Le Grand Retour
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The human dynamics at work behind Malaysian Grand Prix dramas
Posted By: James Allen  |  29 Mar 2013   |  9:31 am GMT  |  507 comments

At the distance of a week and with plenty of reaction from the key players to sift through, it is a good moment now to consider what human motives lay behind the two dramas we saw at the end of the Malaysian Grand Prix, involving the observation and non-observation of team orders within the Mercedes and Red Bull teams.

There have been all sorts of speculative stories about what happens next and the long term consequences, especially with regards to the Webber/Vettel relationship; the German paper Bild ran a story saying that Webber would leave the team at the end of 2013, but there is nothing concrete there yet.

So let’s examine the motives and reasons behind the actions of the key players last Sunday.

Christian Horner
Horner as team principal is in charge of the team and his authority has been undermined by Vettel ignoring team orders on Sunday. The tone of his pally radio message to Vettel, “This is silly, Seb” contrasts with the calm, patrician authority of Ross Brawn, “Negative, Nico,” and makes it look as though he is too close to his star, unwilling to upset him.

Driver power is a dangerous thing; McLaren’s Ron Dennis often says that he lost control of Prost and Senna because he was close to them in age, as Horner is to his drivers. A team has to be led from the top and Horner has had to stamp his authority on this embarrassing situation.

Vettel is now a three times world champion, not simply a naughty boy, who carries his own significant authority in the car and within the team.

Aware that his authority had been called into question and that Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz had been displeased by the incident, Horner reasserted himself this week by dragging Vettel in to apologise to the Red Bull staff in Milton Keynes and then overtly portrayed this to the media as an act of contrition by his star driver, who recognised that “What he did was wrong,” This is an almost parental act of seeing through a punishment, rubbing Vettel’s nose in it, putting him back in his place, as a driver and an employee.

Horner also has to deal with the loose cannon which is Helmut Marko, who has a licence to interfere and to comment, which is frequently unhelpful to team harmony (as in the pre-season lambasting of Webber). Horner has to be careful not to give Marko any ammunition.

We do not know yet what further consequences there will be for Vettel, in terms of putting right the wrong with Webber, but Horner needs Vettel and Webber to work together and rack up the points if they are to resist Ferrari and others in the constructors’ championship this year. That is where the real money is in F1, not the driver’s standings, which are a ‘nice to have’.

Sebastian Vettel
For all the apologies made, Vettel has received quite a bit of sympathy for his actions this week; F1 is a brutal world of dog eat dog and he has revealed his killer instinct. Many argue that he has nothing to apologise for.

As a three times world champion, Vettel has earned the right to command authority and in a team like Ferrari there would be no question of him having to pander to the number two driver. Ferrari has a leader, like a Tour de France cycle team has a leader and everyone works for him.

Red Bull are different; they not in the sport to be a mere sponsor, they are here to participate, to be part of the story, the human drama. And that has always meant letting the drivers race.

However, since Turkey 2010, where they hit each other, that has been seen internally as a risk. The start in Brazil last year saw Webber challenge Vettel in a way that other teams found unnecessary and may have contributed to the spin he suffered in the opening lap.

Where possible they have given Vettel the rub of the green because he looked the stronger prospect for the championship and he has delivered.

This has contributed to the impression – which is how F1 history will remember this period – that Webber is “not bad for a number two driver” and Vettel clearly sees him that way. He spoke in the Malaysia press conference of his respect for Mark, but he would not have attacked him for the win if he respected him.

Handled badly, this episode has the power to drive Vettel into the arms of Ferrari sooner than anticipated. Like Hamilton, he will come to a point where he realises that he will never grow as a man inside the team that raised him from a child. Ferrari will give him the status he wants, where he doesn’t have to apologise to anyone.

Mark Webber
Clearly had the moral high ground on Sunday and played it well by speaking with dignity about what he had suffered and then skilfully deflecting the story onto the high degradation tyres to aid the current Red Bull political lobbying game.

But Webber knows that this was the defining moment in his Red Bull F1 career: close, but no cigar.

