Should we blame Pirelli for Vettel’s Malaysia controversy?

Watching Formula One whilst living in Australia is proving to be a rather enjoyable experience this year. For the first race, I was able to pop on a tram and be at the circuit within fifteen minutes, a wonderful circuit for a season opener at that. The following weekend was the Malaysian Grand Prix, a race which for the last fourteen years I have gotten up early in the morning for and watched over breakfast. A quirk of being down under is that this race was now an evening race, which was strange and yet thoroughly enjoyable. It felt like watching the Canadian Grand Prix, which is of course always in the evening on the middle Sunday of June for European viewers, or even the ever-tense season finale in Brazil each November. An evening Grand Prix always feels that little bit more exciting for being on at prime time, especially during the summer months. The sense of occasion is only matched by getting up at stupid o clock for the season opener in Australia, although since 2009 even that has been on late enough for it to be light outside already in Europe during the race, which for me spoils the middle of the night excitement somewhat. True fans feel like members of a very exclusive club and should be rewarded for their efforts in getting up at whatever time the Grand Prix may be on that week.

But back to Malaysia and last weekend. Of course, Bernie Ecclestone will surely be thanking his latest German wunderkid Vettel for splashing Formula One all over the front and back pages thanks to his blatant disregard for team orders during the Sepang race. For those who have been living in a cave for the last two days (an odd expression, yes, but one I’ll run with for now) Sebastien ignored Red Bull’s command to hold station behind team mate Mark Webber and save the tyres by coasting to the end without racing each other. Instead, Vettel passed Mark after the Australian had obediently slowed down after receiving the same command. The post race exchange between the two Red Bull drivers and the subsequent podium press conference (which was superbly handled by Martin Brundle) was an awkward acrimonious affair. As usual, Webber spoke his mind and team boss Christian Horner echoed Mark’s displeasure at Vettel having deliberately disobeyed the instruction which had been agreed before the race.

That was only part of Webber’s gripe, though, and to understand it fully you have to take into account the way the sport as a whole has evolved during Mark’s 17 year career. The Australian spent his whole life fighting to get to the sport he dreamed of, racing as hard as he could in the hope that one day he would be in Formula One driving a car capable of winning races. One year after finally achieving this and coming close to the title in 2010, the sport changed fundamentally with the introduction of Pirelli tyres. Since 2011, Formula One has been far more about conserving the tyres and not racing at the limit of what is possible, as it used to be. He who plays the long game and is kinder to his tyres in the early stages of the race has a better shot of victory later in the afternoon. This is true not just for drivers, but for car designers too. Adrian Newey has produced such a spectacularly quick car in the RB9 that is in a league of its own in long, fast corners, but thanks to the latest edition of delicate Pirelli rubber, the car now chews through them quicker than other cars and other teams have been able to peg the gap. Pirelli say that by their calculations, without these tyres that fall apart after a few laps depending on how kind the driver and car is to them, the Red Bulls would be lapping every other car right now…

Webber is like Lewis Hamilton in that this current version of the sport does not reward his on the limit style of driving, the traditional approach to Formula One which saw drivers wringing every last thousandth of a second out of the car, pushing the upper limits of performance lap after lap. Drivers like Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg, however, are somewhat superstars of this era of the sport, both having great capabilities when it comes to nursing the tyres early on and playing the long game. Nico did exactly this last Sunday in Malaysia and by rights should really have been on the podium. Lewis was too fast early on in the Grand Prix and admitted on the podium that Rosberg drove a smarter race and the wrong Mercedes driver was on the roster. Like I said, Martin Brundle did a great job handling three drivers on the podium who all thought they didn’t really deserve the position they finished in – it should have been Webber first from Seb and Rosberg.

The last major controversy between the Red Bull drivers came three years ago at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul. That day, the pair famously crashed, handing the race to McLaren. Just like last weekend, it started with Webber trying to back Vettel into Hamilton, and just like last weekend, Hamilton fought with his team mate (then Button at McLaren) who had driven a smarter race to save tyres, and in those days fuel also. Since then, Vettel and Webber’s rivalry has been bubbling under the surface – during his 2010 British Grand Prix victory slow down lap, Mark exclaimed on the team radio for all to hear “not bad for a number two driver”. Then as recently as two races ago at Brazil last year – the final race of the season and the crucial championship decider between Vettel and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso – Seb was unhappy to be squeezed at the start by Mark in a sequence of events that ended with Vettel facing backwards at the exit of turn three with a broken car and his championship hopes seemingly up in smoke. The pair fought side by side later in the race until Webber was told by the team to let Seb go as the championship was at stake.

Both drivers will inevitably get a talking to from the team after last weekend’s controversy. But how best to resolve this issue for the good of the sport and the fans? Team orders were banned after Ferraris’ Michael Schumacher was gifted victory by team mate Rubens Barrichello at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, only for the rule to be dropped after Ferrari repeated the act with Alonso and Felipe Massa at the 2010 German Grand Prix. Essentially, it’s unenforceable as teams will always have code for these things and sometimes common sense has to apply, although many fans would love to see team orders abolished.

So should we go back to racing on the edge and abandoning tyres that need to be nursed; is it all too artificial and boring to have drivers looking after the cars rather than racing hard and proper? Perhaps, but then we would lose most of the excitement of the overtaking, varying strategies and huge unpredictability we have seen in races these last three seasons. And do we really want the Red Bulls lapping racing hard and on the limit but lapping everyone else each weekend? Thought not…

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