Sunday 24 March 2013

Malaysian GP Report: Vettel can't resist temptation

It should have been the perfect day for Red Bull and for Sebastian Vettel. A one-two finish on a day when many doubted the RB9's race pace and ability to look after its tyres. Sebastian Vettel claimed a maximum score in a race in which Fernando Alonso scored none and Kimi Raikkonen scored only six. And it was a close and exciting affair featuring a desperate battle for supremacy at the front. Yet it is a day that neither driver nor team will forget in a hurry for all of the wrong reasons. And its implications may yet come back to bite Seb in his quest for world championship number four.

Sebastian Vettel - he won today
but the smiles were strained
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
As is often the case in Sepang, rain was a major player, and a rain shower just before the start soaking particularly the back section of the track, framed much of the race. Loosely, the shake out from wet to dry left us with two Red Bulls and then two Mercedes out front, but with Mark Webber ahead of Vettel, as Webber made the right call of staying out on intermediate tyres a little longer. There were some subsequent adventures, but it stayed that way broadly, until the final round of pitstops.

Webber then remained ahead - just. And minded with tyre life, engine life and gearbox life, as well as getting both cars to the finish in one piece, Red Bull called the battle off (which we now know is called 'Multi 21'). But Vettel seemed to concur with the Oscar Wilde view that 'I can resist everything except temptation'. With seven additional points laying before him, Seb's competitive instincts took over. He sought first place, and got it after overcoming Webber's surprised yet determined defence after a rather lairy scrap. And Vettel was still there at the end.

Vettel apologised subsequently, but it all seemed rather a day late and a dollar short. And while he did indeed get seven more points today than he 'should' have done, you wonder if over time he'll lose more. For one thing, presumably he cannot necessarily count on help from across the garage in his quest for title number four this year. For another, we've seen generally in F1 that intra-team warfare can suck considerable energy out of a team, seen at McLaren in 2007, Williams in 1986-7, and in several other cases. And most of all, we have before now tended to think of Vettel and Red Bull as thick as thieves, but Christian Horner's reluctance to defend Vettel after today's race was tangible as well as possibly unprecedented. There will be little explicit sanction from Red Bull to Vettel, given he's the 'talent' in that team. But still you wonder in that relationship if it is never glad confident morning again.

But still, Seb against expectations leads the way on points. And once again, rain in qualifying and the race meant that we didn't get the perfect sense of the current 2013 competitive pecking order, but again there was sufficient dry running to give us a few more clues.

Is the Mercedes finally the real deal?
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
One is, the Mercedes looks indeed to be the real deal. The only note of caution is that we've had false dawns before from Brackley, including one precisely 12 months ago. But the car looks a world away from the one that finished the 2012 season. And Nico Rosberg in a year that will be his acid test looked that he absolutely intends to match Lewis Hamilton for pace this year, indeed only (yet another) pitwall call kept him behind today. For another, while the McLaren is still bad it may not be the disaster area that it looked in Melbourne. The Sepang track suited it more, and it in Jenson's hands looked well on for fifth place until a late pit fumble.

And what about Ferrari? Despite looking best placed of anyone as the starting grid formed up at Sepang the race went out with a whimper, with Felipe Massa's fifth place 25 seconds shy of the winner the best it could do. And in Alonso's case the race last barely a lap, when someone got too clever by half. Alonso, apparently surprised by Vettel's slow apex speed at turn 2 as well as having a minor slide of his own, tapped the back of Vettel which partly detached his front wing. But just as in Japan last year a minor error had a major punishment. Alonso pressed on, apparently at the team's behest, in order to seek to coincide the front wing change with the imminent change to slick tyres. And it backfired, as the front wing came off properly at the start of lap 2, got under his front wheels, and sent him into the gravel. It's easy to say with hindsight, but with a championship at stake it seemed an unnecessarily cavalier approach.

And then there's Lotus. Some of the potential impediments to a championship charge hinted at in Melbourne had a more explicit manifestation today. Despite good lap times at many points they struggled to get out of the midfield mire resultant from lowly grid slots, and as a result sixth and seventh, with Romain Grosjean ahead, was the outcome. Kimi Raikkonen indeed finished close to fifty seconds after Vettel. And to be frank Kimi's race was a bit scrappy, featuring two off course excursions and contact with Nico Hulkenberg.

Thus, just like Melbourne, Sepang didn't provide all of the answers, indeed it created a few more questions. But every action has its consequences, both intended and unintended. And it's unintended consequences from today that Sebastian Vettel will need to be wary of in the races to come.

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