He is also aware that he is not without sin as he broke team orders to attack Vettel at Silverstone in 2011 and has played his part in making life difficult for his team mate, such as the start in Brazil last year.

Stories leaked to Bild this week suggest that the only outcome is Webber leaving the team and it’s not hard to guess where they came from.

What has he lost and gained from this? Webber has the sympathy vote and will carry that for the foreseeable future. However what he wants and what gets him out of bed in the morning, is a fair chance to challenge for the championship. The signs are there that once Red Bull gets on top of understanding the tyres, they will have a performance advantage. Webber wants it to be his turn this year. This is what he will have been lobbying Mateschitz to back him on this week.

Ross Brawn
Undermined by a loose cannon within his own organisation in the form of Niki Lauda, Brawn gratefully took the opportunity on Sunday to demonstrate his January statement, “I’m team principal and I’m in charge,”

Inevitably, Lauda criticised the decision publicly. Brawn stuck to his guns. For the moment he has to live with the situation in which he finds himself at Mercedes. One of his closest allies, Nick Fry, was dispensed with this week, he is on his own with the Austrians in a circle around him.

His word, his authority carried the day on Sunday. Rosberg was closing up on Hamilton, but at no stage had he led his team mate from qualifying to race, so why should be be allowed to overtake, when the points outcome for the team would be the same anyway?

Mercedes is competitive again and it would be a very ill informed Daimler board member who thought the turnaround was down to Lauda and Toto Wolff. It’s a result of the planning put in place by Brawn, Aldo Costa and the army of technical chiefs at Brackley. Lauda has won nothing as a team manager, Brawn has won 16 world championships.

Mercedes has a quick car this year and they will win races with it. But the political situation may swallow Brawn up. On Sunday he put a marker in the sand; how long before it’s washed away will be very interesting to see.

Lewis Hamilton
Took his first podium on his second outing for Mercedes and is in the championship hunt. It’s a positive start for Hamilton, but he decided to go for the sympathy vote on Sunday, saying that Rosberg should have been on the podium, not him. This wasn’t necessary and showed Hamilton’s desire to be liked, as does his highly personal BBC Online column this year.

Most highly successful people don’t care what people think of them, but Hamilton is aware he and his team are building a brand and he has an image to improve. As a racer he also doesn’t want presents and the podium ahead of Rosberg could be construed that way. He was annoyed with himself for missing the opportunity to challenge for the win. He lost time going into the wrong pit box at the first stop and it cost him a chance to split the Bulls. An overly aggressive use of the throttle also burned up valuable fuel.

He’s aware that Rosberg is arguably better equipped to deal with the driving discipline necessary to do well on high degradation Pirellis and this is likely to arise again.

Nico Rosberg
Keen to cast himself as the ‘wronged man’, like Webber, but the situations are different.

However Sunday was a big win for Rosberg. “Remember this,” he said as he switched the engine off after the race. Those are the words of a confident man; Rosberg came of age on Sunday and he showed that he has what it takes to do well in Pirelli era F1. He needs to get on top of Hamilton in qualifying, but he made his point on Sunday and can go forward this season with renewed confidence.

Many thought he would be blown away by Hamilton and, although he cannot compete for pure talent, he will get to the chequered flag just as quickly and probably more efficiently than his rock star team mate.

[* Top image – A mash up of Vettel image with Tiger Woods Nike advert, by Luca Menato]

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Sorry that something went wrong, repeat again!

I hope this gives Webber a kick in the pants, he’s very fast when he drives angry, enough talking, it’s hunting season.


Dear Niki,

Please shut up. Ross has forgotten more about managing an F1 team than you will ever know.. nuff said

I wondered before the season if Rosberg would be the guy I thought he was and give Lewis a lot more than he bargained for. In MOTOGP parlance, I think Rosberg is an alien too. Time will tell, but the early signs look good


“Many thought he would be blown away by Hamilton and, although he cannot compete for pure talent, he will get to the chequered flag just as quickly and probably more efficiently than his rock star team mate.”

That is the most cop-out sentence ever. Basically, “he’s good, but not popular”


Terrific summary

Key thing for Red Bull to avoid is a 2007 McLaren like situation.

