There was a moment in Sepang this morning when the first four drivers were all told, we’re good, maintain your position, bring it home.
Let’s suppose they had.
What would we be saying right now? There’d’ve been a bit of “Tell us Damon, are team orders killing F1?” and a bit of Martin Brundle humming and haahing about it, and some reasonable opinions weighed, a few people saying it isn’t what it was, a few more people saying that’s exactly what it was and everyone’s rose-tinted, and nothing gets done and we all go away and find ourselves in China in a couple of weeks as excited as ever thinking little of it.
Instead, Vettel took it upon himself to give us something to talk about, figuring that settling for second didn’t cut it, and shoving himself firmly into first place. Webber had a think about fighting it, realised it wouldn’t end well, and gritted himself into second.
Meanwhile, Rosberg nagged and nagged to be allowed to overtake, but, on being told that Lewis, too, was being told to hold position, took one for the team and finished an obedient fourth.
The podium was quite something this week: Vettel apparently combining pride and dawning foolishness into a gurning mess of neatly meaningless quotes, Webber seething and, as time passed, appearing genuinely sad about the situation, and Hamilton being quite delightfully embarrassed by the entire affair, and very gracious to the team and his teammate.
Let’s start with Mercedes, who come out of this looking, I think, very good indeed.
The problem here – in a sense, also the case with Red Bull, but we’ll get to that – is that the cars couldn’t race to capacity for a full race. Mercedes’ fuel strategy didn’t give them the space to allow their drivers to race, and, at this stage in the season, they didn’t want to let Nico and Lewis have the evenly-matched battle a lot of us would love to see, because of the obvious risks. I’d like to know if there was a fuel issue for both cars, though, or if it was just Lewis’ – they only mentioned fuel to Lewis, and seemed concerned even at the last lap that the car might come up short. Is it fair to call team order when one half of the team’s been caught short? Just because Lewis could finish third, did it mean that he should? I think that’s the only part of the debate that involves wondering what kind of clauses Lewis might or might not have in his contract about team orders.
However, to continue the point, let’s presume that both cars needed to be preserved, and that the order was given in good faith. As far as Nico’s concerned, never mind the fuel/tyres, he and Lewis have got into third and fourth and that’s the best that Mercedes can hope for today, so they’ve both been asked to sit tight and get their points. Rosberg might not like it, and he might double check (“I can go faster!”) but when Ross Brawn explains “Lewis has been asked to slow it down too”, Nico settles for fourth and does as he’s told.
As Red Bull played out their “Multi 21” and apologies and super-hyper-awkward team dynamics post-race, I swear Rosberg looked just a bit smug, even if inside he was experiencing a level of gutted at having been denied a podium opportunity. He and Lewis have, as it’s often said, known each other for an age, and with that level of friendship, and their comparative (compared, at least, with Webber) youth in the sport and security at Mercedes, Nico can afford to let this one go, trust that Mercedes will even it out, or at least give him the chance to settle the score himself. He gets to say all the right things, feel confident that he put the team first, and look mature and gracious on camera. That’s how to win from below the podium.
On the podium, Lewis was quote-perfect, and immediately well-commended by many on Twitter for understanding, and acknowledging that his position was not a ‘complete’ accomplishment, that it was called, rather than achieved. You could see he didn’t feel it was his to celebrate as he might usually have – okay, the company he had up there didn’t exactly bring the champagne joy – but you also can’t tell me that it’s the way any driver wants to feel at the end of a race.
That’s important too (so many points here!) but back to Rosberg for a bit. Let’s say he hadn’t settled for it. What if we’d had two drivers ignore team orders, and try to race or plain overtake their teammates? Lewis couldn’t have fought Nico off for the race remainder; Rosberg would’ve come at least third, and might even (very loose speculating – I don’t recall the distances between second and third…I imagine they were considerable, but not insurmountable, for, as Rosberg said, there was a chance the Red Bulls would have tyre trouble, something he didn’t feel he would have) have challenged further up.
Would we still be talking predominantly about Vettel’s folly, or would we be looking at two experienced drivers deciding they knew better than the team and wondering what this meant for the general state of Formula 1? Would we be welcoming the return of ‘proper’ racing, or Rosberg, too, be in the doghouse? Would we have come down harder on the team principals, or on the drivers themselves? Without the comparative, does what Vettel did look so bad?
Yes, Seb and Mark have previous. I will always remember Webber swearing about Vettel on the BBC one early morning, and yes, Vettel does think he’s…at least an exception, at worst, above reproach. But then, he’s won enough that that makes sense.
When he hasn’t won more than one race in a row, in recent years, he’s had to put up with all kinds of scrutiny and questioning, and his wins and successes have, from time to time, been undermined as flukes or as overly engineered by Red Bull. I’m sure no-one would argue that he’s not an exceptional driver, but still, he still doesn’t seem to command the sort of respect that other, less successful drivers have in the paddock. That’s my perception: I don’t really have back-up for it, so I won’t continue that point further than its conclusion, which is only, I can see why, apart from the natural desire to win, he’s an added, title-retaining, media-fearing desire to get his teeth into the championship points.
When it was happening, notably, on the commentary, you heard things like, “There’s nothing we love to see more than teammates getting wheel-to-wheel!” and that’s true. That’s definitely true. The element of all-or-nothing is thrilling, and, depending on your loyalty to the team, excruciating. After the race, Christian Horner, when asked about the decision to call the race so early on, repeatedly spoke of the fact that there were 43 points at stake for Red Bull, rather than the individual concern.
