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.
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.
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…