By Craig Murto
With a teammate like three-time World Driving Champion Sebastian Vettel, who needs enemies?
That's the question Red Bull Renault driver Mark Webber is asking himself as the teams prepare for the Chinese Grand Prix in a couple of weeks. The Australian had the Malaysian Grand Prix won, only to have Vettel ignore team orders and go on for his 27th victory, tying Jackie Stewart for sixth on the all-time F1 win list.
Webber drove an incredible race at Malaysia, going from fifth on the grid to a relatively comfortable lead over his teammate after the final pit stop. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Webber -- and reassured him twice -- that he should dial-back his engine and drive conservatively to save tires. Vettel was given the order to maintain his position.
F1 teams are only allowed eight engines for the entire season. Once Red Bull was securely in first and second, it made sense to have both cars conserve their equipment; the one-two finish would be good for the team in the manufacturers' championship, and that is the team's primary concern.
Also, if Webber had won the race he would have been tied for first in the championship with Vettel, handing manufacturer Renault a great marketing gift as the F1 circus took a few weeks off prior to China.
But Vettel ignored team orders and battled with Webber, grabbing the lead and the eventual win. To say Webber was angry is putting it mildly; rumors soon surfaced that he would quit driving in F1 and be replaced by the Chinese Grand Prix.
Horner noted that drivers' interests often don't coincide with the team's. He told the media that he would resolve the situation internally. It didn't take long before Vettel issued public apologies to Webber and admitted he made a "mistake," but as former champion Jenson Button noted in an interview, he can't give Webber back the win. And, Button said, Vettel has damaged his reputation within the team as well as up and down the paddock. F1 teams value loyalty and the ability to follow orders; that's why Nelson Piquet Jr. will never race in Europe again after admitting his team gave him orders to crash.
The Vettel incident in Malaysia brings up the issue of "team orders," something most people in F1 don't like except for the teams. But in this case, the team allowed Webber and Vettel to race until after the final pit stop. That's when Horner, realizing he had the big picture to take into consideration (including engine wear), decided that Webber had won the race and that cars should go into conservation mode.
Now imagine yourself as Mark Webber. You and your team have just driven a superb race, both on track and with tire strategy, and now have a comfortable lead. The team orders you to dial-back your engine to save it for future races, and assures you more than once that Sebastian Vettel has been ordered to do the same. Then, before you realize what's going on, here comes Vettel attacking you for the lead.
What makes it worse is that the team has coddled Vettel throughout his career. A couple years ago in Turkey, Vettel caused an accident that took out both Red Bull cars, and actually blamed Webber for the incident. Christian Horner seemed more interested at the time with protecting his young driver's ego than letting Vettel know what he did wrong.
Is Vettel fast? Yes. Is he faster than Webber? Most of the time, yes. Is he talented in the way Michael Schumacher was talented, with the ability to win with a losing car and make the team better? Probably not. Is he worth the turmoil he's causing within the team?
That's the big question, isn't it? Is Vettel worth the turmoil he's causing? Obviously in the past the team has deemed him worth it, and he paid them back with three championships. But it's hard to find and keep a solid No. 2 driver as talented as Webber; Vettel has done himself and his team no favors in Malaysia. It is guaranteed that if Vettel needs his teammate's help later in the year to win the championship, he won't find it.
Webber must feel like he's alone on the racetrack. How does the team make up the loss in Malaysia to Webber and at the same time send Vettel a message? Do they "dial-back" Vettel's engine from pit road and allow Webber to grab a win? Would that be enough for Webber?
Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.