The Formula One world was a little bit worried heading into the Malaysian Grand Prix.
With Easter falling early, it’s now three weeks until the next race in China. What on earth would we talk about until then?
Luckily, Sepang had a few tricks up its sleeve.
Team orders have an uncanny ability to steal the spotlight despite being an integral part of Formula One and – notwithstanding an eight year ban between 2002 and 2011 – being totally legal.
That alone will undoubtedly rankle a few people, but let’s not forget that World Championships have been decided by team orders. In 1964 John Surtees was let through by teammate Lorenzo Bandini to win the title by a single point. Team orders have been, and always will be, a part of Formula One.
First, let’s look at Mercedes. Hamilton and Rosberg came home P3 and P4. Hamilton used more fuel than Rosberg over the course of the race and had to switch his car into miser mode just to finish.
Rosberg was ordered to follow him home despite having more fuel to burn.
Was the call right or wrong?
Malaysia is the home for Mercedes title sponsor Petronas. The team wooed star driver Hamilton over the summer – wouldn’t you want to get him up on the podium and show him off a bit?
What Mercedes didn’t count on was Hamilton denouncing the orders on the podium. It seems, at heart, Hamilton really is a McLaren driver after all those years racing under the Dennis/Whitmarsh philosophy. But the call, for the team, was right.
Red Bull’s situation is a little more complex.
The tension between Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel is well known after *that* collision in Turkey, 2010. Ever since, Webber has never felt he’s being treated equally at Red Bull.
Despite this, he’s has generally towed the party line on track. But this weekend the team was in a situation in which Mark was leading Sebastian and, to its credit, it made the call. It wanted both cars home safe and, since the Championship is still in its early stages, it was going to give the win to Mark. No challenges. No passing. Webber-Vettel, 1-2.
Yet the result is the opposite situation. Vettel disregarded his orders. He took the race into his own hands and decided he should win.
But was it right or wrong?
Vettel disobeyed his team. He put at risk all 43 points it had earnt that race. He threatened the already tenuous Red Bull harmony. But he was right to do so.
There it is, I said it. With the qualification that his manoeuvring as he tried to pass his own teammate was brash, dangerous, and petulant, Vettel was right to pass Mark Webber.
Put your monocle back in and look at it objectively. Sebastian Vettel is a triple World Champion. He knows he’s better than Webber. Mark is one of the top five drivers out there at the moment, but put him wheel-to-wheel with Vettel and he’ll come off second best. And Vettel knows no team will ever punish a defending triple World Champion for breaking the rules.
Therefore, if Red Bull is able to secure a title for one of its drivers this year, Vettel will surely be the one to take the trophy home. The last three years have confirmed that it’s right to bank on this probability.
Moreover, on the evidence of the two rounds just raced, Formula One in 2013 will be closer than it’s ever been before.
Five teams are in race-winning contention this season, so every point will count when the standings are tallied at the end of November.
So you’re sitting in your car. Ahead of you is a driver that is unlikely to beat you in the Championship. You know you need all the points you can get to fend off this extraordinarily close field. You can outrace him on track. What do you do?
You pass him. Of course you pass him.
Did he break his team’s rules? Undoubtedly. Was it morally reprehensible? Most certainly. But it was right.
It was a decision calculated on what will be the most probable outcome at the end of the season, and Vettel just tilted the table in his favour. He was right, and it may well prove to be a decisive moment in his title defence.
As a final point, I’ve seen a few comparisons between Vettel’s actions and those of Michael Schumacher at the height of his ruthlessness – all that win-at-all-costs behaviour that lost him a great deal of popularity.
Drivers aren’t racing for plaudits, they’re out there for Championships. Schumacher won seven.
I’d call him a pretty good example for success, wouldn’t you?