The Malaysian Grand Prix was more explosive off track than on with Sebastian Vettel’s personal agenda testing Red Bull’s resolve and Mercedes’ team orders leaving their drivers ashamed and aghast.
But what are the long-term repercussions from last weekend?
Much has already been said about Vettel’s controversial decision to pass Mark Webber under team orders. There is no turning back the clock, though, so Red Bull boss Christian Horner now has a tricky problem.
Vettel, like many of the great champions before him, has a selfish and ruthless streak. In the cockpit it has played out time and again in his battles with team-mate Webber but this time, for the first time, he openly disregarded team orders.
It’s the equivalent of a football training ground bust-up, for which a player would be fined or even banned or sidelined in shame. But in F1, a team only has two guys to play with. And at Red Bull, it just so happens that the bad guy in question is clearly their favourite.
There is nothing the FIA can do, this is a team issue, and although former F1 driver John Watson has suggested Red Bull hand out a self-imposed one-race ban they are never going to jeopardise their chances by doing that.
Vettel has apologised, but in truth that means nothing. Given the same situation in future, it’s hard to see any other result than his racing instinct getting the better of him again.
Truth is, there is little Horner can do. He can’t ban or drop Vettel and he’d be a fool to boot out Webber for one of the Toro Rosso rookies just yet. So in truth what he does won’t make a difference.
Red Bull always had a challenge with this driver pairing, but this time it feels like Vettel has stepped over the line in Webber’s mind.
And how this all shakes out is entirely up to him.
The three-week lay-off gives the team time to smooth things out, but surely all the talking in the world won’t convince Webber that he can trust Vettel ever again. At Red Bull, team orders now mean nothing.
The question, then, is not whether Vettel will hold his head in shame and hand over the next win to Webber. No chance. It’s how will Webber react for the rest of the season and beyond.
Webber showed in the past that he can race close to Vettel’s level, and with the new tyres expected to play in his favour he clearly thought this season could be his chance to fight for a world title.
Before the season even began, though, he was criticised by Red Bull motorsport chief Helmut Markko, and now two races in he has been given a clear indication again of where he stands with the team.
Any long-time F1 fan will remember a similar critical moment in San Marino in 1989, when McLaren drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost agreed a ‘non aggressive’ pact between them for the start of the race which Senna completely ignored. He went on to take the title. Prost left the team.
So the two questions are: 1) How will Webber react to team orders in future? And 2) Does he love F1 enough to stick it out?
The two answers were clear in the post-race press conference.
“We've gone through this many times ... and obviously now is a different situation for the future,” he said in response to how he would deal with team orders from now on.
And when asked does it “make you consider your future with the team, maybe even in Formula One?” He responded: “My mind, in the last 15 laps was thinking many things, yes. Many, many things.”
Webber has ridden rough times at Red Bull in the past, but he knows time is ticking on his title dreams.
If his head cools down while he’s pounding the surf in Australia, he could come back ready for a fair fight. But in truth he’s not going to get one. And you get the feeling this may have pushed the amiable Aussie just that little bit too far.
It’s not really in Webber’s nature to go rogue, to be the bad guy, but to become a champion perhaps that’s exactly what he needs to do.
Whichever way you look at it, the incident is not good for Red Bull – nor for Vettel, because you can be sure he won’t get any help from the other side of the garage in his title battle this year.
Over at Mercedes, it was a different play but a similar situation.
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were told to hold station after the final pit stops – but while it was the sensible thing to do, it was completely unfair on Rosberg and he knew it.
These days, F1 is a game of chess and at that point of the race Rosberg had Hamilton checkmate. By racing more conservatively in the early laps, Rosberg had enough fuel and good enough tyres to race at a faster pace. Hamilton, by pushing harder through the race, had not.
For that reason, Rosberg was right to demand to be allowed past - but team boss Ross Brawn flatly turned him down.
If a team is playing the strategy game, they can easily switch the order of their cars without them racing. So to make them hold station when Rosberg had played a better strategy game was simply unfair.
Hamilton knew it, and he humbly said so. But if Rosberg had taken it into his own hands and passed when the pair were under orders to hold station, I wonder how Hamilton would have taken it...
In the post-race press conference, Hamilton was all apologetic and pondered: “Would I let him past in the future if I was in the same position? I probably would.”
But in truth, Hamilton is the same as Vettel. He’s not going to give away any points. Rosberg will never be repaid.
And the decision so early on to favour Hamilton over a clearly faster Rosberg may have been an indication exactly where Mercedes’ priorities lie in the long-term.
In both cases, it shows that honesty and integrity is not the best policy in F1 – as both Webber and Rosberg lost out. But it’s exactly that ruthless and selfish streak that separates the very best from the rest...
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