SEPANG // Welcome to the world’s fastest-moving soap opera, where in the blink of an eye drivers can defy their bosses and disrespect their teammates. Sebastian Vettel ignored the orders of Red Bull Racing and betrayed Mark Webber yesterday to win a controversial, chaotic and utterly captivating Malaysian Grand Prix.
After 56 laps at Sepang International Circuit, there was no doubt left as to why Vettel’s German compatriots once labelled him Baby Schumacher. Make no mistake, the boyish charm is genuine, but behind it is a cold, calculated ruthlessness more familiar to his childhood hero. And yesterday it was exposed in the most blatant way possible.
In the closing stages of a race Webber had led since Lap 6, with the final round of pit-stops complete and only 14 laps remaining, Red Bull ordered their two drivers to turn their engines down, hold position and close out a comfortable one-two finish. One driver obliged; one driver did not.
Single-mindedness is a trait found in winners the world over and now we know, if confirmation was ever required, this remarkably quick 25 year old is cold-blooded in his pursuit of glory.
Vettel, having watched Webber slow as instructed, seized his opportunity, ignored his race engineer, fought his way narrowly past his vulnerable teammate and stole a 27th race victory with all the refinement of an unscrupulous pickpocket. He later apologised for the incident, but it will take more than an empty expression of regret for his reputation to be restored.
On passing the chequered flag, Vettel was told he has “some explaining to do”. In the pre-presentation green room, a livid Webber blanked the 25 year old, before slamming his drinks bottle down and demanding answers. On a muted podium, neither teammate met eyes and both celebrated separately.
“In the end, Seb made his own decisions today,” Webber said curtly. “And he’ll be protected as usual.”
In the post-race press conference, the tension was palpable. Vettel issued a contrite apology, referring to himself as “the black sheep” and adding “I should have behaved better”, but Webber appeared broken; his trust in the team and his teammate betrayed.
Vettel said: “I did a big mistake. We should have stayed in the positions that we were. I didn’t ignore it on purpose, but I messed up in that situation. What can I say much more than I made a mistake? I’m not proud that I made it. If I had the chance to do it again, I would do it differently, but it doesn’t count now. I can’t change it now. Maybe in the future there’s a situation where I can.”
Webber, when asked if he was considering his future with the three-times constructors’ champions, replied: “My mind, in the last 15 laps, was thinking many things, yes. Many, many things.”
He will now return home before round three of the world championship in China on April 14. “It’s very early days right now,” the 36 year old said. “It’s very raw, obviously, and we need to work out how the team goes best forwards from here. That’s going to be discussed this week. I will be in Australia on my surfboard, the phone won’t be engaged. Let’s see what happens.”
The traditional victory photo of the team was cancelled as Red Bull held a lengthy briefing. When Christian Horner, the team principal, eventually appeared, he had no doubt in his mind Vettel’s actions were deliberate.
When asked why Vettel was not at any stage of the last 13 laps ordered to relinquish his position and give the lead back to Webber, he replied: “Do you honestly think if we had told him slow down and give the place back, he would have given it back? There was no point. He had made it quite clear what his intention was by making the move. He knew what the communication was. He had had the communication. He chose to ignore it.
“He put his interest beyond what the team’s position was. He was focused on those eight points difference between second and first place – which was wrong. And he has accepted it was wrong.”
The extra eight points strengthens Vettel’s grip on the top of the world championship standings and while this victory will be marred by his actions, he will feel justified if he wins a fourth successive title. Last year, he became the sport’s youngest ever three-times champion at the final race of the season, beating Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso by just three points.
Alonso, who crashed out on the opening lap at Sepang, appeared to be enjoying the heightened emotions at his Red Bull rivals. The Spaniard joked on Twitter he was “missing a good moment” by not being beside the heated teammates on the podium. He added: “I will try not to leave them alone again”.