Team tactics cause consternation in Sepang

If you hadn’t watched the Malaysian grand prix and just taken a quick look at the results, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was probably a pretty dull race.  A win from pole from Sebastian Vettel with his team-mate Mark Webber following him home; what could be more straightforward?  In reality, though, things weren’t quite that simple, of course.  All the post race talk was about team orders between not just the two Red Bulls, but also the two Mercedes cars, with Lewis Hamilton taking the final step on the podium, ahead of his team-mate Nico Rosberg.

It was the contrast between the two teams that proved most interesting.  Both Red Bull and Mercedes had ordered their drivers to hold station after the final pit stops.  Had that happened, Webber would have won the race from Vettel.  As you all know, though, Vettel chose to ignore orders and go for the win, while Rosberg obeyed instructions from the pit wall not to attempt to pass Hamilton (after the two had swapped positions a few times in the back to back DRS zones).  It made for a slightly uncomfortable podium and it raised the ugly spectre of team orders in Formula 1 yet again.

In the past team orders have been outlawed, but that rule proved to be completely unworkable.  Team orders, team tactics, orders from the pit wall – call them what you like, but they’re now very much part of Formula 1 again.  They will always cause disagreements between fans, teams and drivers, depending on who benefits, but, in my view, they’re a necessary evil.  The real problem comes when drivers choose to ignore such orders.  It can lead to mistrust and can be corrosive to team cohesion, much more so than when one driver is left frustrated at not being allowed to race his team-mate.

Vettel passing team-mate Webber on lap 46

Vettel passing team-mate Webber on lap 46

Let’s start by looking at the Red Bull situation.  After the final pit stops Webber emerged just ahead of Vettel on lap 44 of the race.  The two drivers – rightly in my view – battled it out for a few corners during which Webber was able to maintain the upper hand over his team-mate.  That should have been the end of it.  Both drivers were ordered to turn down their engine settings and save tyres in the final part of the race, with no more racing between the team-mates.  Webber did as instructed, but Vettel decided to ignore his team and take advantage by squeezing past Webber on the start-finish straight on lap 46.

The German went on to win the race, with his clearly unhappy Australian team-mate being forced to settle for second place in a race that he will feel rightly aggrieved not to have won.  Vettel fans will be delighted that their driver won the race, of course, but they should bear in mind that their driver did so unfairly.  We’ll never really know whether Vettel was actually quicker than Webber on the day because the Australian had clearly obeyed the orders from the pit wall to take it easy in the final stint.  It was only when Webber eased back, as he expected his German team-mate to have done, that Vettel passed his team-mate.

Vettel acknowledged after the race that he’d made a “big mistake”, going on to say that “We should have stayed in the positions we were in…I messed up in that situation.  I took the lead from Mark, which I can see now he is upset about, but I want to be honest and stick to truth, and apologise.  I took quite a lot of risk to pass him and I should have behaved better.  It doesn’t help his feelings right now. Apologies to Mark…”.

We all know that the will to win is an essential component of a championship winning Formula 1 driver, and Vettel certainly showed that he has that in spades in Malaysia.  But he also showed a complete lack of respect for his team-mate.  Yes, Vettel apologised after the race and acknowledged that Webber should have won the race, but that will be scant consolation for the Australian.  A clearly aggrieved Webber said on the podium “After the last stop the team told me the race was over and we turned the engine down to go to the end…the team made a decision which we always say before the start of the race is how it’s probably going to be: we look after the tyres and get the cars to the end.  In the end Seb made his own decisions today and will have protection as usual, and that’s the way it goes”.

As disappointed, upset and annoyed Webber clearly was after the race, I suspect that he will become even more so when he watches the race back, while listening to his team-mate’s radio transmissions.  We heard Vettel say to his engineer on lap 27 of the race “Mark is too slow, get him out of the way”.  Vettel clearly doesn’t like following his team-mate and obviously felt he was the quicker driver, but the manner of his comment, even when reading it back on paper, without the benefit of hearing the German’s tone of voice, was quite dismissive of his team-mate.  It certainly showed a complete lack of respect, and I think that Webber will be quite hurt by it.  When you add this to Vettel’s decision to ignore team orders and his slightly hollow post-race apologies, I think that there is some quite considerable work for Red Bull team management – Christian Horner and Dr Helmut Marko – to do to ensure that this does not prove to be extremely corrosive to the team.

