The Smiling Assassin

Sebastian Vettel © James Moy Photography

Sebastian Vettel
© James Moy Photography

Yep, you guessed it. It’s another opinion on the fallout from the Malaysian Grand Prix. I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to just blast something out in the immediate aftermath. I wanted to take the flights home to think about it.

I barely slept last night. Jetlag accounted for part of that. The rest was the final ten laps in Malaysia and, in particular, the podium ceremony, press conference and interviews that followed.

It was all just such a load of self-deprecating “woe is me” crap. Wasn’t it?

Three drivers, supposedly three of the greatest in the world, all looking genuinely miserable at the thought of being ranked as the best on their day, in their arena.

For me, none of them had any reason to be ashamed of their days or their results. But for the pantomime they played out post race in front of a global television audience of hundreds of millions they should be embarrassed. For themselves and for the sport.

The only person who had any legitimate reason to be slightly upset was Mark Webber. But more on that later.

Vettel fights Webber for the lead in Malaysia © James Moy Photography

Vettel fights Webber for the lead in Malaysia
© James Moy Photography

Let’s start with the focal point of all this, Sebastian Vettel. I will say simply this: one does not become a triple world champion by being a nice guy. The smiles, the laughter, the little jokes, the knowing winks to the press… it’s a game, a façade: a beautifully played one, but a front all the same. What we saw on Sunday was the clearest indication yet that Sebastian Vettel is a cold, calculated, ruthless operator. And brilliantly so.

It’s funny isn’t it? We laud Senna. We clapped and cheered and said “Bloody right, too,” when he fired back at an inquisitorial Jackie Stewart the immortal lines, “We are competing to win. And if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.”

Is this not the attitude that all the greats possess? To take advantage of every opportunity they see?

“Multi 21” was the call, turn down the engine and bring the cars home. Webber dutifully obeyed. Vettel did not. He saw his opportunity. He saw the gap. And he took it.

Cold. Calculated. Ruthless.

Why? Because winning is his nature. It is what he lives for. It is all he knows. All he can accept. Because on a day when Fernando Alonso was not scoring, he’d be damned if he was going to play the backup man and lose seven potentially crucial world championship points.

But most of all, because he sniffed blood. And like the brutal, brilliant, beautiful racing animal he is, he pounced and struck a killer blow.

In his mind, he is the number one. He does the winning. Not Mark Webber. In a 1-2 situation, Vettel saw the win as his right. In his mind he is the only one fighting for the drivers’ championship, Mark can collect the scraps for the constructors’ crown.

Christian Horner and Helmut Marko © James Moy Photography

Christian Horner and Helmut Marko
© James Moy Photography

I guess ultimately we have Helmut Marko to blame for all this. The Red Bull junior programme was established to create such a perfect monster: an unflinching, focused, machine. And in Vettel it has its perfect product.

My colleague and friend David Tremayne often recounts the story of how Helmut Marko became this way, how he became so cold and seemingly uncaring. He and his childhood counterpart Jochen Rindt would secretly take their parent’s cars out at night, racing around frozen Austrian country lanes. The rules were that if you got into trouble, if you crashed or broke down, you were on your own. Simple as that.

It is with this mindset that Marko has run the Red Bull drivers programme. And it is this mindset he has instilled in Vettel. This, coupled with the the political safety net and protection of the team and of being constantly told he is number one, can lead to only one ethos: to win at all costs. To take every weakness in a rival and exploit it. No emotion. No remorse.

Christian Horner has his share of the blame in all this too, of course. Red Bull Racing is his team, is it not? He is the General. And yet on Sunday he completely lost control of his troops. He gave an order which was ignored. When it became obvious his demand had fallen on deaf ears, did he transmit the severity of his feelings and that his orders were to be followed? No. He weakly asked his driver to stop being silly. He treated him like a naughty child.

And after this point there were still ten laps to reverse the change in position. At any point he could have made the call to Vettel to give the position back. But the call never came. Why? Because, as Horner stated afterwards, Vettel had already made his decision.

I do wonder if Mr Mateschitz is questioning whether Mr Horner is still the right man to lead his team. Afterall, if Vettel was acting like a child, then treat him as such. If you ask your child not to do something, and they continue to act up, what do you as a responsible parent do? Say, “Oh well they’ve made their decision?” or do you reinforce your point, send them to their room, to the naughty step, dock their pocket money, take away their toys, or whatever you as a parent have decided is a suitable punishment? You do the latter. Because you are their parent. You are their guide. You are in charge. You are the boss.

In this case, Horner lost control. Right now, it isn’t his team. It is Sebastian Vettel’s. Horner has to grapple that control back, if he can. Because Sunday was an embarrassment.

He now has a lead driver who is, essentially, lawless. He has a number two who will no longer be willing to trust his team-mate, nor to help him in his title assault. He has a very real division on his hands and one which will not be easy to fix.

Of course, Horner has been in this position before. Many times in fact. From Turkey 2010 to Silverstone 2011… Brazil 2012. He has managed his drivers and their conflicts before. And brought home three consecutive championships. But the very public show of discontent in Malaysia may be his sternest test yet.

And for it to happen so early in the championship season too… we’ve got 17 races to go. Vettel has drawn a very clear line in the sand. Why he chose to do so this early is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he really is off to Ferrari at the end of the year and no longer cares how things with Red Bull pan out. Whatever the case, how his team and team-mate respond to his actions will be fascinating.

