Vettel wins controversial Malaysian Grand Prix

Sebastian-Vettel-side-Monaco-FP3-2012Sebastian Vettel led home a Red Bull one-two at the Malaysian Grand Prix following a controversial race at Sepang.

The reigning world champion battled wheel to wheel with his teammate, Mark Webber, throughout the race and it was only following the final round of pitstops that Vettel got to the front. With Webber leading Red Bull issued instructions for their drivers not to race and to hold station. For the two laps following the stops however the pair fought a white hot battle with the German getting in front.

After the race it was clear how everyone within the team felt with the radio message from Vettel’s engineer saying, “we’ll have some explaining to do on this one….”

Lewis Hamilton Ross Brawn Jerez test 2013At Mercedes there was similar tension with Lewis Hamilton securing the final step on the podium after his teammate, Nico Rosberg, was told to hold station during the closing laps where Hamilton was forced into fuel saving mode. This had come after an exciting fight where the pair traded places in the DRS zones for several laps.

The race began in wet conditions following an afternoon shower but quickly the track dried amid the heat of the tropics and drivers made the change to slick tyres. Fernando Alonso however was not one of the these. The Spaniard made a quick start and moved into second behind Vettel into the first corner.

Into turn two he misjudged his braking and touched Vettel. The incident was enough to damage his front wing but with the track drying Alonso opted not to pit for repairs and instead stayed out on track hoping that he could change to slick tyres and change his wing at the same time.

It was a gamble for the double world champion and on the following lap it did not pay out. Coming down the pitstraight and fighting with Webber the front wing collapsed and Alonso was a pasanger towards an accident and retirement. This left Webber chasing Vettel at the front of the field.

Fernando-Alonso-Monaco-Gold-Helmet-2012After the race Stefano Domenicali admitted that the team had made the mistake and that it was their decision to keep the Spaniard on track.

“We took a risk that didn’t pay off,” admitted Domenicali to reporters, as reported by Autosport. “After the touch, the race was not over and I considered the situation where there was a transition from wet to dry. 

“In normal conditions you would come in, but in this transition, if you believe the wing can survive, you try and bide your time. You may have the chance to pit to change to the dry tyres and be the hero of the weekend. The decision was from the pitwall. Obviously Fernando can feel it in the car, but he could not see the damage from his view. Unfortunately the wing didn’t stay there.”

With the Red Bull’s running together at the front for the first stint Webber took the lead following the first round of pitstops. Vettel had pitted earlier to slicks, just before the ideal time. This left the Red Bull’s in front with Hamilton chasing them hard.

The Englishman, as ever, revelled in the mixed conditions and was looking very strong in the first half of the race. With Hamilton the fastest man on the track and hunting down the Red Bull’s in the lead Vettel was talking to his team and urging them to issue team orders to get him back to the front. Given what happened later in the afternoon the irony of this will not have been lost on Webber…

Mark-Webber-Monaco-FP3-2012With Webber leading and Hamilton closing on Vettel the second round of pitstops was always going to be key. The Mercedes driver pitted early and put in a couple of fast laps before Vettel pitted. When the German emerged from the pits he had dropped to third behind Hamilton.

The Englishman seemed well placed to fight for the win but in this third stint his pace slowed and he couldn’t match the Red Bulls. Vettel moved back in front before making his final stop of the afternoon. Pitting a couple of laps earlier than Webber meant that when the Australian made his stop he would exit the pits just in front of Vettel.

The Red Bull’s raced hard for the next two laps with neither driver giving an inch and the radio messages from the team getting more and more frequent for Vettel to stay in second position. The triple world champion however was having none of this and forced his way past Webber.

After the race Vettel offered a weak apology to Webber:

Sebastian-Vettel-Portier-hill-Monaco-FP3-2012“At end I felt I had strong pace and on a new set of medium tyres and I had a bit more speed and it was a close fight, but I did a big mistake today,” said the victor. “We should have stayed in the positions we were in. I didn’t ignore it [the order] on purpose but I messed up in that situation. I took the lead from Mark, which I can see now he is upset about, but I want to be honest and stick to truth, and apologise.”

“I took quite a lot of risk to pass him and I should have behaved better. It doesn’t help his feelings right now. Apologies to Mark and now result is there, but all I can say is that I didn’t do it deliberately.”

Webber will, rightfully, feel that there is no doubt that Vettel choose to disregard the team orders and it will be very interesting to see how he reacts at the next race in three weeks time. In the past he has always been exceptionally dangerous when he has felt slighted by the team and their favouritism of Vettel.

With the team having said that Vettel’s decision to fight with Webber was “silly”

Mark-Webber-Monaco-2012“After the last stop the team told me the race was over and we turned the engine down to go to the end,” said the Australian. “I want to race as well. But in the end the team made a decision which we always say before the start of the race is how it’s probably going to be: we look after the tyres and get the cars to the end.” 

“In the end Seb made his own decisions today and will have protection as usual, and that’s the way it goes. I turned my engine down and started cruising on the tyres, and then the fight was on. I was disappointed with the outcome of today’s race.”

The “protection” that Vettel enjoys comes from Helmet Marko, who Vettel also said he would have to answer to for his decision, but there is little reason to suggest that the German will get a public rebuke from Marko. For Webber the season starts with his motivation once again to prove that he can beat Vettel. In the past he has always reacted strongly when he has been slighted by the team so there should be little doubt that his motivation will be exceptionally high in the coming races.

Team boss Christian Horner told the BBC pitlane reporter, Jennie Gow, after the race that “trying to control drivers is the hardest thing in the world.” Moving forward it will be very interesting to see how can control this situation.

