Sebastian Vettel’s bid to become the youngest Formula One champion took another hit on Sunday and he may even find himself as Red Bull’s number two driver behind Mark Webber.
Vettel, 23, crashed into the McLaren of reigning champion Jenson Button at a wet Belgian Grand Prix, which forced the Brit to retire and earned Vettel a drive-through penalty as he came a dismal 15th.
As a result, he now trails championship leader Lewis Hamilton by 31 points in third place. Webber is three points behind Hamilton and with six races left the title race seems to be reduced to two drivers.
Webber suggested this could soon prompt Red Bull officials to impose a team order in his favour to achieve a first world drivers’ title.
“Red Bull have a good trophy cabinet but not one like McLaren’s, so it depends on how hungry we are to try and do that ... It’s still too early at the moment, but not far away, I would say,” said Webber.
Red Bull say both drivers are on equal terms but there have been suggestions that the team backs Vettel because he is the man of the future and fits the company image better.
Team principal Christian Horner said it would be foolish to write off Vettel in the championship but he also heaped praise on the cool Webber for another great drive at wet Spa-Francorchamps.
“A great drive by Mark today (Monday), it was a very mature drive after a bad start. He recovered fantastically well and drove with great maturity ... To come away with second place was a great result for him today,” said Horner.
Vettel’s drive reflected a difficult season, with two victories in 13 races not good enough, given his seven pole positions alone.
Technical problems stopped him while leading the first two races, tyre gambles have not paid off, he then smashed into Webber in Turkey and got a drive-through penalty three weeks ago in Hungary for falling too far behind the safety car.
McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh shared this view as he upset that Vettel’s antics could have ended Button’s title dream.
“Sebastian is getting into a bad habit — he is a crash-kid. It is the sort of thing you would see in junior racing,” Whitmarsh said.
“He is a lovely guy, very quick. He didn’t do it on purpose. (But) he has to learn and develop. You can’t do these things in a championship fight.” The German, for his part, could only apologise for another mishap.
“Obviously I’m not proud of it, I lost the car going over the bump as I was braking and unfortunately hit Jenson, so he couldn’t continue. I’m sorry for him,” he said.
Looking at the championship, he added cautiously: “We’ll have to see what we can do at the next races.”