Tuesday 8 January 2013

A Doctor's opinion... Helmut Marko speaks out

Whatever your partisan leanings, however much you might be tempted to rail against the suggestion, it cannot be denied that modern F1 is the era of the Red Bull. Three title doubles in the last three seasons are proof positive of this.

It's common assumption that the Red Bull Phoenix that has risen in recent years has three heads: Sebastian Vettel - Christian Horner - Adrian Newey. Yet there is a fourth head less widely cited but no less important for that, that of Dr Helmut Marko.

His presence in the Red Bull pit, as well as in F1 more generally, is almost akin to that of the supernatural: mysterious, brooding, yet with influence and power thought to be of considerable reach. His role within the team has probably never been defined precisely, at least not in the minds of outsiders - adviser, overseer of the Red Bull young driver programme, eyes and ears of the Red Bull company among many other things - but Marko's sway cannot be questioned.

But the man himself remains unperturbed by his aloof image: 'You’ll never make it in Formula One if you are only addicted to beauty.'

In the January edition of Red Bulletin Marko had a lot to say on many matters to do with Red Bull Racing, including Sebastian Vettel, the driver's and team's recent successes, the highs and lows of the season just passed, as well as the role of company head Dietrich Mateschitz, and in most cases it is expressed with considerable frankness. He also airs his views on matters for F1 more widely, including F1's current 'show', DRS, KERS, and the impending regulation changes for 2014. There's even the tiniest shard of light cast onto his own role, saying that he focuses on 'the big picture'.

There are interesting insights into Vettel, Marko's relationship with him and Seb's modus operandi. His praise of Seb is lavish and rightly so: 'Sebastian’s driving was virtually flawless. But he is a phenomenon: it is always like that. After the summer break, his performance curve shoots up. That’s what happened in previous years, too. I don’t know how he does it, but to keep doing it cannot be a coincidence. That brings us back to his method of preparation, the way he shuts himself off from the rest of the world, so that he can still call on reserves that other drivers might not have.'

But in so doing it seems Marko couldn't resist a dig at one of Vettel's rivals in particular: 'Fernando Alonso, for example, who is busy with politics and funny comments. Vettel ignores it all, he doesn't read the newspapers, or the internet. And that’s the point, you see, we concentrate on our job: to make the fastest car and the best team possible.' What's that you say Helmut? Politics? Mind games? In F1? Surely not.

Further, when asked what the Scuderia's founder Enzo Ferrari would have made of 2012, Marko claims: 'I believe that there is no way old Enzo would have liked such defeat, but he would acknowledge the performance of the opposition – and then would whip his boys accordingly so they’d do everything to beat us. But not with such actions as we have recently experienced. Alonso is constantly involved in politics.'

I'm sorry Helmut, but you fail on history here; the Commendatore wrote the book when it came to politics.

And this all follows on from similar comments from Marko towards the end of last season, as well as from Christian Horner and Vettel complaining of 'dirty tricks' from rival teams (as well as this on Twitter from Vettel's systems engineer Tom Batch). It makes you wonder exactly what is inspiring all of it, after all politics and mind games in motor sport are hardly new. Indeed, they're as old of the sport itself. And Alonso's comments that Marko refers to are at the extreme temperate end of the historical spectrum on that front (and Marko's not above indulging in politics himself).

Do you ever get the impression that certain figures at Red Bull feel that they're not getting enough credit for their recent success? As well as in a similar vein rather resent the praise that Fernando Alonso has been receiving? They're reaching the top of F1's equivalent of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, in other words?

On the first point I'd agree with them, generally speaking neither Red Bull nor Vettel get sufficient praise for their recent successes in my view. But that will almost certainly come with time as greater historical perspective is gathered, and as the partisanship of the now wanes. In F1 as in many things, very rarely is success given its full appreciation in its own time. But if Red Bull isn't getting enough praise right now, it doesn't necessarily follow that Alonso is getting too much. And Marko and others at Red Bull trying to force the issue themselves, including by firing barbs at rivals, will surely only be counter-productive.

Marko also had plenty to say about Seb's stable mate Mark Webber, and for him the praise can be said to be more limited than that for Vettel. Variously Marko stated that Webber struggles for consistency as well as with the pressure of fighting for a championship, gets into downward spirals, as well as that having a young team mate in Seb 'snatching the booty from under his nose' isn't easy to cope with: 'It seems to me that Webber has on average two races per year where he is unbeatable, but he can’t maintain this form throughout the year. And as soon as his prospects start to look good in the world championship, he has a little trouble with the pressure that this creates. In comparison with Seb’s rising form, it seems to me that Mark’s form somehow flattens out. Then, if some technical mishap occurs, like with the alternator for example, he falls relatively easily into a downward spiral. Something that I think is also very important is that for much of his career, Mark was never in a top team, but he was always regarded as a high flyer if he only could get into the right team. Then Red Bull puts him in a car – a possible winner – and suddenly along comes this young kid and he snatches the booty from under Mark’s nose. Psychologically it’s not easy, of course...'

'There is a lot of nonsense being said..."He (Vettel) is only able to win because he’s sitting in a Newey car." We have two Newey cars, so why aren't we clinching one-two at every race?' Ouch.

Fascinating stuff, and while they are factors we may have long suspected based on our own hypotheses of Webber it's interesting to hear it from the team itself. Whether this all represents refreshing candour in the bland word of F1-speak, or inappropriate public deprecation of one of your drivers, is a matter of debate.

Perhaps less well-known these days is that Marko was once a promising racing driver in his own right, winning Le Mans in 1971 as well as making it into F1 with the BRM team. Then fate dealt him the cruellest of hands, when in the 1972 French Grand Prix at Clermont-Ferrand, a classic road track but notorious for the loose stones on the circuit, one such stone was flicked up by a car ahead and sent straight through Marko's helmet visor, thus permanently blinding his left eye and ending his racing career. Does he have regrets on this? Apparently not: 'I never play the "what if" game because of my lost eye. There is simply no point in thinking about it: it just happened. One has enough examples of highly successful racing drivers who fail in their lives after they retire because they don’t know how it will go on. For me there’s a clear choice: to do something completely different. It goes on, everything goes on. That, incidentally, is a very good motto for our team.'

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