ROUND 2 – Malaysia, 24 March 2013, Sepang
1st: Sebastian Vettel (Infiniti Red Bull)
2nd: Mark Webber (Infiniti Red Bull), gap: 12.451s
3rd: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), gap: 22.346s
Fastest Lap: Sergio Pérez (McLaren Mercedes), 1:39.199 = 201.159 km/h on lap 56
Pole Position: Sebastian Vettel (Infiniti Red Bull) 1:49.674 = 181.946 km/h
One man’s meat is another man’s poison...
Infiniti Red Bull finished first and second in Malaysia but the manner of the victory made it the least palatable of their 13 1-2 finishes to date. Ignoring team orders, Sebastian Vettel swept past long-time race leader Mark Webber with 10 of the 56 laps remaining to secure his 27th career victory, putting the German level in the all-time standings with Sir Jackie Stewart. Vettel now leads the Drivers’ Championship with 40 points from Melbourne winner Kimi Raïkkönen (31) and Webber (26).
F1 insiders are calling this the nastiest breakdown between drivers in the same team since the unhappy days of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna when they were teammates at McLaren in the late 80s. On the podium a bitterly disappointed Webber said: “Seb made his own decisions and will have protection as usual.” The Australian had been told to turn his engine down in the closing stages and was protecting his car and tyres when Vettel made his move.
“I messed up today,” was Vettel’s reaction by the time the teams’ press releases began to appear. “I would love to come up with a nice excuse as to why I did it, but I can’t. I can understand Mark’s frustration and the team not being happy with what I did today; I owe an explanation to him and the whole team.” In the immediate aftermath, speaking directly to media, the German had said: “I want to say sorry to Mark. He was trying to save the car and tyres, but I took a lot of risk in passing him when he was trying. I didn’t ignore that, but I shouldn’t have done it.”
Infiniti Red Bull team principal Christian Horner now has a difficult job on his hands: placating Webber while not upsetting the team’s favourite son. He acknowledged that fact when he said: “They took it into their own hands, which was uncomfortable for us – we gave them instructions to hold station but Sebastian took it into his own hands to win the race – he wanted to win.” That too became something more sanitised: “Formula One is both a team and an individual sport and sometimes there is a conflict between a driver’s desire and a team’s interest. What happened today is something that shouldn’t have happened. It’s something that Sebastian has apologised for and it’s something that we will discuss internally as a team.”
As debate raged after the race, Webber did his best to put an honest face on things: “There were a lot of things going through my head in those closing laps,” said Mark. “Not just from today, but from the past as well. There are three weeks before the next race; let’s see what happens in the future.” Reading between the lines: it’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened, probably won’t be the last, got to deal with it…
Webber added: “It is still very raw at the moment because we had a plan before the race. I turned the engine down and was reassured twice that we would not use the cars against each other. We have three weeks now before the next race and I will catch some waves on my board in Australia.”
In stark contrast, driver rivalry was also in evidence in the Mercedes camp, for whom Lewis Hamilton finished third. Fortunately for the German team, the drivers did as instructed with Nico Rosberg holding station in fourth place to allow Hamilton his 50th F1 podium. “I have to say big congratulations to Nico,” said Hamilton. “He drove a smarter and more controlled race than me this afternoon and deserved to finish where I did. The team made the call for us to hold positions and we both respected that.” Third and fourth yielded 27 points – the highest single-race total Mercedes have achieved since their F1 return in 2010.
Hamilton produced a tense day’s lightest moment when he came in for his first pit stop... and by force of habit drove into the McLaren box. His former team had troubles of their own: while Checo Pérez claimed fastest lap on the last of the 56 and finished ninth, Jenson Button’s race was compromised by a wheel gun problem and a left front tyre concern that eventually stopped him. “We’d have finished fifth but for the problem in the pit stop – maybe we’d even have been in the battle for third and fourth,” said Button. “Even at the end we had a chance of scoring a point, but unfortunately I was struggling with my front left [tyre] by that stage. It kept locking up, and it was producing such a bad vibration that I think the guys were worried that it might damage the front left suspension if I carried on.
A brief look at the rest of the field, over-shadowed by what happened up front:
A poor day for Ferrari after their strong opening to the season in Melbourne. Fernando Alonso tapped Vettel from behind on the opening lap and damaged the Ferrari’s front wing, but opted not to come in for repairs – and paid a heavy price when it broke beneath him and pitched him into retirement at the start of lap two. Felipe Massa threw away the advantage of his first front-row start since Bahrain, losing ground on the opening lap and having to work hard to recover to fifth place.
Melbourne winner Kimi Raikkonen also had a disappointing weekend. He qualified seventh but was demoted to 10th for blocking Rosberg’s Mercedes between Turns 12 and 15 during qualifying; he then languished outside the top 10 for the early part of the race before coming through to seventh, one place behind Lotus Renault teammate Romain Grosjean at the finish.
Eighth was good news for Nico Hülkenberg. Denied a start at Albert Park, the German raced strongly and had the immense satisfaction of beating Pérez, who vacated the Sauber to move to McLaren.
The driver rivalry theme rears its head again when we look at the last points-scorer. That was Jean-Eric Vergne, who was out-qualified by Toro Rosso teammate Dan Ricciardo but came home in 10th place; the Australian was the last classified finisher in 18th after compromising his race with an ’off’ on the warm-up which damaged the car’s floor.
Among the midfield runners, Force India had a day to forget. Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil were both forced to retire because of wheel gun failures at their respective pit stops. New technology adopted for this season appears to have wilted under the Malaysian heat and humidity.
Next race: round 3, China, April 14
What can Infiniti Red Bull do to repair relations between their drivers – and between Webber and the men on the pit wall?
Can Mercedes keep their early-season promise going at the track where Rosberg posted his and their first victory together last season?
Can Alonso bounce back from Sepang disappointment and get his campaign right back on track?
Watch for a full Shanghai preview right here…