It is clear that the Malaysian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel’s 103rd F1 race, will prove a turning point in his career.
Vettel admitted on Sunday night in the post race press conference that he will be looked upon as the “black sheep” after he ignored team orders and passed Mark Webber in the closing stages of Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix, when the Australian thought the race had been called off by the Red Bull team.
Interestingly, had they finished with Webber ahead, they would now be level on 33 points in the drivers’ table. And the way Red Bull works, the driver with the highest championship position takes priority in certain situations. By virtue of having a win, Webber would be placed above Vettel in the table.
Also central to Vettel’s motive was the fact that the man he considers his main title rival, Fernando Alonso, did not score any points in Sepang and to leave the extra seven points on the table for finishing second rather than winning, was not something Vettel could contemplate, even if his team could.
Some have praised Vettel for being a “real racer” others have castigated him for violating sporting ethics. To be clear: He did not pass Webber in a racing situation, because Webber was acting on the belief that the racing was over. The situation was reversed in Silverstone two years ago when Webber was told not to pass Vettel in the closing stages, but had a go, eventually backing off. So he is not blameless in this story either.
Interestingly, yesterday the FOM TV director broadcast Mercedes’ team order instructions but not the Red Bull coded instructions. So it is not clear what was said to Vettel and when.
Normal practice in those situations is to inform the pursuing driver first, so that the situation is controlled immediately and then to inform the leading driver that he will not be attacked by his team mate.
What makes yesterday’s situation more intriguing is that Vettel was on a different tyre strategy from Webber; having made an error by pitting too early for slicks which cost him the lead to Webber, Vettel was attempting to get the win back by running a strategy which would see him on the faster (medium) tyre in the closing stages. Webber was on the hard compound which was around 0.6s per lap slower.
So Vettel was anticipating a late race challenge on Webber using faster tyres and DRS and clearly so was the Red Bull strategy team, because they oversee both cars.
But team boss Christian Horner has confirmed that once the final stops were completed, Vettel was told to follow Webber home and he disobeyed that instruction.
So will Red Bull do anything to redress the situation?
Webber will have every reason to feel that he cannot trust the team or his team-mate. There have been previous incidents which have gone against him and made him feel like Vettel is “protected” by the management, as Webber suggested on Sunday’s podium.
However, the fact that they were willing to let Webber win Sunday’s race is interesting, given the way Webber is consistently undermined by Red Bull adviser Helmut Marko.
Equally, Bernie Ecclestone’s comments yesterday that Webber himself is protected by the loyalty of Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, highlights the unique situation Webber finds himself in within the team.
If Red Bull does nothing, Webber’s trust will have been lost for good and that could prove toxic for this campaign, especially if this is to be his his last season in F1.
As for Vettel’s reputation among fans of the sport; this will be harder to repair. His apology after the race was the right thing to do, but still rang somewhat hollow as he already had the 25 points in the bag.
It is a watershed moment, a turning point in a career of glittering success and a crease in his public image. He has shown his colours, showed a ruthlessness and determination to win, which goes way beyond what most people imagined. On one level this makes him a more interesting character; as Ron Dennis observed admiringly of Alonso, ‘Competitive animals know no limits’.
But in calling for Webber to be moved aside midway through the race he also showed a sense of entitlement, which is not attractive.
In conclusion: we now know that Vettel has the ‘bit of the devil’, which several legendary champions have had in this sport; but he will regret the way he conducted himself in this race and it will, to some extent, taint his legacy.