Hamilton leading Rosberg in Sepang

Hamilton leading Rosberg in Sepang

We saw the other side of the coin at Mercedes.  Hamilton was told to go into extreme fuel saving in the final stint of the race, which allowed Rosberg to close up behind him.  Rosberg was clearly the faster Mercedes at that stage of the race and pleaded with team principal Ross Brawn on the radio to be allowed to pass his new team-mate.  The decision from Brawn was, though, that the cars should hold station and that Rosberg should drop back.  This is clearly something that had been agreed, as it is in most teams, before the race – team-mates should not race each other after the final pit stop.

Rosberg was clearly unhappy with the situation and a lengthy debate ensued on team-radio, but in the end he obeyed orders and held position.  After the race Hamilton looked slightly embarrassed with his podium and acknowledged that his team-mate should have finished ahead of him, saying on the podium “If I’m honest I feel Nico should be standing here”.  In turn, Rosberg commented after the race “It’s a team effort and I respected the team’s opinion”.  Commenting further, the German said “For the team to want us to bring it home third and fourth is fully understandable and I know if it had been the other way around they would’ve done the same thing.  There will be times to fight between team-mates in the future”.

There is clearly respect between the two Mercedes drivers, and while both aren’t entirely happy with the situation they understand it and accept it.  They each know that the team will treat them fairly and equally in the future.  The same clearly cannot be said of the Red Bull drivers.

Amid all the post-race debates, it’s easy to forget that Fernando Alonso crashed out of the race on only the second lap, after losing his front wing following a brush with Vettel on the first lap.  That DNF may well prove costly at the end of the season.  Disappointed also will be Kimi Raikkonen, who could only finish in seventh for Lotus – one place behind his team-mate, Romain Grosjean – after his win in Australia.

It’s looking like consistency will be a key factor in this year’s championship, as it was last year, as unpredictable tyres and changing conditions make for exciting racing.  At least we’ve got time to pause for breath now – there’s a three-week break before we see the cars return to the track in China.  It’ll certainly be interesting to observe the body language at Red Bull…

Midfield McLaren toil in Melbourne as Kimi charges to victory

With testing done and dusted, it was time to find out what the real pecking order was at the first race of the season in Melbourne.  The Australian weather made us wait, though, as the nitty-gritty elements of qualifying were postponed until Sunday.  When the second and third parts of qualifying were eventually run it was Red Bull Racing that came out on top with a front row lock out.  Their speed looked ominous for the other teams, but as it turned out the Milton Keynes based team could not reproduce it in the race as Lotus and Ferrari proved to have the strongest race pace.

Mercedes also showed that they have taken some huge steps forward with this year’s car, particularly in qualifying in the hands of Lewis Hamilton, and in wet conditions in the hands of his team-mate Nico Rosberg.  Things appear to have gone disastrously wrong for McLaren, though, who find themselves far from where they had hoped to be; solidly in the midfield rather than challenging at the sharp end of the field.  It certainly looks like the testing indications proved to be accurate for these five teams.

Kimi Raikkonen on his way to victory down under

Kimi Raikkonen on his way to victory down under

It was Lotus, at least in the hands of 2007 world drivers’ champion Kimi Raikkonen, who came out on top, though.  It was perhaps surprising that the Finn cruised to what was, in the end, a comfortable victory, given that he had only managed to qualify his Lotus in seventh place, behind the Red Bulls, Ferraris and Mercedes cars.  Raikkonen, though, drove faultlessly in the race.  He made ground early on and by lap two he had moved into fourth place after passing Hamilton’s Mercedes, which struggled early on.

Raikkonen’s speed early in the race put him in a great position, behind the leading trio of Red Bull’s triple world driver’s champion Sebastian Vettel and the Ferrari’s of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.  However, Raikkonen’s speed alone wasn’t enough to win him the race.  When that speed is combined with a car that’s easy on tyres, and some clever strategy, you have a winning formula.

That’s exactly the formula that Lotus seemed to have developed.  The team got their strategy absolutely right, making a two stop strategy work where their immediate competitors stopped three times.  The key factor that allowed the Enstone based team to succeed with a two stop strategy where others, notably Mercedes, failed, was tyre wear.  The Lotus E21 seems to have inherited its predecessor’s trait of not being too tough on its tyres.  While that’s an advantage in itself, it might be especially important in 2013 as this year’s Pirelli tyres deliberately degrade more quickly than their 2012 equivalents.  We’ll have to see if this is something that Lotus are able to repeat as the season progresses.

