Probably the biggest talking point from the recent Malaysian Grand Prix was the coming together between Narain Karthikeyan and Sebastian Vettel. The contact, which occurred as the Red Bull attempted to lap the HRT, resulted in front wing damage for the Indian and a left rear puncture for the German, with the resulting pit stop for fresh rubber dropping Vettel from 4th to 11th position; out of the points.
After the race Vettel called the HRT driver a “gherkin” and an “idiot”, placing the blame for the coming together squarely at the Indian’s door. The stewards agreed that Karthikeyan was at fault and handed him a post race 20 second penalty. Some disagreed with this verdict and judged that the contact was a “racing incident”, while others thought that the clash was actually Vettel’s fault. I’m of the view that the incident itself was Vettel’s fault. The Red Bull appeared to clip the HRT rather than the other way around. Yes, as the driver being lapped Karthikeyan is responsible for moving out of the way to let the faster cars through, but in this case I don’t think that he was given anywhere to go by Vettel.
However, given that the penalty for Karthikeyan had no impact on the race result – and, should the stewards have decided the opposite way, a similar penalty for Vettel would have been just as meaningless given his finishing position – the controversy has centred on Vettel’s post race comments rather than the incident itself. A case can clearly be made that the double World Champion’s comments were harsh and, some would say, ungentlemanly. Certainly Karthikeyan would agree with this assessment calling Vettel a “cry baby” and labelling the German’s comments “shameful”. So were Vettel’s post race comments fair or justifiable? Putting aside the fact that Vettel clearly felt that he was the aggrieved party, the short answer to this question is no. Remember, despite Vettel’s own views, and indeed those of the race stewards, fault for the clash was far from clear. In his heart of hearts, Vettel must have realised this.
So, then, why was Vettel so vocal in his criticism of Karthikeyan? My answer to this question can be summarised in one word: frustration. Looking at the situation from the outside, it certainly looks like Vettel is far from happy that the Red Bull RB8 is not, at least at this stage of the season, the fastest car on the grid. It’s possible that, after dominating in 2011 in a car that was the class of the field, Vettel is finding it hard to adapt to a situation where he needs to fight and scrap for race wins and podiums. Throwing away what would have been a valuable 12 points for 4th place, through what I believe was his own carelessness, must have been particularly galling given the current situation. I think that this could be a real test for Vettel, who needs to focus on helping his team out develop McLaren, rather than wasting his time and energy on a spat with a backmarker.
Although he’s a double World Champion, it’s easy to forget that at 24 years of age Vettel is still a very young driver, with a degree of maturing still to do. You could argue that this lack of maturity can be further evidenced by the fact that he didn’t retire the car in Malaysia, seemingly ignoring his team’s orders – through the “emergency” message from his race engineer, Guillaume “Rocky” Rocquelin – to do so. Red Bull have since claimed that Vettel didn’t hear this, or other similar messages, due to an issue with his radio, but as an outsider, with no inside information, it’s hard to know whether this is true or not.
Don’t count Vettel out yet, though. A fighting win from behind in 2010, where he won the championship despite having never lead the standings until he crossed the line in the final race in Abu Dhabi, should serve as sufficient warning to his competitors that he remains a threat. He’s currently 6th in the championship, 17 points behind the current leader, Spain’s Fernando Alonso, but only 7 points behind the winner in Australia, Jenson Button, who is 3rd in the championship. A race win for Vettel in China, would see him, at worst, draw level on points with the Englishman. If results go his way Vettel could even be leading the championship after China. It’s going to be a great season; there are still 18 races left to run…