Many assume that in Formula 1 – as well as any other motorsport – the drivers are on their own. Making spontaneous, reactive decisions and winning races by their own intuition and skill. But Formula 1 drivers have about a dozen people working in concert with them and doing everything they can to help the team win the race – not just the driver. Sebastian Vettel ultimately won Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix but he did it at the expense of his Red Bull teammate Mark Webber. After the final pit stop, Webber had the lead, Vettel was in second and the Red Bull bosses called to the drivers telling them that the race was in hand – ease up, hold position, conserve the cars and the tires, and coast to a 1-2 Red Bull victory. Vettel completely ignored the message and engaged with a near-paint-swapping duel with Webber to win the race.
This led to friction within the Red Bull team, Vettel having to apologize, and one of the most awkward podium ceremonies, probably ever. This win gives Vettel his 27th career title, putting him sixth all-time – tied with Jackie Stewart.
Mid-way through the race, as Webber finished a lap a half-second faster than Vettel, Vettel said, “Get him out of the way, he’s too slow” over his radio, to which his team responded, “Sebastian, be patient, half the race to go.” This type of jockeying and impatience from Vettel came to a head as he took the lead with only a few laps remaining. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner says that he will hold a meeting with Vettel to attempt an intervention between Vettel and Webber. Vettel deliberately ignored a team order and knows that it was wrong.
“He’d had the communication and knew what it was and he chose to ignore it,” Horner said. “He put his interest beyond what the team’s position was and he was focused on those eight points difference between second and first.”
As for an explanation of why the team’s orders were handed down in the first place, Horner said, “Following cars very closely destroys tires and what we didn’t want to do was run out of tires and take an unnecessary risk. So from a team’s point of view we are trying to manage the race from that final stop to the end of the race because at this point of the season it made sense to try and bank the points. All you are doing by allowing the two to race, from a team’s perspective, is take unnecessary risk. Obviously Sebastian chose that he wanted those eight points and chose to take things into his own hands.”
Vettel did apologize (he didn’t even get sprayed with champagne by Webber on the podium) but that fails to repair the damage he has done with his teammate.
“‘I should have behaved today. I made a big mistake,” Vettel said. “Obviously I’m the black sheep right now. Obviously I put myself in that position so, as I said, all I can say is apologies to Mark. I know that right now, obviously, having just come out of the car, it’s probably difficult to explain everything but the pass was deliberate, obviously I wanted to pass him, you could see that, otherwise you wouldn’t even try, but I didn’t mean to ignore the strategy or the call. I made a mistake, simply.”
“I owe an explanation to Mark and to the team and that’s it. Everyone else obviously has the right to have their own opinions but for sure it is not a victory that I’m very proud of because it should have been Mark’s,” said Vettel.
Webber was understandably upset and said something that shouldn’t surprise anyone but should make headlines – Vettel is the more favored driver and gets protection by the team. It would not be a surprise if Webber leaves Red Bull after this season, but leaving a team with such success over a personal spat like this may have unnecessarily negative effects on Webber’s career.
“After the last stop obviously the team told me that the race was over, we turned the engines down and we go to the end,” Webber said. “I want to race as well, but in the end the team made the decision which we always say before the start of the race that’s probably how it’s going to be; we look after the tires, get the car to the end. In the end [Vettel] made his own decisions today and will have protection as usual and that’s the way it goes.” Webber went on to add, “It’s very, very, very hard for Seb to sit there when we’ve got to bring the cars home safely. Obviously I turned my engine down, I looked after the tires and I was completely reassured twice that we were not going to abuse the cars on each other because it was very easy for us to not get any points for the whole team.”
Red Bull now leads in both driver’s and constructor’s standings and will be glad to have a few weeks off to cool off and get their team back into line before the Shanghai Grand Prix on April 14. Webber says he plans to decompress in the only way he knows how, “It’s three weeks to the next race – we’re fortunate that we have three weeks – I will catch some waves in Australia on my board and I think this will be good medicine for me.”
Red Bull was not alone in team squabbles. Mercedes, with their new driver Lewis Hamilton, had their own race-finisher conundrum. Nico Rosberg felt that he was fast enough to take the lead – and finish third overall – but he was told by his crew to hold fast and let Lewis Hamilton coast into the podium finish. Instead of acting on his own, Rosberg reluctantly obliged and while the drivers may have a bit of hard-feelings after the race, it’s nothing remotely close to what Red Bull is going through right now.
This result may have been different if Fernando Alonso had actually stayed in the race. Jumping out to a quick start, Alonso nudged Vettel and dislodged his frontal wing. He refused to pit initially, the wing popped off and slid under his front wheels, and he was done for the day. Alonso clearly had a fast car and could have challenged the Red Bull drivers for a podium position, but his failure to react cost him a finish – and valuable championship points. Ferrari said that it was a team decision to not make Alonso pit. Good call, guys.
On a lighter note, Lewis Hamilton (who switched teams over the offseason from McLaren to Mercedes) temporarily forgot where he worked and accidentally stopped in McLaren’s pit spot. He quickly realized that he drove for Mercedes and sped away to the correct pit crew. His girlfriend laughed at him.
Shanghai Grand Prix in three weeks. It can’t get here any sooner.
Here’s the full race result via F1.com: