If ever you doubt that Formula 1 is a sport where egos rule just come back and refer to this race, the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix. It was won this evening by Red Bull ace Sebastian Vettel. On paper the results are nothing out of the ordinary but the three drivers on the podium may as well have been at a funeral such were the glum faces and all thanks to the dark shadows of team orders.
To tell the full story we need to go back to the start. Actually, make sure you’re sitting down for this next bit: Mark Webber (Red Bull) made a blinding start and from P5 was dicing with renowned fast starter Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) for P2 for most of the first lap.
Alonso’s part in this melodrama was short lived, he tapped Vettel on the entry to turn two and damaged his front wing. Sparks were flying from Alonso’s car and the wing gave up, falling off the car just as Webber overtook him on the main straight at the start of lap 2. With no front wing Alonso found himself in the kitty litter out the race and probably wondering why on earth he didn’t pit for a new wing at the end of the opening lap.
In the first stint Webber didn’t ever challenge Vettel for the lead but after the first round of pit stops, for a change, things went in Mark’s favour and he was leading the race.
It was a lead that Webber was able to maintain, as well. Although after exiting the pits following his final tyre change he had Vettel screaming behind his gearbox and had to fight hard to keep his teammate at bay. Yet, with 12 laps still to race history told us the outcome was inevitable, Vettel would pass, but when?
It didn’t take long and to be fair it was an epic fight between the two, with some spectacular wheel to wheel racing that would have kept the Red Bull management on the egdes of their seats. Finally, Vettel found extra grip and was able to get past Webber. Although, the noises from the team over the radio were less than encouraging for Vettel.
After the race the team added a caveat to its congratulations to Vettel, saying he would have some explaining to do. Webber was clearly unimpressed with Vettel and prior to emerging on the podium was heard asking Seb “Multi 21?” with a shrug of the shoulders. It’s now widely accepted that Multi 21 is Red Bull’s code for the drivers to conserve their cars and maintain position.
And so we come back to the dreaded team order debate in F1. It has since been revealed that after Mark emerged in the lead following the final pit stop that both Red Bull drivers, with a comfortable gap back to third place, were asked to turn down their engines, conserve their tyres and hold position. That is, all being equal Mark should have won the race.
On the one hand we applaud Vettel for being a racer to the end and taking the fight to Webber. But, really, for all Red Bull has done for Vettel, would it have killed him to follow the team’s wishes?
Speaking on the podium Mark made his feelings of displeasure known. “After the last stop the team told me the race was over and we turned the engine down to go to the end,” said Webber. “In the end Seb made his own decisions today and will have protection as usual, and that’s the way it goes.”
In post-race interviews Vettel has acknowledged his “mistake” and apologised to his teammate. “I took the lead from Mark, which I can see now he is upset about, but I want to be honest and stick to truth, and apologise,” said Vettel. “I took quite a lot of risk to pass him and I should have behaved better.”
Of course, this won’t be the last we hear of that little spat. In the interests of balance, we suggest those angry at Vettel’s decision to ignore his team’s wishes remind themselves of Mark’s drive in the 2011 British Grand Prix.
Which brings us to the other glum face on the podium, that of Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes AMG). Normally Lewis would be pretty happy with a podium finish, but in a second case of team orders for the race, he probably should have ended up fourth with teammate Nico Rosberg standing on the third step. Hamilton was ordered to conserve fuel which kept Rosberg behind him who asked the team if he could pass. Ross Brawn said no.
In the end Hamilton admitted he was a little embarrassed to be on the podium and that Rosberg should have been there. Although, perhaps Hamilton will be more red-faced about his first tyre stop when he drove into the McLaren pit before being waved away. He’s just lucky the Mercedes bay was not already behind him!
We’re not entirely sure what happened to Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso) but after qualifying ahead of teammate Jean-Eric Vergne and spending a fair part of the race ahead of him he ended up being the last of the classified finishers in P18 some five laps behind Vettel. Vergne finished tenth and claimed the first championship point of the year for Toro Rosso.