Reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel scored his 27th Formula 1 career victory after a dramatic Malaysian Grand Prix, which started on a wet Sepang Circuit and ended with controversy as Red Bull’s Mark Webber, who finished second, felt robbed of victory by his defiant teammate, while Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were told to hold station from their pit wall, gifting Hamilton third pace while Rosberg was clearly faster towards the end of the race.
“I had a very short word with Mark and then it hit me quite hard and I realised that I f*cked up. I want to say sorry to Mark. He was trying to save the car and tyres, but I took a lot of risk in passing him when he was trying. I didn’t ignore that, but I shouldn’t have done it,” added the three times world champion.
Earlier the post celebrations were morose and clearly tense as Webber walked into the podium room, Vettel tried to approach him but the Australian was having none of it, saying, “Multi-21, Seb. Multi-21” most likely in reference to a team order.
On the podium Webber continued, “In the end, Seb made his own decisions and will have protection as usual. I turned my engine down and as we know he’s a quick pedaller.”
The Red Bull duo, who famously collided while battling for the lead during the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix, were at it again. Their inter team battle started around lap 46 – shortly after they emerged from the pits after their fourth and final stops – with Webber sporting the harder compound tyres leading and Vettel on the medium options stabbing at the sister car, running side by side, under cutting, over cutting, slip-streaming, touching wheels… you name it, it was no holds barred stuff.
Team boss Christian Horner came over the team radio at one point and said, “This is silly, Seb, come on.”
But there was nothing to stop Vettel as he finally wrestled his way past his teammate and thereafter cantered into the distance and his first race win of the new season, but tensions were at fever pitch and looks set to remain at a high within the team.
Vettel’s race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin summed it up over the radio as the winner crossed the finish line on his slow down lap, “Good job Sebastian, looks like you wanted that bad enough. Still, there will be some explaining to do.”
Horner, whose management skills will be tested to the limit in the forthcoming days said, “They took it into their own hands, which was uncomfortable for us – we gave them instructions to hold station but Sebastian took it into his own hands to win the race – he wanted to win.”
“They’ve raced each other hard before – they’re very good drivers. There are points at stake and they both want to win. For the team it’s hugely uncomfortable. It’s difficult when you have two competitive drivers like ours. It’s difficult to watch because you could end up giving up 43 points. You have to remember there’s two elements to F1 – there’s a drivers’ championship and a constructors’ championship.”
Almost at the same time as the Red Bulls were raging, a civil war had also evolved between Rosberg and Hamilton. The Silver Arrows duo having their wheel to wheel battle – for third place – instead of chasing the energy drinks boys, they tripped over themselves. Hamilton was in fuel save mode, while Rosberg had plenty of race in him late on in the race.
On lap 51 Rosberg declared on the radio: “I’m so much faster, let me go past.”
Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn replied: “Negative Nico, negative. Lewis’ pace is what we’re asking him to do. He could go a lot faster as well.”
Rosberg continued to run under Hamilton’s wing, showing his frustration with a stab here and there prompting Brawn to say, “Nico please drop back, there’s nothing to gain – I want to bring both cars home please.”
In the end Hamilton took third place with Rosberg fourth and responded to Brawn’s praise over the radio by saying, “Remember this one.”
Credit to Hamilton who sought out Rosberg as he climbed out of the cockpit in parc ferme, the two embraced, and on the podium the Briton was muted in his celebration.
Hamilton said, “The team did a fantastic job if I am honest I really feel Nico [Rosberg] should be standing here, he had a better race than me. I can’t say it’s the best feeling being up here but racing is racing.”
The drama and tensions which shrouded the last half of the race overshadowed an equally dramatic first half.
With half of Sepang dry as a bone and the other half very wet and slippery, everyone bolted on intermediates for the start and when the lights went out it was Vettel and Fernando Alonso who got the jump from the clean side of the circuit.
But the Ferrari tagged the back of Vettel’s Red Bull, the wing on the F138 knocked seriously askew and dragged on the tarmac, kicking up sparks. Alonso nevertheless continued, actually slugging it out with Webber for second place during the entire first lap.
For some reason Alonso elected to continue instead of pit for repairs at the end of lap one. Mistake. As he came to the end of the main straight, the wing broke and was wedged under the car. He ploughed straight through the kitty litter in Turn 1 and that was that for the Ferrari driver on the occasion of his 200th grand prix start.
The Spaniard mused after his early shower, “Bad luck today, as always over 19 races will be compensated and we are ready to recover good points in the next race!”
Salvaging some pride for the Maranello squad was Felipe Massa who botched his start, from second place on the grid, and spent the rest of the afternoon in recovery mode. Fifth was his reward at the end of the day, but well down on what the reds were expecting much more from their Malaysian escapade.
One of the big disappointments of the weekend was the no show by Kimi Raikkonen. Granted the Lotus driver was penalised three grid places after impeding Rosberg during qualifying, and thus started tenth. But his race was error strewn and he simply could not find the sweet spot he found in Melbourne a week earlier.
Adding insult to injury was the fact he was beaten by Romain Grosjean in the sister car, which by the team’s own admission is running a step behind in configuration to Raikkonen’s E21. Grosjean was sixth and Raikkonen seventh.
Man of the match in Malaysia must go to Nico Hulkenberg who was battling way above his station in the Sauber. Going wheel to wheel with just about everyone on his way to eighth place. His duel with Raikkonen, which had the Iceman screeching into the radio, was one of the highlights of the grand prix.
McLaren enjoyed a better showing than at the season opener with Sergio Perez finishing ninth and Jenson Button even leading the race at one point. But the performance was way down on their lofty standards, compounded by a DNF for Button when he parked the troublesome MP4-28 with a couple of laps to go.
Jean Eric Vergne drove his best race to date on his way to tenth place and bagging the final point for Toro Rosso, after a race spent slugging it out with the Williams duo of Valtteri Bottas and Pastor Maldonado.
Jules Bianchi continued to impress in his rookie season with Marussia. The young Frenchman was again best of the drivers toiling in the backmarker teams, finishing 13th and keeping both Caterhams behind him for the second time in a row.
The pit lane was the source of plenty action with Hamilton cause of the zaniest moment of the race when he powered into the McLaren pit area instead of his Mercedes bay. His former crew waved him on, no doubt raising a chuckle despite the inevitable tension of the moment.
Hamilton was bemused as he explained, “I just did a Jenson, for so many years I was used to driving into the McLaren pit stop I don’t know how I got it wrong, so big apologies to my team.”
At Force India they will be musing the difference a week makes. After scoring a double points finish in Melbourne, and looking strong all weekend at Sepang, they left Malaysia with a double DNF in the most frustrating manner possible.
The team’s wheel nut system failed big time, making the crew look more like the Keystone Cops than a slick F1 pit stop outfit and costing both drivers what were likely to points finishes.
Team boss Vijay Mallya reported, “Unfortunately things went wrong in the pits when 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.”
Toro Rosso were fined for releasing Vergne into the path of a Caterham, causing a collision, which the Faenza based team took on the chin, “The Stewards have fined us for a dangerous release from a pit stop and we agree with their decision.”