Lewis Hamilton helmet 2013Behind them Hamilton’s lack of pace was becoming more and more evident and the Englishman would have been a sitting duck for Rosberg if not for the intervention of team orders following their frantic battle. After the race it was clear that Nico was not pleased about having to play second fiddle to Hamilton at such an early stage of the season but that he understood the reasons for the decision.

Speaking after the the podium celebrations Hamilton paid tribute to Rosberg and admitted that his teammate deserved the podium more than he did. The opening half of the race showed that Mercedes has the speed to be a match for anybody in the field but, just like in Australia, they need to find more consistency if they are to win races.

“If I’m honest I feel Nico should be standing here,” said Hamilton on the podium. “He had better pace through the race.  We were racing very hard to keep up with Red Bull. We were close but on the knife-edge and I used too much fuel. I wasn’t able to make the tyres last as long as I wanted, and was fuel saving from an early point in the race, which lost me a lot of time. I don’t know what the situation was with Nico, but I can do a better job looking after tyres.”

When asked about his teammates race Hamilton admitted that:

Lewis Hamilton Jerez Test 2013“Nico deserved to be where I am,” said the 2008 champion. “With the position in the championship the team thought it was logical to stay in position, but Nico drove a smarter and more controlled race than me today.”

For Rosberg this race was an obvious opportunity to stand on the podium again but he was still happy with his day and would not criticise his team for their decision to make him ride shotgun to Hamilton:

“It’s a team effort and I respected the team’s opinion,” said Rosberg. “It was an important day. We’ve had such a tough time in past years, so to be third and fourth, and fighting the Red Bulls, is such a milestone.

“For the team to want us to bring it home third and fourth is fully understandable and I know if it had been the other way around they would’ve done the same thing. There will be times to fight between team-mates in the future.”

Lewis Hamilton Ross Brawn Jerez test 2013Ross Brawn also spoke about the team’s decision to employ team orders:

“We asked Lewis and Nico to hold position and both drivers respected that,” said Brawn. “Whilst it was tough for Nico and I fully expect him to be disappointed, we have now got a car we can fight with and that there will be plenty more opportunities to achieve good results this season.”

Behind the Mercedes Felipe Massa had a solid drive to fifth position that included a late race overtaking move on Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman finished in sixth ahead of his teammate, Kimi Raikkonen.

The Finn had a very quiet day but spent long portions of the afternoon behind Nico Hulkenberg’s Sauber. The German would finish his day in eighth ahead of Sergio Perez and Jean-Eric Vergne.

Nico Hulkenberg Barcelona test 2013Hulkenberg, who missed the opening race of the season with a fuel problem, had no such issues today and his solid race debut for Sauber is certainly promising. Speaking afterwards the German reflected on his day:

“I feel quite well rewarded going home with four points after my first race of the season in a new team and with a new car,” said Hulkenberg. “I am quite happy with how it went, especially at the start of the race when we were quite quick on the intermediates. But then I was stuck in traffic and couldn’t find my way past other drivers. I think eighth was well deserved, considering I had to fight and push a lot today. I think the potential is there, and now we have to work on a few details.”

The pitlane was full of activity today with Jenson Button, Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil all having serious problems with their stops. The worst of these was Button who lost a wheel in pitlane and had to wait for his McLaren mechanics to push him back to his pit box to fit a new right front wheel. The incident cost him a lap and any chance of a points finish following a strong start to the race. The Englishman retired on the penultimate lap.

Jenson Button in actionButton had been running strongly inside the top five before his pit stop problems and afterwards he said that he felt finishing on the podium was a possibility:

“It’s easy to say I could have been on the podium,” said Button. “I’m sure people will disagree with me, but I think we had a chance to fight with Mercedes. We had one less pitstop to do. I don’t know what might have happened, but at worst it would’ve been fifth and we would’ve fought against Mercedes.”

It has been a trying start to the season for McLaren but with three weeks until the next race they will have time to try and get a better understanding of their car before the Chinese Grand Prix.

At Force India both drivers suffered issues with wheel nuts following a strong start to the race. At the first round of pitstops both Sutil and di Resta suffered long delays before rejoining the race. While the team tried to fix the issue before the next round of stops when   the problem was still occurring for di Resta the team made the decision to retire both drivers.

Speaking after the race Vijay Mallya said:

Paul-di-Resta-swimming-pool-entry-Monaco-FP2-2012“Unfortunately things went wrong in the pits,” said the team principal. “We experienced an issue with our captive wheel nut system at the first stop, which resulted in major delays for both cars. The issue occurred again at the second stop and it became apparent we would not be able to solve it during the race. As a precaution we were forced to retire both cars and will have a full investigation. It’s frustrating, but sometimes these things happen in racing.”

It was another promising weekend for the team and their pace in the early stages of the race will definitely give them encouragement ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix but with the midfield battle so tight it is crucial that teams capitalise on their stronger weekend and take home points finishes. This will be a race that the team will remember as a lost opportunity, particularly with Sauber and Toro Rosso scoring points.

There was also a collision between Charles Pic and Jean-Eric Vergne. After the race Toro Rosso were fined for an unsafe release following a pitstop but Vergne was handed any time penalties.

The Toro Rosso racer went on to finish tenth and claim the final point. Afterwards he commented that, “it’s a shame that a mistake in the pits cost us so much, as I could have done something better but I’ll take the point gladly.”

Charles Pic closeup Melbourne 2013For Pic the incident cost him time in his battle for 13th. The Frenchman said:

“It’s such a shame that incident happened as we could definitely have finished better if it hadn’t happened. It may have cost us a place and while that’s frustrating it’s also positive to see how well everyone reacted and to see that we didn’t stop pushing.”

Pic had been fighting with Marussia’s Jules Bianchi who enjoyed another strong weekend to start his Formula 1 career.

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