F1: A game of murderous honour
There are many aspects of Formula 1 which are contradictory, but somehow quietly pleasing. The competitors and teams are pitched in a technological, political and strategic battle to win at all costs, yet there is behind the scenes a series of “gentleman’s’ agreements” or codes of acceptability. To be in breach or flout these rules overtly leads to recrimination and a sense that a line has been crossed which is quite unacceptable.
McLaren stealing Ferrari designs lead to outrage, recriminations both internally and externally and a very big fine. Yet teams poach and head hunt each other’s key people with impunity even when there are technology sharing or acquisition contractual arrangements.
Lewis was highly criticised for lying to the stewards in Melbourne 2009 and this ultimately cost David Ryan – who at the time was the team manager with 35 years’ service behind him – his job and career in F1.
Further, the players present us with the sense that there is integrity about how they play the game. Team orders are a most obvious example of this. To manipulate the result of who finishes ahead of whom would be an anathema in most other sports – if not downright illegal and the subject of censure – but not in F1.
The F1 conflict
We have been educated that the F1 game is both a team and an individual competition and in recent times the almost unanimous school of thought presented is that drivers should first serve the team’s ambitions and secondly their own. This leads to a plethora of convoluted explanations as to why one driver gets ‘new bits’ ahead of the other and why another driver must allow his team mate preferential treatment in pit stop strategy and track position.
This is of course all plausible so long as there is no blatant break with the party line, no action taken that makes the teams’ well rehearsed – ‘team first’ – posturing look ridiculous. It appears integrity – in perception at least – is a value held in high regard by those who manage and own the Formula One teams.
So was Red Bull’s instructions and Vettel’s subsequent behaviour acceptable in Sepang? Such is our acceptance of the F1 code of integrity, we could have accepted Webber being told to move over had this weekend’s race been in the drivers’ title run in and it was clear that Sebastian Vettel was the most likely Red Bull driver to win out in the WDC battle.
Vettel’s bad call
Yet we saw a rare and unusual fallibility of decision making from the young German and I don’t mean in his pursuit of his team mate in the closing laps of the race. Vettel was told over the pit radio to tell the team when HE wanted to switch from intermediate tyres in the first stint to a set of the dry weather rubber. He made the wrong call and switched 2 laps too soon.
Whilst in sectors 2 and 3 the track was indeed dry it was far too wet in sector one and Vettel’s decision to pit for dry tyres meant that in two laps Mark Webber passed Sebastian and then extended his lead of the race. Red Bull’s paranoia over tyre wear then set their two drivers on a sequence of stints where they were told to drive to a delta time which meant Vettel could not attack Webber for risk of using up his tyres too quickly and would then have been forced into a 5 pit stop strategy.
We all know the rules and team mates can fight until the team decide that the race strategy is now set and they are instructed to comply with the current formation. Vettel was aware of this after the first stop because he was told to keep a 3 second gap to Webber on the radio and for lap after lap he had to come to terms with the fact that this was not to be his day.
For much of the race, the Red Bull’s were under serious threat from Mercedes and had Lewis not popped in to the McLaren garage just for old times sake, he may well have challenged for the lead of the race at a fairly crucial time. Yet Mercedes had made a substantial miscalculation on fuel and Hamilton never had the ammunition to fight for the win – a fatal blow for the battle we were watching which could have been epic.
Red Mist or a hatched plan?
Back in Vettel’s cockpit there are those like David Coultard who claim his decision to pass Webber was all in the heat of the moment and that he made a ‘red mist’ misjudgement, but is it this simple? Vettel is consistently credited with having a fantastic racing brain, making calls himself that the team accept, enact and they often result in glory.
The Sepang race 2013 was a day of utter frustration for Vettel from when he first decided to ditch the intermediates too early, and it may be that he stewed and boiled away inside the cockpit all afternoon over his poor decision and was in fact looking and hoping for a small opportunity to rectify it.
have watched back time after time the pre-podium encounter in the drivers’ ready room where Vettel and Newey converse for some time and are then joined by Webber with just a minute before the podium ceremony is due to begin.
I am in no doubt Vettel knew what he had done. Further, Adrian Newey was stretched tighter than the gut on a Nadal tennis racquet. Webber then challenged Sebastian over the team order ‘multi 21’ – which is clearly code for ‘hold station’ – and the subsequent denial from Vettel that he had received this instruction quite simply appears to be a lie.
The Webber defence
Many TJ13 readers have suggested the Webber ‘refusal’ to obey team orders at Silverstone in 2011 was a similar breach of team orders, yet the absolute fact of the matter is the whilst he challenged Sebastian for the last 2 laps of the race – for second place – he did not complete the pass and therefore the team’s order was enacted. #SabreRattling
Brazil 2012 has also been quoted as an example of Webber’s breach of team orders, but if anyone has even been in a mere go-kart race they will understand that the start and first corner positioning is often a lottery. The rule of the game is self preservation. Here is the start footage from Sao Paulo just over 3 months ago – what team orders were breached?