Lewis Hamilton declared himself "really happy" with his fifth pace in Australia

Lewis Hamilton declared himself “really happy”
with his fifth pace in Australia

As for the other teams, I think that Ferrari will be the most satisfied.  They managed to get both cars into the top four, with second place for Alonso and fourth for Massa.  They had qualified well, too, and while they’re certainly not the quickest car they have a much stronger base to build on than they had in 2012.  Red Bull Racing will be disappointed that they could not convert what appeared to be a significant qualifying advantage into similar dominance in the race.  Vettel streaked away from pole and quickly established a gap to the cars behind, but this was not something that he was able to maintain.  Mark Webber’s started contrasted with that of his team-mate as he fell back alarmingly and never properly recovered, eventually finishing sixth compared to the bottom step of the podium for Vettel.  As I mentioned, Mercedes looked strong in qualifying, but they weren’t able to replicate their speed in race conditions.  Hamilton can be fairly satisfied with fifth place on his debut for the Brackley based team, who would have been disappointed to see Rosberg retire with mechanical trouble on lap 27.

Aside from Sauber, who suffered a fuel system problem on Nico Hulkenberg’s car, meaning that the German couldn’t even start the race, the team that must be the most disappointed is McLaren.  The Woking based team had the fastest car at the end of last season, having won the last two races of 2012.  They looked like they would be well set to challenge at the front of the field in 2013 as we headed into the winter break.  However, things appear to have gone very wrong for the British team.  They found themselves struggling during testing, but put a brave face on things leading up to the Australian grand prix.  Sadly for them, though, they have found that testing has proved to be an accurate indicator of their place in the formula 1 pecking order.  So what exactly has gone wrong?

Button and Perez will be disappointed with the car the launched at the end of January

Button and Perez will be disappointed with the car
they launched at the end of January

All of the other teams have produced evolutionary 2013 cars; choosing to build on the base of their cars from last season.  McLaren have, though, rolled the dice and gone in another direction.  While their 2013 car, the MP4-28, looks physically quite similar to its forerunner the MP4-27, under the skin the cars are very different.  McLaren have gone for revolution rather than evolution on the basis that a new design concept would leave them more room for development throughout the season.  At least at this stage, that looks to be a very costly mistake.

There is certainly plenty of room for development of the MP4-28, but that’s because it is a slow car.  Team principal Martin Whitmarsh told Sky Sports on Friday that the car is “lacking grip” and has a “poor ride”, going on to say that “There’s a lot of head scratching at the moment”.  Jenson Button agreed, saying “We have quite a few weaknesses with the car. Ride is a lot worse than what we expected and Martin’s already pointed that out. We’ve been working with that today to try and improve the car around the ride, but we haven’t really found a direction yet. That’s something we’ll be working on and hopefully we can find a good direction because the ride is so important with a Formula One car. If the car’s moving around a lot then the downforce isn’t necessarily working in the correct manner, so we’ve got to get the ride sorted”.

In my view, McLaren’s decision to opt for a completely new car design concept is an illogical one.  Let’s not forget that 2014 will see new technical regulations which will mean complete car redesigns for all of the teams.  Why then would McLaren gamble with a new design concept that will only be of use to them for one year, especially given that their 2012 car was so strong?  Indeed, the new car is so poor, that there is already talk of the team reverting to the MP4-27.  That’s still premature, but it is worrying to see that the British team have got things so wrong at this stage.

Jenson Button on his way to a disappointing ninth place in Melbourne

Jenson Button on his way to a disappointing
ninth place at Albert Park

It also appears that they are still afflicted by the operational errors that blighted the team for so long in 2012.  This time mistakes in qualifying meant that Sergio Perez didn’t even get a chance to have a real go at making Q3, while the team’s decision to run three timed laps on the super soft tyres for Jenson Button meant that the Englishman’s tyres were already heavily grained before he even started the race.  He was forced to pit on lap four of the race, the earliest stop for any of the teams.

While there is ample cause for concern at McLaren, Lotus will be delighted with their start to the season.  Raikkonen was hugely consistent on his way to third place in the 2012 world driver’s championship, but he didn’t win a race until the 18th round of the season in Abu Dhabi.  He has hit his stride far earlier this term and that certainly bodes well for his chances of a championship challenge in 2013.  I suspect that the Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes drivers will all consider themselves in with a good chance, too, though.  It should be another exciting season.  Roll on Malaysia.