It’s easy to overlook the fact that Red Bull bounced back by scoring a one-two finish in very tricky conditions in Malaysia. Such an encouraging result on the back of a disappointing (by their standard) performance in Australia was completely overshadowed by a dispute between the two Red Bull drivers. Sebastian Vettel had ignored team orders to take the lead from Mark Webber at a point when both drivers had been asked to hold station and preserve their cars.
“I messed up,” said Vettel. “I would love to come up with a nice excuse or a nice story but I can’t. That’s the truth. I can completely understand Mark’s frustration and the team not being happy.”
The race started with half the Sepang circuit wet enough (following a sharp shower) to need Intermediate tyres, Vettel leading the first lap from pole position. But Webber was better at reading the changeover to slick tyres and went in front on lap six and maintained a three-second gap. The order remained the same through the scheduled stops just after quarter distance, but then Vettel hauled onto the Australian’s tail.
“Mark is too slow – get him out of the way. He is too slow,” said Vettel at a point when the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were a couple of seconds behind and closing.
Vettel would have things other than Webber on his mind when Hamilton got ahead of the World Champion after the next pit stops just after half-distance, but the Mercedes threat would be weakened when Hamilton was order to back off and save fuel. Vettel moved back to second place, by which time Webber was 4.6 seconds down the road.
Now we come to the point – the fourth and final pit stop at three-quarter distance – when the Red Bull drivers were supposed to hold station, particularly now that the Mercedes threat had diminished. But the trouble started as Webber rejoined (Vettel having stopped the lap before) and the pair of dark blue cars ran wheel-to-wheel through the first sequence of corners, Webber holding the initiative initially.
Red Bull had repeatedly warned Vettel to maintain a gap to Webber. While Vettel was aggressively trying to pass his team-mate, team principal Christian Horner went on the radio to say: “Seb, this is stupid.” But Vettel continued to attack, passing the Australian around the outside at Turn Four with 13 laps to go.
Webber said later: “After the last stop, the team told me the race was over and we turn the engines down and go to the end. The team made their decision. Seb made his own decision and he will have protection as usual.” (The latter remark a reference to previous bad blood between these two, starting with a collision while fighting for the lead in Turkey in 2010)
Vettel added: “I owe an explanation to him [Webber] and also to the whole team. Right now there is not much more I can explain. We talked about this many times before the race. It very rarely happens. Today it did and I should have translated the call into action. I just didn’t get the message. I got it. I heard it. But obviously no action followed because I misunderstood.”
Other significant elements of this race were Fernando Alonso touching the back of Vettel’s Red Bull, damaging the Ferrari’s nose wing but failing to stop for a replacement at the end of the opening lap. Just after he had sped past the pits, Alonso became a passenger as the nose wing broke off, went under the front wheels and sent the Spaniard into the gravel trap.
McLaren had another miserable race when the chance of fourth place for Jenson Button was thrown away when he was instructed to leave the pit box before the right-front wheel had been tightened during his second stop.
Hamilton, who eventually finished third, apologised to Nico Rosberg and thanked his Mercedes team-mate for holding station in fourth place despite having the quicker car in the last half of the race. Hamilton’s look of embarrassment added to one of the most miserable podiums seen for some time. There had been some very good racing in the Malaysia Grand Prix, but the final result was nothing to shout about. Or, at least, not the sort of shouting people watching F1 needed to hear.
For the full results and current championship standings, go here.
By Maurice Hamilton