Rencken: Malaysian controversy

2013-03-25 07:53

SEPANG, Malaysia - In the end, the 54-lap 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix was characterised not by the equatorial country’s sweltering heat and humidity or the tropical showers which dump rain drops the size of golf balls on the 5.5km circuit’s harsh surface without a moment’s notice.

Instead, post-race, the second round (of 19) in the 2013 FIA Formula 1 World championship was all about “sorry”.

First we had winner Sebastian Vettel apologising to Red Bull team mate Mark Webber for forcing his way through while Webber was in “save” mode.


Vettel said: “At end I felt I had strong pace and, on a new set of medium tyres, I had a bit more speed. It was a close fight but I did a big mistake today. We should have stayed in the positions we were in.

"I didn't ignore it (the order) on purpose but I messed up. I took the lead from Mark, which I can see now he is upset about, but I want to be honest and stick to truth, and apologise.

“ I took quite a lot of risk to pass him and I should have behaved better. It doesn't help his feelings right now. Apologies to Mark but all I can say is that I didn't do it deliberately."

It was an astonishing admission from a champion racing driver and there is absolutely no doubt that Vettel’s image of an upstanding sportsman has been irreparably tarnished. As much as he doth protest that he didn’t ignore his team’s wishes on purpose, the fact remains that he had 10 laps to change his mind.

The overwhelming perception in the paddock was that he figured he would steal the win off his team mate, then apologise. That he did, most cack-handedly.

Team boss Christian Horner, who has to deal with the fallout, was not convinced by Vettel’s apology: "He had made quite clear what his intention was by making the move. He knew what the communication was. He had had the communication. He chose to ignore it.

"He put his interest beyond the team's position. He was focused on the seven points difference between second and first - which was wrong. He has accepted it was wrong."


Elsewhere there was more of the same: Lewis Hamilton expressed his regret for taking third despite Nico Rosberg being the faster Mercedes driver but prohibited by management from overtaking Lewis. One wonders what clauses the latter’s contract contains…

Hamilton said: “I don't know what the situation was with Nico but I can do a better job looking after tyres. He’s a great team mate. I will speak to the team, or apologise. I said to him he did a fantastic job. Nico deserved to be where I am.”

On the podium Hamilton had apologised to his new team for erroneously passing through the pit of his former team McLaren during a tyre stop. “[I was] used to, for so many years, driving to the McLaren pit stop. I don’t know how I got it wrong. So big apologies to the team.”

Is it over? Of course not, for once the drivers' apologies were out of the way it was the turn of Ferrari and McLaren to accept blame, with the Italian outfit shouldering responsibility for the decision to keep Fernando Alonso out despite the Spaniard having damaged his front wing on lap one.

Team principal Stefano Domenicali said: "The decision was [taken] from the pit wall. Obviously Fernando could feel it in the car, but he could not see the damage. We take the responsibility as the team. The 'kiss' [on Vettel's car] was unfortunate because we could have taken good points from this race."

When F1 is on to a good thing it generally goes the whole hog so McLaren joined the fray, exonerating driver Jenson Button after his McLaren was left stranded in the pits lane with an unsecured front wheel. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh pointed to human error among the pit crew.

Whitmarsh said: "These people are trying to do sub two-second stops. There's a lot going on in that time and a lot of pressure on people. Human error resulted in a green light. It's one of those occasions when you wish your driver wasn't so quick off the mark...”

So even Jenson found himself tacitly praised…


Between these incidents we enjoyed a fascinating race, though one that did not provide cast-iron pointers to the true pecking order of the 2013 grid. Red Bull has locked out both front rows to date and the team is leading the Constructors' championship from Ferrari so has almost a win in hand, but the bottom line is that Alonso tagged his front wing on the rear of Vettel’s car as he challenged for the lead.

Alonso explained afterwards, not surprisingly reverting to F1’s more usual blame culture: “After making a good start I touched with Vettel at the second corner: it was a surprise to find him there, almost stopped. I don’t know what speed he was doing."

Team mate Felipe Massa proved the Ferrari’s potential by lining up third but finishing fifth.

It is a long stretch to suggest Rosberg would have won had he been given his head the fact is that he would have been closer to the leading duo than Hamilton managed and Melbourne winner Kimi Räikkönen would no doubt have been in the mix had he not been docked three grid slots for blocking during qualifying.  


Ambient temperatures at levels more usually found in Malaysia in late March (36 rather than the 23 experienced during the race after a brief storm hit the place 20 minutes before to the start) would also have made all the difference, for the Lotus E21 is the gentlest of the entire 2013 crop on tyres and in hot weather would have run one stop fewer than the opposition.

Fifth and sixth for Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen were just rewards.

It is clear that the 2013 grid has at least six potential winners – much the same as in 2012, in fact, save that the sharp end looks even tighter. For all that, Malaysia 2013 is best forgotten for its podium: the driver who should have been on the step was second, the winner should have been second and the third-placed man should not even have been there - he should have been fourth.

A race the Malaysian GP was but a sporting event it sure wasn’t. The 2013 Chinese GP on April 14 will demonstrate how the four big teams have dealt with the aftermath.


  • Sipho Marete - 2013-03-25 08:47

    A great pity Alonso crashed out, it could have been a clanger of a race. I wonder how the "team orders" would have panned out then?

      Nico Basson - 2013-03-25 16:19

      What the H were they thinking? He should have just sucked it up and pitted. Someone wasn't thinking straight. Forza Ferrari.

  • Kwashic - 2013-03-25 09:27

    coulda shoulda woulda.... all waste of time. By now we should all know that in F1 nothing is certain. ... if alonso had not failed and crashed, if Hamilton was in a Red Bull, if Michael Schumacer was still young ... ag!

      Cobus Fenwick - 2013-03-25 14:09

      If they still used stick-shifts, the playstationracers would still be in GP2, if they were lucky?

      Sipho Marete - 2013-03-27 07:19

      @Kwashirai Chigodora- don't be a prisoner of a closed mind. Use your imagination, let your mind go, think a little, experience the freedom of thought.

  • Nico Oelofse - 2013-03-25 10:36

    What alot of nonsense is this keep your position. I am glad for Vettel. Mark was not fast enough, he must be man enough and be happy with second. How can Hamilton sleep well and know he didnt deserve 3rd. If it was the end of the season it might have been a a good reason for the team to ask a driver to help his team mate or team but I believe it is bad sportsmanship to keep the best man from winning or use a team mate to slow down his pace and hold up other drivers to help his team mate.

      Hendrik Schutte - 2013-03-30 13:06

      Surely F1 racing should be ABOUT RACING? Team principals should not interfere with driver skills and abilities. If Webber was good and fast enough on the day, he should have been free to prove it. If Rosberg was good enough to get and stay ahead of Hamilton, that is what he should have been allowed to do. Would be so NICE if F1 could return to the original principle of it being a RACE from flag to flag. If the car is not good enough to alst the distance, then the team needs to do their work and make sure it CAN last a RACE distance, not a parade.

  • Oscar Twentytwo - 2013-03-26 10:00

    @Nico -Mark was fast enough but he set the car to limited performance as per the teams instructions. I loathe Vettel but at the end of the day its racing and if you're not there to win then whats the point. This "team order" stuff is a load of cock-and-bull. Why have an individual drivers championship if the outcome is not based on the individual driver - surely your number 1 oponent is your team mate like in Moto GP?

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