So, what you really have here are three players. The Team, Sebastian Vettel, and Mark Webber. The sticking point is that The Team is more important, being as they’re the wage payers, the brand, the car owners, etc, and their finances and image depend on maximum points for them. If either driver takes it upon themselves to put their own interests first and it goes wrong, they’re essentially pulling the pin but forgetting to throw the grenade. No-one gets anything, and we don’t even talk about it being exciting.
But do we really care about Red Bull’s 43 points? Is it enough to watch two cars get far enough ahead of the other cars that they can decide that we might as well all turn the telly off and go out for a walk? It’s not good for the sport, no, let’s say that Red Bull turn out to have superior cars and they manage to do this on a reasonably regular basis, certainly Sky won’t need to shelve their retrospective programmes out of the way to make room for exciting debate, because we won’t really care whether it was Vettel or Webber…what’s the difference?
One presumes that Horner feels they can’t afford to think like that. One race at a time, get the points when you can.
Most of all, Webber is the loser here. I understand why he feels so aggrieved, and I sympathise hugely, which is fairly unexpected, as I’m not generally his biggest fan and I’m not that riveted by his driving. However, he’s not racing to full capacity, which isn’t fun for anyone – maintaining a drive around and around a tropical race track is a very specific kind of day job – and there’s an agreement, it seems, has been made which left him absolutely certain that he was under no threat at all from his teammate. When Vettel tries to take him, you can see he’s not willing to roll over, but he also has the maturity – and previous experience – to know that there’s no point fighting it out on the track. Sadly, it seems there’s also very little he can say or do off the track without sounding petulant, or alluding to a kind of ‘European conspiracy’ which may or may not exist. I don’t think he respects Vettel all that much at all. And I wouldn’t accept his apology either. Have a good surf, Mark, you’ve earnt it.
But still, but still. Vettel might not be trying to rekindle the endless discussion about whether or not team orders are good for F1 – it’s arguable that their ‘banning’ was completely inconsequential, and he’s certainly not the first driver to fly in the face of orders – and he may not have even achieved that rekindling (more’s the pity), but it does show how fickle an audience can be.
Multiple F1 commentators and viewers spoke of ‘losing respect’ for Vettel today. That’s why I brought up the Nico what-if – if he hadn’t been the only one to disregard the situation, would it seem so bad? There’s always been a streak of unpredictability running through Sebastian’s career – maybe that’s got something to do with that lack of commendation I mentioned before – but generally, isn’t that a good thing? Everyone seemed so disappointed when Schumacher returned to the sport and was fairly calm, controlled and middling about it all. Everyone’s over the moon when Kimi gets grouchy with another car, or decides he might just pull a rally move here, or snipe at his trying-to-help mechanic. There are some drivers we love for their quirks, or love to hate for their sheer audacity and unpleasantry, and then there’s Vettel, who, when he’s good, is dull, and when he’s bad, is horrid. Shame.
I don’t want to see cars placing in twos, according to whether or not team members with calculators or wheel guns got it right. I do want the driver to have the last word. Maybe I’m missing the point of the modern sport, but I want to driver to know best. I want them to know when the car can overtake, and whether or not they can make it to the end if they push hard for three laps. It’s important to the spectacle of the sport, for me, that the driver has the last word.
Sometimes that last word won’t be a good one. There’s always a chance it’ll cost 43 points. But I don’t like to see the racing driver demonised for, in the heat of the moment, deciding to be a racing driver. It’s his choice. Rosberg chose to take one for the team, and trust that, as much as it’s a team sport, it’s also a long season. There’ll be other chances. Vettel made it about him, his championship, his personal attitude.
Webber doesn’t have to like it. He shouldn’t have to lump it. But he should have felt able to fight it if he wanted to. He couldn’t, because tyres. Which is one other point.
Handicapping cars by giving them quickly-degrading tyres is stupid. It is. I know it’s supposed to even the field, I know it’s meant to force strategy and pit stops and whatnot, but it’s plain annoying. It costs the spectacle entirely: when you have cars, drivers and teams capable of much more than they’re able to display, there’s no way it doesn’t. Today, we ought to be talking a lot more about this fact than we are. Webber brought it up, but I haven’t seen it run with it enough, in comparison with the ranting about Vettel.
So let’s conclude again. It takes all sorts to make a world. In F1, it’s nice to have a full cast of characters. All we, the audience, say, over and over, is how much we love a good overtake, a good scrap, especially between teammates, and then when we get one, it’s both invalidated by being unevenly matched, and morally sneered at as some kind of drastic unsporting behaviour.
There will be repercussions from today’s events: there ought to be. There’s a problem in this sport, and it isn’t just Sebastian Vettel.
To add to this, having watched the BBC coverage again, the worst thing with Vettel is him trying so hard to sell himself in the press interviews. Not that I can even completely blame him for that – he’s got so much media after him, and media training up to his eyeballs, and there’s only so many variants on the difficult questions you can hear, but it’s bizarre, isn’t it, hearing him go on about how he “heard but didn’t act on” orders, and then that he “didn’t understand” them, and so on, and so on. Just…sometimes, it’s time to stop talking. I think a lot of the post-race stuff made him look considerably worse than the in-race stuff.
Two more notes on the BBC coverage – one, it was nice to see the drivers getting out of their cars, which I didn’t see on Sky. Notably, Vettel is celebrating as normal, and it’s only once he gets a ticking off in person that he really twigs that this is pretty bad. Conversely, Lewis and Nico hug, like the friends and colleagues they are, and it’s all good. But also, again, we hear in the race commentary how considerably exciting the race became, towards the end, with even the hint of competition between the race leaders. We shouldn’t have to scrabble for excitement: this sport should, by default, be exciting.
I don’t mean to run at this blog with actual content and all, imagine, but things are rarely quite so fascinating and open to debate and interpretation in F1 as they were this morning. It seemed a shame to let that pass by, when I’ve just made this space.