Sebastian Vettel’s controversial victory in yesterday’s Malaysian Grand Prix will be one the young German never forgets. Vettel took the win at the expense of his teammate and did so under circumstances that led him to apologise for his actions. Although he did not behave with the honour one might expect from him, Vettel is not entirely to blame for the mess that has engulfed Red Bull.

At the end of lap 43 both Red Bull drivers had completed their final pitstops. The team instructed the two leaders, with Mark Webber in front, to hold position and conserve their cars to the finish. Sebastian Vettel ignored this instruction, overtook Webber, and went on to claim victory.

It easy to pass criticism in hindsight, but that doesn’t hide the fact there was some disappointingly poor judgement on display at Sepang.

Sebastian Vettel’s responsibility

Sebastian Vettel acted in an unsporting manner, but such sweeping statements don’t paint the full picture. Vettel’s crime was not one of ambition.

Sebastian saw a chance to overtake a driver and win a Grand Prix, so he went for it. He is a racing driver, and is a very successful one, so is programmed to think that way. It might have been the wrong decision but it was the decision of a racer. It is that sort of ruthless opportunism and motivation that wins multiple World Championships.

Further to that point, it’s worth notwas certainlying the team orders that Red Bull imposed in Malaysia were simply there to prevent Vettel and Webber from crashing into each other or pushing their cars too hard. The instructions from management served no championship purpose whatsoever. By taking the lead and getting both cars to the finish, Vettel proved the orders were completely unnecessary.

Vettel’s sin was not what he did, but how he did it.

Sebastian fought Mark for the lead of the race with an unfair advantage. After both drivers were instructed to turn their engines down and conserve their cars, Vettel pounced. That is not racing opportunism, but thievery. If Vettel wanted a fight to the flag he should have made his intentions clear instead of stealing an advantage from a teammate who was following the very instructions he ignored. That is not a fair fight, and that is arguably Vettel’s biggest offence.

If both drivers were in an equal position to fight for the win, then you could defend Sebastian’s decision to ignore the team orders that didn’t seem necessary. It might not have been the right decision but you could still argue a case for it. After all, we want to see drivers racing each other all the way to the finish. However, in this case both drivers were not in an equal position and that is where Vettel went wrong. He took advantage of someone else who was doing the right thing and that simply isn’t fair.

What makes this more galling is the possibility that both drivers had agreed before the race that no fighting would take place after the final round of pitstops. Webber has since explained “we had a plan before the race” and Vettel himself acknowledged it is “something we talk about many times in the year” which suggests that holding position was always a clear expectation, not something suddenly sprung upon them. If that is the case, it means Vettel agreed to do something but then did the total opposite. If it turns out Vettel did renege on an earlier plan and go back on his word, that would be a significant moral failure. It would be incredibly disappointing.

With that poor sporting judgement in mind, Vettel is not entirely to blame for his messy victory. The Red Bull pitwall is also in a position of responsibility.

Red Bull’s poor communication

After the final pitstops, Red Bull’s engineers told Mark Webber the race between himself and Vettel was over. They told him that his teammate would not challenge for victory. Importantly, they told him this twice.

What they told him was false.

Red Bull’s information to Webber was unintentionally false, but it was still misleading. It was certainly not made clear that Vettel was ready to stop racing so the team should never have told Mark that was the case.

They should have also let Mark know what was actually going on as soon as it became apparent. There was a big failure of communication between the Red Bull pitwall and the race leader, and for that Mark can shoulder no blame.

Instead of communicating clearly with Webber, the Red Bull team made a few weak calls to Vettel and suggested he was being “silly”.

The pitwall should have not made assumptions when they presented Webber with information, and should have communicated more decisively with both of their drivers when the on-track drama started developing.

Red Bull made one other crucial misjudgement. They did not ask Vettel to give the leading position back to Mark Webber before the end of the race. That would have been the right thing to do, and they could have avoided a lot of this mess had they done so. Red Bull chose not to pursue that option.

When asked why Red Bull didn’t request the swap, team boss Christian Horner said “do you honestly think that if we had told him slow down and give the place back, he would have given it back?”

Perhaps not, but that completely misses the point. Even if Vettel ignored the request, Red Bull should have set that expectation. They should have provided clear communication to Sebastian and given him that firm option. The team had a chance to right the wrong, or at least try to, but chose to do nothing. By not asking Vettel to move over for Mark, Red Bull did not take the most obvious step towards fixing the problem, and Webber has every right to feel aggrieved by that.

Further regrets

There are other things Vettel and Red Bull may wish they had done differently yesterday.

For example, Sebastian may wish that he hadn’t asked the team to move Webber out of his way earlier in the race. Not only was he wrong to request this since Webber was actually pulling away from him at the time, but you can’t ask for team orders at one point during a Grand Prix and then completely ignore them later on. By doing so, Sebastian has exposed himself to criticism that he has an unhealthy sense of self entitlement. It certainly doesn’t present him as a team player and could be seen by some to reflect poorly on his character.

Also, if Vettel had explained after the Grand Prix that he is a ‘racer’ and wanted to fight for victory, it would have been more excusable than a lame apology during which he described his actions as a “mistake”. A mistake is something you do wrong unintentionally. Vettel’s actions were not unintentional.

Red Bull may also question the wisdom of asking their drivers to run in formation after placing them on different tyre strategies. It seems like an odd move when you want your drivers to hold position.

Moving forwards

In the end, what’s done is done, and it will be interesting to see what action Red Bull management takes against Vettel who clearly undermined their authority. A private slap on the wrist is most likely. Hopefully Red Bull look at their own procedures, and their own lines of communication, when considering things that should have been done differently in Malaysia. They should certainly ask themselves why they even bothered using team orders in the first place.

I highly doubt we’ll see another one of those cringe-worthy ‘agree to disagree’ photos.

Vettel’s lapse of sporting judgement, and his team’s inability to prevent it or try to compensate for it, fleeced Mark Webber of a deserved Grand Prix victory. In doing so, Sebastian Vettel has exposed his fragile sporting morals and Red Bull’s willingness to accommodate them.

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