There is no excuse for what Sebastian Vettel did in Malaysia on Sunday. You can try and defend him in any way you can, but in making the decision to overtake Mark Webber in the final stint in Sepang, he flouted a clear instruction from his team to hold position, and in doing so showed the bad side of his character in the most public way possible.
Whether Red Bull were right to order their drivers to hold position or not is irrelevant. The order by Christian Horner was there, and no matter what Vettel thought of it, he had no right to challenge Webber in the final stint of the race. He’d had four stints to get ahead of his teammate on the track, and Webber had beaten him fair and square.
While for the casual fan it may have been a move of brilliance, the fact remains that Formula One is a team sport. As a driver, you do the best you can to score the maximum amount of points, but you do so whilst racing for a team. Without the support of your team you don’t have a chance of succeeding, so when they ask you to carry out a perfectly reasonable task, in this case holding position behind your teammate, no matter what you think of it, you comply.
Vettel’s actions weren’t dissimilar to a footballer refusing to go off the pitch when substituted because he wanted to score another goal. If Wayne Rooney did that whilst turning out for Manchester United, the media and 99% of football fans would crucify him (not to mention Rooney being given a one-way ticket out of Old Trafford with a Sir Alex Ferguson-shaped boot imprinted on his backside). That is how serious Vettel’s disobedience was. He went against the direct orders of his team principal, and he’s lucky that he’s so indispensable to Red Bull that the most he’ll get from his indiscretion is a slap on the wrist.
Red Bull wants to win the constructors’ championship as much as Vettel wants to win the drivers’ title, and as a team they made the sensible decision to have their cars hold position. They know as well as any other team after the events of Istanbul in 2010 the consequences of having your drivers race to the very end, and with 43 points representing a marginally better reward from a weekend than none, it was a totally understandable and legitimate call to make.
There is no doubt that Vettel is a supremely talented racing driver, you don’t win three championships if you’re not, but Sunday’s act of sheer selfishness showed that there is an intrinsically darker side to his character. The proper way to handle that situation was played out less than 500 metres behind him, when Nico Rosberg, despite pleading to Ross Brawn to allow him to race Lewis Hamilton, respected his team principal’s decision for the two Mercedes to hold station and duly followed his teammate home with no hard feelings.
Sebastian Vettel is an extremely clever person. When out of the car and when he is winning he portrays himself as a very likeable character, one who likes to have a bit of a laugh with you and just an all-round nice guy. It is a work of PR genius.
Whilst I don’t doubt that Vettel is, all things considered, a good person, underneath that exterior is someone who has shown himself to be extremely petulant and bitter when things don’t go his way. His one-man tirade against his team and the FIA in Hungary three years ago was an extreme example, and his behaviour at Malaysia and Hockenheim last year followed in the same pattern. Even earlier in Sunday’s race he demanded to Red Bull that Webber be moved out of the way because ‘he was too slow’, at a time when the Australian was pulling away from him.
Now I’m not saying that Vettel isn’t the only driver to moan when he’s in the wrong. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton have also both done it when things have not gone their way, but it’s clear that Seb has a bigger problem than most when it comes to his refusal to accept blame for incidents.
True champions have an immense ruthless streak about them, and it’s something that when used properly is an extremely admirable quality, but part of having that trait is learning when not to be ruthless and when to have the humility to accept that you are in wrong. It’s something that Vettel needs to learn fast, and it’s something that will hopefully come as he gains more experience and maturity.
As it is, Vettel’s ‘need’ to win in Malaysia could yet cost him later on in the year. With the sport set for yet another close title battle this year, it could so happen that he has to rely on the support of the man who’s trust he betrayed in Sepang. Mark Webber.
Jump into your virual tardis, and travel eight months into the future to Brazil. Vettel has to win to take a fourth straight title. Webber is leading the race with his teammate second, and the call comes over the radio for the Aussie to move over and give Vettel the place he needs to take that title. The fate of the world championship is in Webber’s hands, and it’s he who has to make the decision as to who wins it.
Would you blame Webber if he told Vettel where to go? I certainly wouldn’t.