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.
RED BULL RACING
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]