x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Formula One: It's silly season for Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing

At the crucial moment of the Malaysian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel and Christian Horner failed. How Red Bull recover and restore their relationship with Mark Webber will be the team's biggest challenge yet, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, left, ignores team orders to pass teammate Mark Webber in the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday. Andy Wong / AP Photo
Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, left, ignores team orders to pass teammate Mark Webber in the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday. Andy Wong / AP Photo

Two teams, four drivers and a rule that inevitably produces little but bubbling resentment. Drivers feel disheartened, teams feel deceitful and fans feel disillusioned.

The Sepang podium on Sunday night at the Malaysian Grand Prix appeared more like a gallows than a platform for celebrations. None of the three men on display deserved to be where they were stood, and each knew it.

Team orders, legalised in 2011, allow racing marques to dictate to their drivers how to act when up against a teammate. When adhered to, as in the case of Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes-GP, the team collects the maximum number of championship points possible given their position.

However, when ignored, as in the case of Sebastian Vettel who disobeyed Red Bull Racing to pass Mark Webber and win the race, the team finds itself ridiculed and vulnerable.

Both marques ended the race with frustrated drivers, but while Mercedes maintained authority, the power-brokers at Red Bull, the three-time constructors' champions, disappeared beneath the growing ego of a driver used to getting his own way.

The sight of Adrian Newey, the genius credited with designing the sport's fastest car, sitting with his head in his hands as the two drivers fought at 250kph proved potent.

How can the Austrian team now claim to have any power over their drivers when Vettel so blatantly disregarded their instructions?

How can Webber, who suffered at the hands of the 25 year old's ruthlessness, trust his team or teammate again? And how can any of the three parties be expected to genuinely work together for the greater good from here on in?

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The first rule of Formula One is ensure you have the team onside. If Webber no longer believes the team have his back, he will refuse to renew his rolling contract for next season.

Vettel, meanwhile, has long been painted as the golden child, so how he reacts to restore his reputation will prove critical to his future. Redefining a balance within the team could prove Red Bull's biggest challenge yet.

Vettel is clearly a single-minded, cold-blooded winner and against other drivers that is often an accepted attribute. However double-crossing his own teammate is beyond the limits of sporting behaviour and has rightly provoked much criticism.

Were this football, and the analogy was put to Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, Vettel would be reprimanded, his wages docked and he would be dropped from the team.

It is a punishment John Watson, the former McLaren driver, said Monday should be enacted. Horner, who was allegedly targeted by angry Australian fans post-race, merely said the matter will be discussed internally.

Webber also drew comparisons between Sunday's play and Uefa Champions League football. The Australian attended the match between Manchester United and Real Madrid that saw midfielder Nani being harshly sent off.

He spoke of "naivety" among sports fans, noting that sport is not perfect, justice is not always evident. Yet to be cheated out of a 10th career race win by his own teammate must feel Judasean in its employment.

Such was his anger, he was struggling to breathe steadily while Vettel, sat alongside him, apologised in the post-race press news conference, the German's 27th career win safely in the bag.

Horner postponed his media briefing for two hours to dampen the flames of a fallout capable of running until the season's end. When he finally appeared, the size of the swollen throng of reporters saw him utter an expletive and yet he handled his interrogation impeccably. It was, however, his less than impressive performance on the pit-wall that had put him in such an awkward position in the first place.

For all that Ross Brawn, the Mercedes team principal, showed his authority, Horner failed. "Come on, Seb, this is silly," he groaned as Vettel defied the strategy that had been agreed pre-race.

He later revealed there was "no point" telling his driver to relinquish the position because he would not have listened.

If that is true, then Red Bull's problems are bigger than they initially appeared. For if Vettel does not listen to team orders, why should Webber?

And if neither driver listens, then Red Bull's hopes of securing a fourth consecutive constructors' championship are massively affected even before considering the fact neither driver can any longer rely on his teammate.

Webber says he will spend the next three weeks on a surfboard in Australia, but he will not return to race in China with his teammate's apology accepted and a willingness to be the team player once again.

When asked about potential team orders going forward, the 36 year old said tellingly: "Obviously, now is a different situation for the future."

The gloves are off at Red Bull and Webber has some big fists. Red Bull have a fight on their hands as they look to restore the faith.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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