Sebastian Vettel’s Malaysian frustration

Sebastian Vettel may not have enjoyed an ideal start to the 2012 Formula One season but the reigning champion has no reason yet to be concerned about his title prospects. Despite the early challenges, Vettel has still managed to score eighteen points and we’re only two races into the longest season in history. Red Bull has the resources to catch McLaren, and Sebastian has the confidence and experience of a double World Champion. The young German is in good shape for the remainder of the year.

However, the Malaysian Grand Prix did reveal one potential chink in Vettel’s armour – his ability to handle disappointment.

Collision with Karthikeyan

On lap 48 of Sunday’s Grand Prix, Vettel came up to lap Narain Karthikeyan. The HRT driver moved wide at turn seven to let Lewis Hamilton past and stayed wide through the following corner to let Vettel by as well. As the Red Bull edged ahead of Karthikeyan, it was clipped by the HRT. Karthikeyan had moved so far offline that he was on the kerbs and simply lost control, sliding gently back onto the circuit where he tagged Vettel.

Karthikeyan was given a penalty for the incident, although Narain himself felt that was harsh given that Vettel had given him little space to work with on the exit of a wet corner.

Vettel’s reaction to the incident was one of anger and it lasted beyond the heat of the moment.

Once they reached the following corner, Vettel let his feelings known to Karthikeyan via his middle finger and plenty of animated fist waving. On his way back to the pits Vettel continued to shake his fist down the long back straight, this time at no-one in particular, and his anger didn’t quickly dissipate after the race. He told the BBC “It’s like on the normal roads you have some idiots driving around. It seems there is also one driving here”. He also told other reporters that “some people need to look more where they are going” and even referred to Karthikeyan as a “cucumber”. It was a surprisingly bitter and condescending personal attack.

There is certainly nothing wrong with Sebastian feeling upset, or openly sharing that with the media and his fans, but the frustration he displayed in Sepang hasn’t been present for the last eighteen months. Since the end of 2010 Vettel has shown incredible maturity and has tackled Formula One with a strong level-headed mindset. It’s not worth reading much into his Malaysian Grand Prix reaction, but he did not appear to show the temperament he adopted to win two World Championships.

The last time Vettel made his frustrations so public was after the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix. Since then he has embarked on a dominant winning streak.

2010 Hungarian Grand Prix

The Hungarian Grand Prix in 2010 was a significant cathartic turning point for Sebastian Vettel. He qualified for the race on pole position but finished a disappointing third behind two of his championship rivals. Sebastian made a mistake behind the Safety Car, earned a penalty, repeatedly vented at his team over the radio, waved his fist around whilst serving his penalty, angrily grilled his team when Mark Webber assumed control of the race, berated Herbie Blash behind the podium, and sulked throughout the post-race press conference.

It was not a mature display. There is nothing wrong with being disappointed, or showing it, but his poor result was entirely his own doing and his anger lasted beyond the heat of the moment. Getting angry at the innocent Herbie Blash behind the podium (who is merely an FIA observer and not a steward delivering penalties) was not the best way he could have conducted himself. His team would not have appreciated his consistent stream anger over the radio and Christian Horner said after the race “we have to get him thinking positively because he was obviously frustrated”. The 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix showed that Vettel does not always handle disappointment well, and whilst his passion for racing is one of his strengths, you could also suggest it is one of his few weaknesses.

This was visible earlier in 2010 when Sebastian collided with Mark Webber at Istanbul. Again, he had a right to feel upset and should not hide it, but his reaction was not particularly judicious. Suggesting that Webber was crazy with a twirl of his finger was not the most mature gesture Vettel could have made in the gravel trap, but his inability to accept any role in the accident long after the heat had boiled down was more telling. You can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t admit them. Vettel’s actions after the collision with Webber significantly contributed to the split in Red Bull that overshadowed the team’s 2010 championship campaign.

Although Sunday’s anger at Karthikeyan doesn’t match the theatrics from 2010, it was a sign that Vettel could still be considered to be a young driver gaining maturity.

A run of success

Hungary 2010 was a turning point for Vettel. At the very next race at Spa Francorchamps, Sebastian had another poor showing. He crashed into Jenson Button, earned a penalty for doing so, and picked up a puncture following a later collision with Tonio Liuzzi. However, after the Belgian Grand Prix Sebastian admitted his error, apologised to Jenson, and moved on. He handled that disappointment well and with maturity.

Since then Sebastian Vettel has been seemingly untouchable. In the last 26 races Vettel has scored 22 podiums, most of them wins. His late season charge in 2010 delivered his first World Championship and he dominated last year on his way to a second title. He appeared to be calmer and more mature that he was at the start of 2010.

During that time Sebastian Vettel has also faced a number of major disappointments. He experienced an engine failure whilst leading (Korea 2010), a gearbox problem whilst leading (Brazil 2011), lost a Grand Prix on the last lap (Canada 2011), lost another win four laps from the end (China 2011), and picked up a first corner puncture (Abu Dhabi 2011). Each of those incidents was a notable setback for Vettel but there were no tantrums and he didn’t lose his cool. The accusations – fair or otherwise – that Vettel acts like a spoilt child when things didn’t go his way began to lose their substance. He conducted himself with great maturity, especially considering his age and experience in the sport.

This week’s Malaysian Grand Prix was perhaps a sign that, despite his progress, Vettel’s ability to deal with disappointment is still not his greatest strength.

There is nothing wrong with Vettel feeling angry or upset, and there is nothing wrong with him showing his true emotions. Sebastian should be applauded for speaking honestly rather than in PR-friendly statements. It’s just worth noting that he has displayed a lot of composed maturity over the last eighteen months and this has coincided with his great results on the track. The cool calm temperament that was common throughout the end of 2010 and all of 2011 was not on show after the Malaysian Grand Prix.

It’s great to see Vettel being upfront with his feelings and it would be a shame if that ever changed. You certainly can’t blame him for being fired up in the heat of the moment, and his comments in Malaysia were not scandalous or offensive.

They just provided a brief glimpse into the mind of a young sportsman who has achieved so much in so little time, and is still learning to rationalise his disappointment.

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