Webber for being responsible for the incident, when most commentators felt Vettel was mostly at fault.
Team Principal Christian Horner was only slightly less critical of Webber. For most drivers, this would surely result in feelings of insecurity and perhaps a breakdown in confidence after being criticised by the team’s hierarchy. Not so Webber.
When at the British Grand Prix, Horner decided to give Webber’s wing to Vettel after the young German broke his during practice, Webber’s response was resolute.
Dismayed but determined, Webber immediately claimed pole and then went on to win the race, uttering the famous words to Horner over his publicly streamed team radio, “Not bad for a No. 2 driver”.
Although some criticised the wisdom of Webber’s statement at the time, it would prove pivotal in forcing the team to clarify its position of equal treatment for both drivers, which team principal Christian Horner said would be maintained unless only enough resources existed to support one driver, in which case it would be given to the points leader.
Before the race, the points leader was Vettel. After his victory at Silverstone, it was Webber.
The psychological advantage in the team was now clearly with Webber, and following the Belgian Grand Prix Webber suggested that the time was approaching when the team might have to back one driver.
He left it to his manager, Flavio Briatore, however, to make the case more emphatically that Webber should now be fully supported by both sides of the garage. Horner responded by saying that equality would prevail “until one is mathematically out of the championship, or practically out of contention,” leaving the door open to backing Webber (or Vettel) should one be counted out.
Webber 1 - Red Bull Racing 0
To Lewis Hamilton’s credit, he has avoided engaging in mind games with Webber and has left his talking to the track. Unfortunately Hamilton’s greatest psychological enemy has been himself.
Over-eager and feeling the pressure of not having a clear distance between himself and his rivals, Hamilton appeared to be competing with Vettel for the title of “crash kid” when he clumsily ploughed into Felipe Massa on the first lap at Monza and ended his race.
When he tried to overtake Webber in Singapore, he did not leave enough room and found himself encountering Mark “Stone Wheels” Webber right beside him. Hamilton was the unlucky one, crashing out with a broken suspension, while Webber continued on his merry way, riding his luck with a slipping front right tyre that miraculously stayed on its rim (Horner has promised to make a coffee table out of that tyre and give it to Webber as a Christmas present!).
With Hamilton reeling from his double DNF and feeling that his hopes for the championship are all but shot, Webber’s uncompromising refusal to move over had left another key rival floundering on the ropes.
Webber 1 - Hamilton 0.
Now it is Fernando Alonso and a resurrected Vettel that Webber knows he must edge out in the psychological battle. Alonso took Hamilton’s place as the nearest of Webber’s rivals, winning back-to-back in Monza and Singapore and volunteering himself as the favourite for the title.
That claim, rather arrogant given his points deficit, may have been designed to unnerve Webber. But Webber would have none of it. Announcing prior to the Japanese race weekend that coming second to Vettel would not be the end of the world, he casually followed a rejuvenated Vettel around Suzuka to keep Alonso at bay and eke out some more points over his Ferrari rival.
Irrepressible, Alonso pushed the boundaries of incredulity even further by suggesting at the post-race conference that podiums will be enough for him to win the championship. Webber struck back with a devastating message—he needs only one race win to put his rivals to bed, and furthermore he is confident he will get it.
The impact of this statement was not lost on Vettel, who admitted, “If Webber wins again, it will be difficult for all of us.”
Vettel for his part has become more focused since the string of hapless errors, but a question mark remains over whether he can sustain it. With Vettel and Alonso now tied on 206 points, and trailing Webber by 14 points, the stage is set for the next instalment of this enthralling battle, which is every bit as mental as it is about who is fastest.
Webber might not have the speed over his team mate or the sheer talent of Alonso, but he has a level of cool-headedness that is perhaps an even greater asset given the closeness of the battle.
The next moves in this game of psychological chess will be as interesting to follow as the racing itself. One cannot help think that whoever wins the mind games and holds their nerve on track will win the championship. Based on performances so far, Webber looks to have the edge.