Sebastian Vettel's defiance reopens old F1 debate

Is Formula One about competition between drivers or between teams? Either way, world champion has diminished himself in the eyes of many

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 4:57am

This year's Formula One season may be only two races old, but it has already conjured up a new "team orders" controversy that has divided opinion.

Sebastian Vettel's ill-planned decision, made in the heat of the moment, to ignore his Red Bull team's order to stay second behind Mark Webber in last Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix has stirred up the eternal debate about the sport's true identity - is it racing between teams or individual drivers?

Does it matter that Vettel, 25, has visited Milton Keynes and apologised to team members after saying sorry to Webber and, reportedly, shaking his hand during the team's traditional de-brief following the race at Sepang?

Does it matter that Webber has, allegedly, accepted the apology and moved on, in the process confirming he will stay with Red Bull and race again as Vettel's teammate in the Chinese Grand Prix in two weeks?

Does it matter that Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's ancient commercial ringmaster, ensured that his predictable comments of approval for Vettel's aggression were widely aired? Ultimately, in each case, no, it does not matter.

The well-used excuses trotted out last week by Red Bull team chief Christian Horner, referring to the competitive instincts of racing drivers, deserve little time. It is his job to control his drivers.

In an interview with Sky Sports News, Horner revealed Vettel had said "he can't turn back the clock, but he's accepted what he did was wrong".

"He's apologised to the team and to every single member of staff for his actions because he recognises the team is vitally important and being part of the team is a crucial aspect to being able to challenge for those championships."

There was no mention of disciplinary action.

In other sports, in other teams, he might have been accused of dragging the sport into disrepute. In F1, where the paddock's most influential leaders are sensitive to the demands of television, and the need to provide a consistently dramatic show, it is more convenient to draw a line and forget the furore.

"Mark knows there was no conspiracy within the team," Horner said. "We gave equality and our intention was to shut the race down and minimise the risk - particularly with the tyre degradation we had seen.

"It was the intent of the team for Mark to win the race. It wasn't that we suddenly gave Sebastian the instruction to 'go and pass your teammate'. He is big enough to know there was no malice and no intent to create any situation like that.

"He is in a car capable of winning races and the championships. I have no doubt Mark will see out the contract with us."

On team orders, he added: "Of course, as a purist, you want to see the drivers race - and actually the show they put on was fantastic, it was great wheel-to-wheel racing, but then you're steering the ship and your responsibility is to 600 people …

"They don't get paid on what the driver does, they get paid on what the team's constructor finish is. Then the responsibility is to make sure that the team achieves its maximum."

Webber's rugged stoicism has earned him many admirers. Vettel's vanity and single-mindedness have cost him.

The German may have points on the board, but in the memory banks of most human beings, he has been marked as untrustworthy and, after winning three titles, he is clearly too experienced to hide behind the flimsy clichés paraded as excuses last week.

Agence France-Presse