The dust from the wild last 15 laps of last Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix may take some time to settle, but while recriminations bounce off the walls of Red Bull’s Milton Keynes HQ, is there anyone to take the side of Sebastian Vettel?
The German has somewhat become the Jekyll-and-Hyde character of Formula One in recent seasons, his unfettered and natural off-track manner clashing sharply with his ruthlessness and arrogance on it. He has become the nadir of British Formula One fans, the focus of their frustration as Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton struggle to make headway against the seemingly unstoppable Red Bull steamroller. His clear influence and superiority within the Austrian team cast him in a role incredibly similar to that of Michael Schumacher; another German never exactly taken to heart by the British fanbase. Such perceived unfairness and un-sportsmanlike behaviour does not sit well with a nation that believes it’s ‘just not cricket’ to put the other chap at a disadvantage.
Hence the outpouring of rabid-like criticism when Vettel threw team orders back in Christian Horner’s face in Sepang. It looked like the ultimate betrayal; the boy racer, given his chance by the team that had nurtured him from adolescence, used their faith and machinery to mould himself into a three-time World Championship and with his vision so clouded by conceit he is unable to obey the one team order that does not rule in his favour.
At least, that’s what it looked like at first glance. In fact, Malaysia gave us something rather different to what we first thought. What we really saw in Kuala Lumpur was an echo of a certain Brazilian who found himself in similar circumstances some quarter of a century ago.
For those whose memories and recollections of Formula One don’t extend as far back as the 1989 season, allow me to set the scene; it’s round two of the season, Imola, the San Marino Grand Prix. Team-mates Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost start the race from the front row, already fierce rivals after a hotly-contested 1988 season. Once again, the two men are driving the fastest and consequently best car on the grid.
A ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that whoever reaches the first corner first shall stay there is seemingly snubbed by Senna as he retakes the top spot from the fast-starting Frenchman halfway round the opening lap. Cue a tirade of bitter words from Prost post-chequered flag, speaking of ‘orders that were not respected’ and how he would ‘have nothing to do with Senna’ in the future.
The parallels are significant; is there anyone out there willing to brand Senna with a mantle of shame for wanting to win the race? The Brazilian is commonly held up as the best of the best, the ultimate example for all wannabe-World Champions to look up to. So why, when Vettel behaves in a similar manner, is it worse? In many ways, Senna’s ‘transgression’ was abhorrent in that he actively reneged on a deal he himself had proposed and shaken on; Vettel was under no such personal duress, his position the result of orders imposed by a higher authority.
That he chose to rail against this authority and chose victory over 2nd place is perhaps to be admired. After all, how many times have we seen Vettel walk out of driver’s briefings, or accusing FIA officials of corruption? The legendary Brazilian behaved in such a manner and yet still enjoys a mythical status that Vettel now seems assured of unattaining.
Sebastian Vettel can hardly be blamed for his actions in Kuala Lumpur. His tenure at Red Bull that began in 2009 has been marked by incidents that gave fair warning of the direction his personality in the cockpit was taking; Turkey 2010 naturally springs instantly to mind. However, Red Bull and Helmut Marko’s unwillingness to criticise or rein him in has resulted in Vettel (perhaps subconsciously) believing himself and his talents to be infallible. He has never been ‘carpeted’ by his employers, nor rebuked by his mentor. Christian Horner has been spoken of by some as a modern day Frankenstein – unable to control the monster that he himself created. To me, this comment hits the nail on the head.
For too long Vettel has been pandered to, tip-toed around and lavished with praise by his management and team personnel. The attitude towards Red Bull’s ‘chosen one’ has bred in his mind the notion he is above everything; too many times his back has been covered by Horner and Marko in impossible situations. Thus his actions in Sepang were a product of the environment in which he has been racing these past four years.
Red Bull created this situation by choosing to leave Mark Webber on the harder, slower Pirelli tyre compounds. While there is an argument to be seen in that they split the strategy to cover any tricks Mercedes might have up their sleeve, would it not have made more sense to make Vettel the one who was on the slower tyre? The two cars were always going to be shuffled into one another with such a bizarre and incomprehensible strategy.
Vettel claimed afterwards it was ‘a mistake’, a remark jeered at by armchair enthusiasts and commentators the world over. As absurd as it may seem, the reigning World Champion was right; his mistake was to misjudge his position within the team. Not that it matters now – he is 7 points better off than he would have been finishing 2nd, a move that places him in the lead of the World Championship for the 4th year in a row.
Christian Horner banked on his authority going unchallenged. From what we witnessed in Sepang, he has misjudged just what Red Bull spawned when they took on Sebastian Vettel.