Won’t everything just inevitably be well?
So what? I hear you say. Vettel did what he did and that’s life and by the time we get to China it will all be forgotten and when the lights go out for the race we’ll have something else to talk about. That may indeed be so. Yet there are times in life when an event occurs and there is a general sense that things will never be the same again – something fundamental has changed and cannot be reversed. This is a feeling shared by many in F1 24 hours on and after the heat of the moment.
There are a significant number people who work for the Red Bull team who believe Sebastian screwed up ‘royally’ but they do believe that he and the team will find a way to put things right. On the other hand there are those who believe this was the most serious misjudgement Vettel has ever made and together with his lie has diminished for the first time Vettel’s integrity.
There is bizarrely a ‘rabbit in the headlights’ feel to how the Red Bull management are approaching this matter. The precedents set by the likes of Ron Dennis or Frank Williams when the authority of their teams has been challenged by a driver does not seem to be a path Horner et. al. wish to tread. They increasingly look to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
What is clear is that this matter will not simply resolve itself but what are the options and possible outcomes? Whatever they are the single biggest factor to remember is that Webber is the oldest driver in F1 and is on a 1 year contract with Red Bull which is widely believed to be his last with the team.
All will be resolved and the tense but previous rules of combat for the Red Bull protagonists will be re-instated.
For this scenario to be the result, Mark will likely require some recognition, or he will feel the need for Vettel to be sanctioned by the team. Sebastian could be dressed down and forced to sit out the race in China on the ‘naughty step’ but this option has to be highly remote.
The team could fine Vettel but would he accept this sanction? It could be that they pull this off by explaining to Sebastian that if he doesn’t want a maverick Aussie consistently scrubbing the tyre walls of his RB9 for the rest of the year – this minimal humiliation – may well be a price worth paying.
Yet Vettel appears to be on a mission to be the greatest F1 driver – ever – and may mean he refuses to have his copy book blotted with what amounts to his team ‘dressing him down’.
Yet what is true is that the current apology has not been sufficient to appease Mark Webber who has gone off to hit the waves in Australia and hope that is medicine to ease his pain. Yet the wounds run deep and Webber has nothing to lose.
To ease Mark back into ‘team player’ role Red Bull could offer him an extension to his 1 year contract to and confirm he will drive for them in 2014. This could be delivered fairly quickly and declares to the world the team is setting matters right. However there is nervousness within Red Bull as to what exactly Webber may do and would exposing the team to an additional year of this driver line up be perceived as ideal.
Then Webber could refuse a contract extension or the team may feel this gesture is too big an admission of their ‘loss of control’. Yet that is exactly what has happened. The team management are now not in control of their cars’ destiny. If a driver wishes to push the car to the limit and burn out the tyres – hoping this will give them the edge – what can Horner and Newey now do?
A fundamental and irreconcilable breach of team trust has occurred and all control is lost.
The most significant issue Red Bull may need to grasp is that it appears that Vettel’s action on track and initial re-actions after the event suggest that he believes the team were wrong in their decision. Yes, he may have apologised but if that is to placate only rather than a true state of mind – if he is indeed unrepentant – what else will he question when instructed by the team?
Should the Red Bull management be concerned over this? Indeed they should because if Vettel is given the opportunity to believe he is truly ‘invincible’ and above the law of the team, then Marko, Horner and Newey begin to look like patsy’s and utterly impotent as the managers of their own organisation. Their raison d’être then becomes that of a team which simply exists to pacify the driver they consider to be the number one and their best chance of winning.
A sense of history may decide
It may be that the difference between Red Bull when compared to say McLaren and Williams is simply one of historical significance. The latter are teams who understand the pain of their history and the struggles for survival in motor racing’s premier discipline. These teams know all too well the absolute value of what it costs to be a long term participant in the sport of F1 and will be dictated to by no one. For them the truism is that ‘form is temporary and class is permanent’ is one that they have been forced to embrace as solace in the barren times that Red Bull have yet to experience.
Is it that Red Bull are the ‘new money’ of F1? The impudent new kids on the block? They are perceived as trendy as demonstrated by with their ghetto blasting ‘big bad wolf’ victory tunes. Having been in F1 so short a time it would be understandable should they have a sense of history which is foreshortened and somewhat short sighted?
Yet should Red Bull underestimate the significance of this matter, it could be that their title hopes for 2013 become derailed due to disharmony and a sense of individualism may develop throughout the team. I amusingly saw this from a Red Bull employee last night who was joking, “We’re all considering disobeying team orders and not turning up for work tomorrow :)”.
The greatest sporting teams in all disciplines see their dynasties collapse at some point. For those great champions at the zenith of their powers there are always those looking for the first crack in their invincibility as a signal decline is imminent.
And yes, there are those who believe strongly tonight that unless the Red Bull F1 team manage this event properly – then the effervescence of the champagne of success could quickly lose it’s fizz with not even the power of Red Bull able to once again ‘give it wings’. In Formula 1, the winning is in the margins – and co-operation is fundamental to success.