Op-Ed: What’s the best lineup? Two No. 1s? A clear No. 2?

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We can argue, we can disagree, we can agree, we can point fingers, but I think one thing is clear regarding the Red Bull crash at the Turkish Grand Prix on Sunday.

It happened because Red Bull’s drivers were both leading the drivers championship heading into the weekend.

Now, it is absolutely possible that Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel would have come together even if Webber had been in fourth or fifth place in the title hunt. For proof, you only needed wait a few more laps in Turkey to see McLaren’s duo of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button nearly repeat the Red Bull mistake.

But this wouldn’t be happening, at either team — or over at Ferrari earlier in the season, not to mention the ongoing simmer we all suspect at Mercedes — if there were a clear No. 1 driver and a clear No. 2.

And I don’t mean just one driver who, publicly or not, has the team’s clear backing. I mean one driver who is obviously more talented than his team mate and performs accordingly. Renault this season is probably the best example.

But, of course, Renault isn’t leading any championships, despite Robert Kubica’s great success.

I wonder if what we’re seeing the result of an evolution of driver quality or a blip of talent that’s forcing teams’ hands.

Is there so much talent now — from young drivers such as Vettel and Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, plus mid-career drivers like Fernando Alonso and Button to some aging fighters such as Webber (and that Michael Schumacher guy) — that teams cannot afford to pick off one of the grid’s best and pair him with one of the grid’s mid-packers?

It worked in the past that way. Schumacher always was the clear No. 1, in terms of talent and team support, during his title runs at Ferrari. More recently, Alonso had it over Giancarlo Fisichella (that’s right, I manage to work Fisi in here!). So if this glut of talented drivers is a current phenomena, it’s a recent one that may or may not last.

Further back, of course, we have the near mythical pairing of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna as our contrast. But it always is held up as this amazing example, one that involves McLaren somehow being able to manage both uber-driven drivers.

It’s a balancing act we saw that same team, McLaren, perform a lot less successfully in 2007.

Is it the new norm? Can a top team only remain at the top with two drivers always capable of fighting for podiums or victories, instead of one driver consistently scoring top points and the other consistently pulling in just 2, 3, 4 or 5?

The “two top driver” lineups are what we have at Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes and Ferrari. And it just so happens those are the four teams leading the championships.

But the question, I guess, is which one will win? And will it be the team that, at some point, goes “all in” behind one driver or the other, looking to change the dynamic so one of them is gunning for the victory and the other has to be content to add in the important additional team points each weekend?

Are any of the eight drivers on those teams going to be willing to do that?

It’s funny. When I think of these four teams, one pops into my mind as the most likely team to come out on top — constructors title, anyway.

Ferrari.

Despite another lackluster weekend, Ferrari isn’t that far off pace in the constructors race. McLaren is just ahead of Red Bull, 172 to 171. But then comes Ferrari with 146. Mercedes is a ways further back at 100.

We all know Ferrari has the history of putting the team first (save, arguably, those Schumacher years… but I’m not sure that you can separate Schumacher from Ferrari during his great run). If there is a team that can pull a Felipe Massa aside and say, “Here’s the deal,” it’s Ferrari. But if Christian Horner tries the same on Webber? I just don’t know if it will work. Same for Martin Whitmarsh and his two McLaren drivers.

Perhaps an interesting little fact, though, to consider. Among these four teams, the one with the greatest points disparity between its drivers is Mercedes. Rosberg has 66 points. Schumacher has just 34.

But I don’t think any of us believe Mercedes is going to stay in the hunt.

So if you look at the three teams that are best positioned to win either or both titles, the one with the biggest difference between its drivers is Red Bull. Webber is leading the drivers chase with 93 points to Vettel’s 78. McLaren is the team facing the closing battle, with Button inches ahead of Hamilton, 88 to 84. Ferrari, for those wanting the count, have Alonso ahead of Massa, 79 to 67.

So why isn’t Webber the clear No. 1 at Red Bull? “Reliability-corrected,” Vettel would be blowing everyone away, right?

But he isn’t, for whatever reason. So shouldn’t the team be putting its efforts into Webber’s title hunt?

OK. I’m not going to get to an answer, admittedly. But I suspect these are all parts of the questions and debates going on behind Red Bull doors today, as well as probably McLaren’s. Ferrari probably just needs to get its car faster and then it can worry about who to back until season’s end.

I can’t help but thinking, though, that the team that makes it clear it has a No. 1 driver first, and sticks with that decision, will be the one that captures both titles here in 2010.

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