The real winner out of all this drama is Alonso who will enjoy the destabilisation in the other teams


I remember a McLaren rep musing that they would have kept their dream team together longer had Prost won the 1988 championship instead of Senna.

I think of the Red Bull situation in a similar way: if Mark had won in 2010, he may have been far more receptive to playing the team game – if in fact he would still be with the team: he might have chosen to go out with a championship-winning high. Vettel may have had some more respect for his team-mate, and perhaps learned more about being more tactful in defeat.

What we have instead is a triple world champ that defies even the people that provide him with his mount to win races, and a guy that is far too good to be labelled a ‘Number Two’ that seems to be given the short end of the stick with car development and feels aggrieved when opportunities are taken from him.

Red Bull’s management problems stem back to 2010 as the final stages of their campaign are still on the nose – there would be no conspiracy theories if things played out in a more transparent fashion. As it has happened, these issues have been festering and have been bought to a point in the last race. There is even a chance that we have not seen these problems reach a team-shattering crescendo.


Not sure if anybody’s said this, but I don’t understand the notion of Brawn(or JA) claiming “the points outcome for the team would be the same anyway”

I think HAM and ROS were about 8 seconds behind WEB at one point. If WEB were to make a mistake or use up his tires and fall back a few seconds, and if ROS clearly had better pace than HAM, shouldn’t it be better for the team to have ROS close the gap as much as possible, in case anything happened. I understand its not a likely scenario, and the need for teams to conserve their engines etc, but as a fan you definitely want to see teams/drivers giving it their best till the fat lady sings


Good point, but at this point in the season – and especially given Mercedes (lack of) performance in previous seasons – I think they just wanted to have the points in the bag and maybe let them fight another day.


It’s patently obvious to anyone outside of F1 that the RedBull team has fallen into the clutches of Dark Emperor Marko. Vettel had been lured to the Dark side by his father ‘Adrian Newey Vader’.

Webber must convince Vettel to join the Rebellion with the help of Ewok’s like Horner and use the force of the Redbull to defeat the evil empire and defy team orders once and for all.


Sorry to interrupt you Steve, but I have a Mr. Lucas on the phone? He was banging on something about astrology and conflicts and lawyers or something, but to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention…

Anyway, all of this sounds like a good idea for a movie 🙂


Hi GUys,

Those comparing Silverstone 2011 need to get real, it was Seb who was calling the shots that day, Webber was told to maintain the gap twice and the said” maintain the gap ok righto”, don’t see how this was breaking a team order, youtube link below




Ta for the link.

Watching it again it did seem like he was backing off though the corners.


should be” and then said.”..


Horner is the problem in this situation and there’s an easy solution. If he were a stronger leader, he would simply say VET was in the wrong and this will be dealt with internally.

The solution:

At the next available pitstop where Horner can pay back WEB, he needs to instruct his pit team to hold VET up on the jacks and NOT let him down until the advantage is clear and insurmountable. He should be seen on camera holding his hand out to the crew with a “keep him there until I say so” gesture. Soon followed by a radio transmission stating “my team orders are not optional, Seb.”

Anything less is just political BS in my opinion.


Great idea!! I’d love to see that happen.



You mention the lure of Ferrari for Vettel again but isnt it true that Alonso has lately blocked that off?


The aftermath for redbull was a statement regarding tires, tires have problems, translated – if tires were better we wouldn’t have to go into safety mode orders. Our team promotes racing between drivers! As such we wouldnt be into this situation. The one two team blames tires, god!


Honour is like a Ming Vase.

If you drop it, then the pieces are not simply ‘put back together’. It takes a long time to glue the shards back into form, and it never holds the same appearance or value as it did prior.


Very true…and exceptionally profound for 2.44 in the morning. Kudos 🙂



This is the best article you ever wrote. You summed everything perfectly.


“as does his highly personal BBC Online column this year”

Spot on! Webber’s column, in spite of having some personal aspects, was fantastic. Lewis’ one screams “please, know more of me” from the roof top!


