There’s always some drama in Formula 1 and the Malaysian Grand Prix 2013 was not an exception; but unlike the typical crash or technical failure type of drama, this time it was about what was going through the drivers’ heads that sparked most tension. It’s been a while since team radio conversations made for such a soap-opera style race…
In the days when Massa regularly out-qualifies his team-mate (the Malaysian GP was the fourth consecutive instance), the Ferrari “Fernando is faster than you” faux-pas from the German Grand Prix 2010 instantly springs to mind. After that incident team orders were temporarily banned; why would they be allowed again? A possible answer lies in the two opening races of this season: in the difficult track and tyre conditions it is quite understandable that the drivers might require some additional guidance on how to behave to perform better. However, against popular belief as we saw in Sepang, more often it’s about curbing the drivers’ ambitions than encouraging them to fight.
As with the Australian Grand Prix a week earlier, there were a few race leaders in Malaysia but Mark Webber was the most prominent one. Tyre choices played a huge role once more in establishing race positions and this was the Red Bull driver’s winner card to move ahead of his team-mate and polesitter Vettel early in the race. It was a thrilling spectacle to watch those two battle out for position on a few occasions, and when finally on lap 46 the reigning champion managed to reclaim his starting spot, one might have been willing to accept his superiority – until a delayed radio message from his team principal was broadcast.
“That is silly, Seb” Christian Horner had said as his star pursued his team-mate. After some struggle Webber finally gave in and Vettel claimed his first win of the season to climb to the top of the 2013 leader board, leaving the Aussie in second. It wasn’t until the two found themselves in the driver’s room prior to the podium ceremony when the gravity of the incident became imminent. Webber was furious and his only words for Vettel were: “multi 21”, team code for holding position, ergo – not overtaking your team-mate. The Aussie didn’t change his stance during the ceremony, as he said bitterly:
“In the end Seb made his own decisions today and will have protection as usual, and that’s the way it goes.”
Although afterwards Vettel apologised to his team-mate, he also defended his own actions as “not deliberate”; but his podium smile was rather bleak nevertheless. “It looks like you wanted it badly enough. There will be some explaining to do,” he had heard earlier on the radio.
“This is not a victory that I’m very proud of because it should have been Mark’s”, he admitted, eventually.
The three-time champion was not the only driver reprimanded in Sepang; Nico Rosberg felt the power of his Mercedes and was eager to unleash it in the final laps of the race, but was repeatedly told off by his team principal, Ross Brawn, to keep his place for car maintenance reasons. “Lewis can go faster as well but that’s what we’re asking him to do,” Brawn explained on the radio to keep the morale high, and Rosberg meekly listened to eventually receive some words of thanks from upon parking his Mercedes just outside the podium spot. “Remember this one,” he said just before leaving the car, signalling an expectation of retribution. His honourable behaviour didn’t go unnoticed even by Hamilton, who from the third podium step admitted: “If I’m honest I feel Nico should be standing here.”
Whether it is the 2008 champion’s skills or just increased morale thanks to a star-studded team in the garage, Mercedes has visibly upped its game since last year. Their desire to be in the points seems a good enough reason to control the drivers’ pace in the final stages of a technically demanding race; but there has been talk that Hamilton’s contract was the main reason why Brawn wanted to make sure that one of his drivers claimed the laurels. In the meantime, Hamilton’s commitment to the team was put in doubt for a few seconds, when his old sentiments led him to a McLaren garage for his first pit-stop of the afternoon – a mistake that potentially cost him a higher podium step.
There were, of course, more pit-stop troubles – technical too, but ones that should not have taken place with such experienced teams like Force India or, indeed, McLaren. Three drivers have been affected by wheel issues: an extensive wheelnut wear left Force India with no points as both Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta were called into their garage early for safety reasons; whilst a loose front tyre demoted Jenson Button from a potential fifth place finish to 17th. His potential finishing position was taken by Massa, curiously the only point scorer for Ferrari with his “faster” team-mate Alonso crashing out at the end on lap one due to a damaged front wing.
The Malaysian Grand Prix 2013 stands therefore a perfect example of how quickly drivers’ fortunes get overturned: in the matter of hours Vettel’s reputation plummeted, whilst the shadow-man Rosberg was raised to the position of a hero. However, it’s unlikely that any significant consequences will be taken for their behaviour – ones that could affect their future race performance – in which case Vettel’s arguably dishonourable win is still another victory on the books, and one nearing him to yet another title.
And some fresh drama always makes the show a bit more exciting, doesn’t it?