Niki Lauda contends that carrying the coveted number one on his car in F1 2011 will give defending world champion Sebastian Vettel a crucial psychological edge over Red Bull Racing team-mate Mark Webber – even if the German himself reckons he'll need to continue improving over the coming months in order to keep hold of it.
In an extraordinary, nail-biting Abu Dhabi finale back in November, Vettel wrote his way spectacularly and wholly unexpectedly into the F1 record books by clinching the drivers' crown at the age of just 23 years and 134 days – the youngest since the official inception of the world championship some six decades earlier.
That means he will race this season with the number one adorning his Adrian Newey-designed Red Bull RB7, which is already looking very much the car to beat – and Lauda suggests that mentally at least, Vettel could not possibly be in a stronger position.
“There's no better way to start a season,” the Austrian told the Red Bulletin
magazine in a joint interview between the pair. “You arrive as number one and everyone thinks, 'here comes the best' – so they have to chase you if they want it for themselves.
“I regard the number one as a positive. Subconsciously, I think this number one gives you an advantage over your team-mate. I reckon it's going to be very difficult for Mark Webber to start all over again from scratch and to make a charge from number two. Somehow, you end up perceiving this number as a symbol.”
Webber felt like 'a number two' driver often enough even before
Vettel became world champion last year, it must be said, but the latter is quick to play down the pre-season 'favourite' tag – and in the same interview, he also offered his own interpretation of Ferrari rival Fernando Alonso's surprising selection of Michael Schumacher as his greatest threat this year.
“I just don't want to have the feeling, 'if it worked last year, then it'll work again this year',” he underlined. “That shouldn't be what the number represents. If I just do what I did last season then it'll surely go wrong. Last year was just that – last year. Tick it off. At the first race, we all start from zero, regardless of whether I have number one on the car or 24 or 25 – we all start with the same points tally.
“I think that Michael's wealth of experience and his confidence obviously plays a role in what people think of him. People can say what they want, but when Michael pulls up on the grid he doesn't have to prove a thing to anyone. He has fun doing it and has the confidence to be up the front and not let himself be bullied by anyone. Even when the air is thin, he's one of the few who has the demeanour of a winner.
“The year is very long and it's going to be very tough again. There are too many wild cards, from KERS to the new Pirelli tyres, and how good the Ferrari team could be. I have to improve to make sure I retain number one – but I'm feeling confident.
“I feel very, very good at Red Bull Racing – it's much more than me being in this F1 team and being allowed to drive the car. I've been a part of the Red Bull family for a long time, and it really is a family – you feel at home here. Then when it's topped off with a car in which I can win races and fight for the world championship, well, there's no reason for me to change a thing.”
In the same interview, Vettel and Lauda go on to discuss a number of other topics, from technology – and the progress made from the 1970s, rudimentary 'seat-of-the-pants' style feedback to today's 'irreplaceable' state-of-the-art, ultra-modern simulators, what would have been regarded back then as 'pure science fiction' – to the advances in safety standards in the top flight over the decades and the possibility of friendships in F1.
“We're a bunch of about 25 drivers, so basically it's like a school class,” quips Vettel. “There are some you like who are immediately on the same wavelength as you, then there are some with whom you just don't click, and obviously you don't have much to do with each other – but to meet privately away from the track, do stuff together, maybe go on holiday together as they sometimes did back then, well that doesn't happen these days. You're flat-out, there's no time – not even for yourself. Everyone concentrates on themselves in the team and you're not aware of much else.”
“You build a wall around yourself,” concurs Lauda, “because you're constantly surrounded by pseudo-friends in public. Everyone wants to be your friend. This makes you wary. To deflect this from the start, I said, 'I don't have friends' so that this 'friend game' stops. The guy I was closest to during my racing days was James Hunt. He was really cool, you could have a good laugh with him and we used to enjoy a beer together – but that doesn't mean you have to go on holiday together.”
On the subject of safety, Lauda reminisced that he 'grew up in a time when cars were already capable of reaching speeds in excess of 185mph, sometimes clearing trees by just a matter of a few metres' and that resultantly, 'back then, you had to expect that at the end of the season, two F1 drivers would no longer be alive'. It is a notion that Vettel admits is 'unbearable', adding that for as much as the present incarnation of the sport is occasionally lambasted as overly 'sterile', 'at least we don't need to constantly plan for the inherent threat to life'.
Finally, the reigning world champion goes on to ask his illustrious predecessor about the 'rumours' regarding drivers and 'pit babes' back in the day, and the legendary hell-raising exploits of the sport's heroes of yesteryear. Lauda acknowledges that the tales of rampant paddock debauchery – even the night before a title-deciding finale – are all true.
“Because of the risk-taking nature of our jobs, we lived our lives to the fullest and didn't take things as seriously perhaps as we should have,” the 62-year-old reveals. “We handled the stress differently, so you didn't particularly want to involve your long-term partner. The best example I can think of is a long while ago – 1984, the Portuguese Grand Prix. It was a title-decider between Alain Prost and me, but I only needed second place to win the title. My fitness guru, Willi Dungl, knew perfectly well what I was after and said to me, 'hey, there's a blonde Italian lady running around down there looking all over the place for you'.
“Then Nelson Piquet came to me – he was always on the look-out for something new – and said the same thing. She was downstairs and very pretty. I walked over to her and asked her how she was. I took her out to dinner on Friday because I'm a gentleman. She then asked if she could go to dinner with me again on Saturday night. I told her no dinner, but she could come to my room between eight and ten in the evening. I told her that from ten I had to sleep, because I wanted to become world champion the following day. She said okay, and at ten minutes to ten she left my room.
“I slept like a log, but when I woke up the next morning I thought, 'if there's a God, then I've lost the world championship today'. It was weighing on my conscience. My dear colleague Prost, who was always chewing his nails – always very nervous – stood in the pits the next morning and grinned like a Cheshire cat. I asked him why he had such a stupid grin on his face. He said – can you imagine – that he had met up with Princess Stéphanie of Monaco the night before. I was so unbelievably relieved, because it meant we were equal in the eyes of God, and we could go racing. A couple of hours later I became world champion for the third time...”
To watch a video of highlights from the interview, click here
The full Vettel/Lauda interview can be read at: www.redbulletin.com