I don’t condone what Sebastian did and t’s tempting to have a go at him for putting his interests above the team’s, but if you think about it he simply did all racers in F1 are supposed to do – win! We can’t take it against him for being a racer, so we can just hope for bad karma to bite him back (hard) later on in the season. Since, I for one am rooting for Fernando Alonso to win this year’s WDC.

As for Mark, as much as I admire all his grit and determination, how many times has he fallen for the team’s (trick) “turn down your engines”/”back off” messages only to be “victimised” by Seb? David Coulthard once said on being told to move over in Jerez ’97 and then again in Oz ’98, “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” On the lessons of 2010 alone, Mark should have already learned how things can turn out for him when both cars are told to back off and on how the team will easily align their interests with Vettel’s. Plus he (Mark) should have also been more critical and suspicious of the team for the no. of times his clutch “failed” whenever he started alongside Seb. The fact that he continues to be (somewhat) so trusting of Red Bull given all those unfortunate incidences, allied with the fact that he has nothing to show vs. his team-mate’s driver’s titles only confirms Mark’s status as a no. 2 driver. And as harsh as this may sound, he’s just probably in denial.

As for the Austrians, Dr. Helmut Marko and Niki Lauda: (1) Christian Horner needs to grow a pair and, just like Ross Brawn, remind Dr. Marko of who is assigned to run RBR. Plus, Mateschitz should also (probably) remind the good doctor that his primary role is to usher in and monitor the progress of drivers from Red Bull’s academy. (2) With regards to Niki, does he even know how much of a fool he made Mercedes, and himself, appear by criticising what was arguably a job well done by the team and its team principal? If the board of Mercedes have any sense in them, then they would have realised by now how redundant and ridiculous Niki’s (throw an occasional hand grenade tongue lashing) role is.


At Silverstone 2011 Webber had no intention of breaking team orders. He put on a show of a fight, to save face. On one lap coming out of woodcote he could’ve easily stuck it outside of Vettel,but watch the onboard, he lifted and gave Vettel the racing line.It was all bark and no bite.


No way he could have get passed there. Stop making excuses for Webber, he ignored teamorders at least 5 times we know now and he was always defended by the media and Vettel haters.

Now Vettel does it and he is the anti-christ.

Such hypocrisy.


Watch my link below on youtube, i think it will refresh your memory of Silverstone 2011.


Can you list 5 times?


1. Turkey 2010, Webber was told to save fuel and not fight Vettel. He fought.

2. Silverstone 2011, told to maintain the gap while Vettel had KERS issues and had to save fuel. Ignored it.

3. Abu Dhabi 2012, told not to fight Vettel and let him through. Ignored it for a few laps which mad Vettel lose 2nd place in the end.

4. Brazil 2012, told to not fight Vettel at the start. He ignored it.

5. Brazil 2012, told to let Vettel past later in the race. Ignored it for a few laps.

And these are only the public ones.


Where does Dougel disparage Vettel in any way? You are way off the mark.


Bit of topic this, but it’s starting to look like Schumacher had plenty of fight left in him after all. Rosberg’s performances against Hamilton,admittedly after only 2 races, indicate scumacher, even in his mid forties, had the legs of one of best of the current generation of drivers. Impressive.


Just a wild thought. In tennis, there are senior competitions which is there ‘for the fans’.

I think the likes of Schumacher, Hakkinen, Prost, Mansell, Barachello and all other retired F1 drivers should have a regular gather and compete in the same car at least once a year.

It will be like the Olympics, where each city gets chosen and other cities wait in line to have the privilege to hold the legends race.

Such attractions would be enough to generate lots of TV audience which should be enough to pay these heroes and the gear required to set them up for the race.

Young guns can challenge them but there is no prize won at the end. Just a bravo.


They have a similar thing in the AFL in Aus; they call it a Slowdown 😉

Good idea, but isn’t this kind of what the Race Of Champions is about?


Yes, ROC (race of champions) has the right idea. But the showdown format is too brief and kinda boring.

They bring the same track to different cities and drivers of different discipline have a few laps to win/loose the round.

I’m thinking of a showdown with similar discipline on different tracks and they have a proper 30min race. Same thing can be done to other types of motorsports.


There is an easy solution.

