As witnessed in Sunday’s 2013 Malaysian GP, evidently in the world of Formula One, bad guys finish first while the good guys lose. A Vettel win was always expected as he dominated the practice and qualifying sessions, but the way he achieved it in the race was controversial, to say the least.
Reluctantly obeying Ross Brawn’s command to stay behind teammate Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes GP’s Nico Rosberg was denied the chance to step on the podium and challenge the leading Red Bulls. Brawn’s Red Bull counterpart Christian Horner obviously doesn’t hold the same authority over his drivers, as Sebastian Vettel ignored his calls to stay put and went on to attack Mark Webber for the win.
Win he did, but he did so by greatly risking the team’s fortunes. He later apologised to Webber, saying that he didn’t break the agreement deliberately, a claim that was quickly refuted by his team boss. “He put his interest beyond what the team’s position was,” said an angry Horner. You can read more about the Red Bull team order furore here.
Hamilton finished third, 12 seconds adrift. A podium finish in just his second race for Mercedes put a smile on his face and continued his strong start to the season, but it could have been more. That hilarious moment where he pulled into the McLaren pits by mistake aside (old habits do die hard) he challenged for the lead and at one point even galloped past Vettel into second place, primed to take the battle to the Red Bulls.
Unfortunately his team had made a grave error and under fuelled him, forcing him to “lift and coast” before the mid point of the race and severely affecting his race pace. With his engine running in low-fuel mode, he was easily devoured by Vettel and his DRS, who then went on to close the gap to leader Webber.
Meanwhile, Nico Rosberg was in close vicinity of his teammate, lapping even quicker than the leading Red Bulls. “Let’s go get the Red Bulls!” he screamed, only to be told by Ross Brawn to hold position behind Hamilton. It’s yet unclear why Brawn ordered as such, but it’s believed that he didn’t want to disadvantage his new star signing out of a team mistake. Hamilton had outpaced Rosberg before the troubles appeared anyway.
Nico was the perfect team player and stayed closely behind, missing out on the chance of a podium or even a win as the Red Bulls clearly slowed down near the end of the race. He magnanimously accepted the team decision but was quick to quip “remember this one”, suggesting that he expects a fair role reversal in future races, should he be the one in need of team favours.
In fifth was the sole Ferrari, driven by Felipe Massa. He qualified on the front row, outperforming teammate Fernando Alonso. Off the start however, it was Alonso who quickly challenged Vettel for the lead, damaging his front wing in the process. Ferrari and Alonso declined the chance to pit safely and repair the damage at the end of the first lap, hoping to stay in touch with the leaders until the track is dry enough for slick tyres.
It wasn’t meant to be, as the wing broke off in spectacular fashion on the pit straight, throwing him off the circuit and out of the race. As usual in Ferrari’s Fernando-can-do-no-wrong land, the team took the blame for the error. A curious admission, and in stark contrast to Alonso taking the credit for his early pit stop that leapfrogged him ahead of Massa and Vettel to second in last week’s Australian GP.
Lotus’ Romain Grosjean was sixth, ahead of Melbourne-winner Kimi Raikkonen. Both Lotuses looked quick in the race, but had traffic issues as they dropped places at the start. Raikkonen had a clumsy race, going off the track twice trying to keep up with his teammate. Fortunately enough he came out tops in a mighty tussle with Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, who ended up just behind him at the end.
Sergio Perez scored his first championship points since he was confirmed as a McLaren driver in September last year. It was just two points however, as he finished a distant ninth after struggling to keep his tyres alive near the end. Losing eighth place to Hulkenberg just three laps from the chequered flag, Perez pitted again for fresh tyres for the two remaining laps, allowing him to set the fastest lap of the race.
Poor old Jenson Button had been at his tyre-conserving best in Sepang and seemed destined for a strong finish with a three-stop strategy (one less than Red Bull and Mercedes). Unfortunately his pit crew had other ideas, releasing him with loose tyres on his last stop and losing him over two minutes in the process. He retired near the end, running outside the points.
Toro Rosso and Jean-Eric Vergne grabbed the last point on offer, beating rookies Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez to it. Marussia’s Jules Bianchi ended up miles ahead of his teammate and both Caterhams, proving himself as a star of the future. The green backmarkers meanwhile continue to disappoint, as they appear to have fallen behind Marussia in pace, becoming the slowest team on the F1 grid.
In the championship standings, Vettel now leads with 40 points, ahead of Raikkonen with 31. Webber is third, five points adrift but with one and four points more than Hamilton and Massa respectively. Alonso is sixth with the 18 points he scored in Australia.
Red Bull appears to have a strong hold of the constructors’ championship already, their 66 points putting them 26 ahead of Lotus and Ferrari in joint second place. Mercedes has 37 points, while McLaren only has four points from two disappointing outings.
With this latest win Vettel now has 27 Grand Prix wins under his belt, equalling fellow triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart. The great Scot achieved it in nine seasons and 99 races while Vettel has done 103-race starts despite only starting his sixth full season in Formula One. Three more victories and he’d be on level pegging with Alonso.
The three weeks to the next race in China will be a welcome break for the fuming Mark Webber. Red Bull will have to work hard to overcome the intra-team disaster, with McLaren even busier still to get their season back on track. Mercedes on the other hand will have to speed up their pitstops, which is consistently a whole second longer than the Red Bull and McLaren’s.
It was Rosberg who gave Mercedes their first win in Shanghai last year. Can he repeat that feat, or will he play second fiddle to Hamilton again? There are a lot of questions to be answered. The 2013 Chinese GP on April 14 can’t come quick enough.