Sebastian Vettel is a big fan of classic British comedies and even the twenty-seventh win of his career to assume the championship lead has done nothing to reduce the trouble he finds himself in after disobeying orders in Malaysia.
Was he right to do it? It’s a debate that will rumble on. Does it show the cutting edge of a triple world champion or is it crass manipulative move on a supposed equal member of the team? Both sides of the argument can claim to be correct. “I am not fine with it. No,” said Mark Webber after being told to ‘maintain the gap’ to Vettel towards the end of the 2011 British Grand Prix. “That’s the answer to that. Of course I ignored the team as I want to try and get another place.” On the flip side, there was Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, eager to get one up on Lewis Hamilton and stand on the podium. “Negative” came the reply from Ross Brawn and, a few heated radio messages later, he accepted fourth place.
It should have been a positive result for Red Bull. The RB9’s pace was questionable, particularly as both drivers struggled in Q1 before rain saved the day and ensured their safe passage through Q2. Vettel took pole, while a frustrated Webber was only fifth.
The start of the race was unusually positive for Red Bull. Vettel stormed into the lead while Webber leapt from fifth to third and was soon battling with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard though, celebrating his 200th race, had made an uncharacteristic mistake. As Vettel braked for Turn 2, Alonso was caught out and lightly touched the back of the RB9. Cue a loose front wing. Ferrari surprisingly elected to keep Alonso out as they waited for the circuit to dry, but the front wing detached, lodged under the car and Alonso was helpless as he slithered into the gravel at the start of the second tour. On such calls are titles lost.
As the circuit dried it was Vettel who was first to blink, but he struggled throughout the damp first sector of the track and lost time. Webber stayed out, pitted two laps later and emerged in the lead. A poor start by Felipe Massa meant that it was now Mercedes, not Ferrari, who emerged as Red Bull’s number one challengers.
Webber was slowly reeled in by Vettel, who was likewise being caught by the Mercedes of Hamilton and Rosberg. Vettel urged his team to let him pass his team-mate – “Mark is so slow, get him out of the way” – but the reply was negative. The positions were to be maintained…
Hamilton played the undercut and emerged from his third stop in second place, with a view to catching Webber. His pace faded and he was soon usurped by the sister Red Bull of Vettel. The gap was now five seconds and the reigning world champion was in a determined mood. Vettel opted to pit on Lap 44 and used the undercut to slash the gap to Webber, who pitted a lap later. Webber emerged narrowly ahead of Vettel and the duo ran side by side until the Australian edged ahead on the run to Turn 5. One lap later and Vettel used DRS to run side by side but Webber again led exiting Turn 2. Vettel ran around the outside of Turn 4 and swept into a lead that he never relinquished. Vettel was told that was “silly”, while Webber angrily gesticulated at his younger team-mate as he exited Turn 8. The next ten laps must have been a tense affair at Red Bull…
Mercedes was by now no threat as Hamilton was urged to save fuel, leaving a frustrated Rosberg to maintain fourth place. Hamilton later claimed that Rosberg was more deserving of a top three finish, but it was the Brit’s first podium for his new team. Hamilton had a ride down memory lane as he entered McLaren’s pit box, before swiftly realising his error. Felipe Massa pitted late but secured fifth place, ahead of the Lotus’s of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen. Neither Lotus driver made a strong start while Raikkonen twice ran wide at Turn 13. Sergio Perez secured his first McLaren points after finishing ninth, but team mate Jenson Button retired after a wheel wasn’t fitted properly at his pit stop and he tumbled down the order. Button had been demonstrating vastly improved pace and believes he was in the mix for the final podium place. Toro Rosso was fined for releasing Jean Eric Vergne into the path of Charles Pic but Vergne was allowed to keep tenth place to earn his first point of the season. Valtteri Bottas was narrowly behind in eleventh, ahead of Esteban Gutierrez and Jules Bianchi, who once again put in a starring cameo. After a strong performance in Melbourne, Force India endured a nightmare race as a problem with the captive wheel nut system caused major delays in their first stops and as a precaution, both cars were retired. Pastor Maldonado ran wide and damaged his front wing but it was a KERS failure that finally ended his afternoon.
Vettel’s win gives him a nine point buffer back to Raikkonen while Red Bull open up a twenty-six point lead in the Constructors Championship. But right now, mere statistics won’t ease the tension. Vettel may have apologised, but it might be seen as too little, too late. He may be Red Bull’s messiah, but right now, he’s a very naughty boy.