Red Bull should do it like Ferrari (Mercedes and Lotus).

They should tell us, that Vettel is the clear no.1 in the team and Webber isn’t allowed to win anymore and to take points away from Vettel.

There will be only “no.1 is comming, go out of the way, Mark, don’t hold him up, save fuel, he is faster than you” and nothing else.

It would be much easier for Vettel. Easier than Alonso at Ferrari. F1 would be very, very boring and Vettel wins everything.

Of course, there would be less clicks on the “3424234234” article about a controversy, but at least Red Bull would be honest.


There is a fact being missed in all this in the case of Mercedes which I think is significant. Mercedes actually allowed their drivers to race to a certain extent. Nico overtook Lewis twice and twice Lewis retook the position that was apart from the fact that Lewis out qualified Nico and being in front of him and doing all the chasing of the Red Bulls throughout the race. So in real sense it was Nico that was requesting team orders knowing fully well he cant overtake Lewis and get away. On the defence of Brawn. How many times do you want to see your drivers dice with each other in the same race and risk a no finish for either a few laps to the end of a race? So great call from Brawn i’d say.


Mercedes did not allow that, Rosberg was doing that on his own and after the 10th radio message he listened.

Hamilton has a vcery nice contract with Mercedes it seems. Alonso style.


As we say down under you can argue the point until the cows come home, or perhaps the bulls in this case! Ultimately people make judgements about elite sports people about both their results and how they go about achieving them. While backing MW to the hilt, I have the grown to admire the great talent of SV, and MW did this on the podium with his ‘fast peddler’ comment even after his win was stolen from him. Does SV need an unfair advantage to win, clearly not. Does he need to think about how he goes his business to be recognised as true champion world wide and eclipse his idle MS? While MW has yet to win a WDC we love the way he goes about his business and with an even play field will have huge chance this year. He’ll be back!


James why all of a sudden you´re blaming Webber for the problems Vettel had in Brazil last year? We all know that Vettel strugles when he can´t win the pole, in Brazil or elsewhere. Neither you nor anyone in the media blame Webber back then.During and after the race in Brazil all the debate was about a possible yellow flag.

I don´t know if Vettel is going to end up in Ferrari. But I do know that Vettel doesn´t look like someone who will have the patience to be without a champioship for 5 years or more.


Had Vettel lost the title Webber would have taken the blame for it.

It got to a point Pilbeam Webbers engine came on the radio to say thank you Mark for letting Vettel through and this same man is looked at as a team player am sorry i beg to differ that move had he been a Ferrari driver he would be out of the door before the race was over.


That´s speculation from your part. Coulda, woulda, shoulda… The fact remains that Webber was never accussed of wrong doing neither during nor after the race.


What an interesting and superbly written article.


You forgot to mention the Bulgarian weightlifting team, who actually beat Ben Johnson’s 100m time when they heard the drug testers coming 😉

Honour and integrity don’t come into the equation at this level…but they’re still nice to have every now and again. Still, it’s a bit harsh to compare what Vettel did with what these other ‘athletes’ did. So far as I know, he doesn’t do drugs and he seems to have a fairly sane personal life.

As for the bank robber…yeah, that’s one way of looking at it (and more than a few have).

The other way is that he is a top level race car driver going for wins – and he raced and got a win, which is okay in isolation.

It’s just the way he did it and the circumstances around it that have caused so much contention.


That was meant as a reply to Luke Clements, comment 109.


hey james,do you have some info on when vettel’s contract with red bull will end? and fernando’s at ferrari’s as well? cause i dont think those 2 will be there together. lol

Christer Hammarström

Contracts can, have and will be broken.If Fernando don´t get the titel this year i wounder who long Ferraris patience will last.He maybe have to deal wiht Sebastian or leave. Ferraris last WCD Kimi Räikkönen 2007 got fired 2009.Don´t be surprised if that can happen even to Alonso.


Agreed. And a similar thing happend to Schumacher.

So Ferrari would only do what they have done twice before! (Only difference would be that Schumacher and Raikkonen managed to be WDC with Ferrari before being let go.)


As Bernie Ecclestone said regarding this incident: “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser”.

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