Think before criticising Vettel: fallout from Malaysia 2013

Today’s Malaysian Grand Prix was won by Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull Racing RB9. He was followed home by team mate Mark Webber and by Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes. Such prosaic sentences belie a race full of drama and intrigue, which resulted in one of the most awkward podium presentation ceremonies ever seen in F1.

A good eight hours after the end of the race, a clear picture has emerged about what actually happened – although subject to the caveat that more information will surely come to light in the next few months. After the final pit stop Red Bull as a team had agreed to hold station; that is, not to race each other. A decision made in a board room, no doubt, or the motorhome equivalent, but full of common sense, as we’ll come to.

Mark Webber was the man in the lead at this point. You know, Mark Webber, the occasionally awkward spanner in Sebastian Vettel’s sweep-all-before-him works. The Australian who tends to speak his mind and minds no one knowing that he doesn’t like his boss because his boss prefers the German boy. The Mark Webber who might legitimately hope and expect, given the number of times he had held station behind Vettel, for a bit of reciprocity. Or just some gentlemanliness.

But Vettel had other ideas. Way before all this, he’d lamented on the radio that the team needed to ‘get Mark out of the way’ because he was ‘too slow’. Strong words, but not as strong as the physical act of challenging your team mate when your team has expressly requested you not to.

The drivers’ pre-podium room was taut with tension even before Webber walked in, to shake the hand of Hamilton but ignore that of Vettel. The younger man began, “Mark…”, but Webber interrupted him with “multi 21, Seb, multi 21” – the team’s jargon for holding station. The podium ceremony was icy. The climax came when a visibly angry and disappointed Webber told the world that despite what he had done today, Vettel would have the team’s protection. Ouch.

In an odd coincidence, Mercedes also had their own team-driver controversy today in Malaysia. After a close race for third, Hamilton and Rosberg were told to hold station themselves. Unlike Vettel, Rosberg obeyed, but not silently – he must have argued for a full ten minutes on the team radio with his boss about it. Hamilton, on the podium, looked positively lachrymose to be there – and said as much.

So what do we make of all this? Firstly, that team orders are very much alive and kicking and (theoretically) affecting race outcomes. Secondly, that although Vettel’s comportment may not be to the liking of all (and certainly not Australians), he didn’t actually do much wrong today – and here’s why.

F1 is a sport with a contradiction at its heart. It is a team sport in which teams race teams for glory. Teams provide a lot of the money, they provide the technology, they provide the cache that manufacturers and advertisers so adore. In the case of Ferrari, they also inspire great loyalty from the fans. But principally fans love the drivers and the competition between the drivers, regardless of the colours in which they race. But every team currently in F1 has two drivers. And if my maths isn’t wrong, only one of them can be in front.

Add to that the fact that if they can’t win the race, and only one out of the field actually can, the car they need to beat the most (for career reasons) is the driver in the other car in their team. So although the teams require drivers to obtain the maximum number of points, a line-astern finish is a monumentally unhappy event for 50% of the team.

From Red Bull and Mercedes’ points of view, today’s team orders were sound and unimpeachable. A no-brainer for RBR to win the race and take the maximum number of points than allow the drivers to race, ruin their tyres and possible crash into each other. Better by far for Mercedes to take a recently rare podium than to fall off the cliff of tyre performance, run out of fuel or collide.

But the drivers are not like that, and there lies the rub. Vettel raced Webber because he wanted to win himself, and the selfish and perhaps even ungentlemanly desire to do that is part of his DNA – part of what makes him such a successful young man. And if fans are honest with themselves, what they want to see is that skill, that talent, and that racing, like the wonderful rollicking duel the two RBR men had today.

In sum, criticism of Vettel should be tempered by awareness of the inherent contradictions of this sport – driver vs driver, team vs team and driver vs team, making legal team orders a necessary evil. But also, by acknowledgement that we cannot have our cake and eat it; that Vettel and Rosberg are racers, and we couldn’t have it any other way.