Webber leads Vettel in Malaysia © James Moy Photography

Webber leads Vettel in Malaysia
© James Moy Photography

Of course, Webber could have fought back in the race. He could have turned his engine back up and said, “Sod it. If the gloves are off, they’re off.” But he didn’t. And in so doing he unwittingly reinforced his position as the number two driver in the team. Perhaps that is why he looked so glum at the end of the race. The realization that Vettel has the cold, killer instinct that creates champions, whereas he played the game to a different set of rules and lost out. Mark hadn’t just been betrayed, he’d been publically emasculated.

Webber’s disgust stemmed from the fact there had been a pre-race promise and so he had been taken by surprise by Vettel’s duplicity. A piecrust promise if you will… easily made, easily broken. That’s why people are coming down so hard on the German. If we use a boxing analogy, it isn’t as simple as Mark dropping his guard and being caught with a knock-out uppercut. What happened in Malaysia was tantamount to his rival delivering a brutal blow to the back of his head as he walked to his corner after the bell had sounded.

But do we not race from lights to flag? Is this not motor racing? Where in the rules does it say “After the final pitstops thou shalt hold position until the chequered flag?”

So had the bell sounded? Was the fight over?

You don’t get boxers going up to each other three quarters of the way through a bout and saying, “Fella I’m knackered, let’s just hug the last two rounds out.” You don’t see Brazil and Argentina playing keepie uppie for the last 10 minutes of the world cup soccer final.

If we are to now expect the last ten laps of a Grand Prix to be all about holding station, then perhaps Red Bull or whoever can give the fans 1/5 of their ticket price back.

The teams will say they have to look after the tyres and conserve fuel. I say fill the car up with more fuel and don’t design a car that’s so heavy on its tyres. The race starts at the lights and ends at the flag. If Raikkonen had been in first and Vettel in second, would Red Bull have asked him to look after the car? Hell no. I say race. Race from lights to flag.

Part of the issue in all this is that team orders are legal; the first act of an FIA President who had, in his former life, been so held to task for his application of the concept that Formula 1 was a team venture above all other purely sporting considerations, who had been so vexed by the illegality of a right he saw as natural, that it was his overriding priority to reverse it on reaching office. Team orders could never effectively be policed, but is this alternative any better? The neutering of a race and of competition between team-mates and the defiance of the core principal of the sport: that one exists to race…

Mercedes has a rivalry of its own © James Moy Photography

Mercedes has a rivalry of its own
© James Moy Photography

Of course, it isn’t just Red Bull who faced a dilemma in Malaysia. The same problems befell Mercedes. It is fair to say that Nico Rosberg had the raw pace advantage over Lewis Hamilton in the first two races of 2013, and in Malaysia probably should have been on the podium. But he dutifully played the game, he accepted the team’s orders not to pass. And in so doing, just as with Mark Webber at Red Bull, he inadvertently cast himself into the number two driver role. Had he passed Hamilton against the wishes of his team, it would have been a marker. “This is my team Lewis, you’re the newboy.”

As it is, he sat in Hamilton’s wake and accepted the team’s orders despite holding the pace advantage. And when the Englishman took to the podium and pointed to his crew below him, it wasn’t just as a means of saying thank you. It was Hamilton telling his team, and his new team-mate, that he was number one. So don’t believe the faux platitudes and the deprecation in the post race comments. Nobody was happier to be on that podium than Lewis Hamilton.

But, interestingly, nobody was more unhappy than Niki Lauda. Mercedes F1’s new bossman was furious at Ross Brawn’s orders to hold station. As old school as it gets, Niki wanted to see his drivers racing to the flag. To hell with the cars. We’re here to race.

That fight for the win, and the fact we were robbed of it, is ultimately what leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Webber unimpressed. Vettel under scrutiny. © James Moy Photography

Webber unimpressed. Vettel under scrutiny.
© James Moy Photography

It’s funny isn’t it? Mark Webber has been so downtrodden in his Red Bull career, that if the roles had been reversed and it had been Mark who had ignored team orders, kept his engine fully juiced and passed Vettel, I don’t think we’d be having this discussion. We’d be praising him for sticking two fingers up at Helmut Marko and Red Bull’s love-in with Sebastian Vettel. He’d be a hero.

For once though, the team was in his corner. And he still lost out.

What Sebastian Vettel did was not illegal. It was downright sneaky and ungallant, it was morally questionable and duplicitous, but it wasn’t the hanging offence many are making out. After all, wasn’t his decision what we all, as fans, want? To see these great talents live up to their billing not simply as drivers, but as racing drivers?

What upset me most on Sunday was the way in which Sebastian Vettel dealt with the post race reaction to his win. And it showed that in many ways, he is still a child and not yet an adult comfortable enough with the man he truly is to take responsibility for his actions.

The crocodile tears. The faux resentment. The claims he’d made a mistake, that he was sorry, that he’d “fucked up.”

Rubbish.

He knew exactly what he was doing, and I’d wager he’d do it again in a heartbeat. Because that’s what he does. That’s his nature. That’s why he is one of the greatest drivers of his or any generation.

He exists solely to race and to win.

Ironically enough, on Sunday afternoon Sebastian Vettel gave the fans what they wanted to see. He said, “To hell with team orders. You can shove them. I’m here to win, not to finish second and I’m not turning down my engine until I know I can’t be beaten.”

I only wish he’d been man enough to admit it.

A defining moment in Vettel's career? © James Moy Photography

A defining moment in Vettel’s career?
© James Moy Photography

NB: Folks I’m loving hearing your opinions. But if you stoop to personal insults of any of the players in this I will not approve your comment. We can debate without sinking to that level.