Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Dust has Settled

It's been a week since the last race in Malaysia, and I think we've seen the first big controversy of 2013. F1 is famous for its drama, and let's face it, it wouldn't be the same sport without it. For those of you wondering why it's taken me so long to blog about the latest drama, it's partly because I've been busy with work, partly because I think it's a good think to wait for the dust to settle around these things before chucking my opinion into the fray.

For those of you who have missed the race and have no clue what I'm writing about, Malaysia saw the first 'team orders' incident of the year. Mark Webber had been leading the race for some time, and at the final round of pit stops was set to take the win. However, Sebastian Vettel came out less than a second behind Mark, and saw his chance for victory. It gave us a thrilling lap or two of racing - the two came within inches of each other, and many thought it was Turkey 2010 all over again. However, both Sebastian and Mark are experienced racers, and Vettel overtook without incident.

Now, all of this would have been fine if it was say, Vettel overtaking Hamilton, Alonso or Raikkonen. However, because he overtook Webber he went against team orders. Lots of people are now very unhappy with Vettel - journalists, fans and F1 insiders alike. Most feel that he should have held station behind Webber, and should not have overtaken. Vettel himself has apologised. He stated that he made a mistake, and should have stayed behind. Although he heard the order, he didn't follow it - perhaps an example of racing instincts taking over. There are a lot of different aspects to this whole situation, and I personally think the outrage against the move says a lot about F1 in general, rather than Vettel as a person.

Vettel has been under fire for many years now. He is an incredibly talented racer - his three world championships are surely testament to this. However, most people consider him to be arrogant, and only able to win because of the speed of the car. I, of course, take a different view. His 2010 championship was completely unexpected, and although the season wasn't without incident, he secured the victory against all the odds. His 2011 championship was dominant. He grabbed pole at most of the races, and took maximum points wherever he could. Last year, 2012, was more of a fierce competition, and I think we saw Vettel at his best this year. The race in Brazil - coming through the back of the field (twice!) - was the best race I have ever watched, and surely put pay to all notions that the guy can't race. With Red Bull and Vettel looking for championship number four this year, we have to expect a fight, and this is what we saw in Malaysia last weekend. As for Vettel being considered arrogant, I disagree. He seems to still have what a lot of champions lose after their first victory: he still enjoys the racing. He always makes the best out of a bad situation, and we rarely see him blaming anyone when he makes a mistake. When he had a DNF in 2011, he didn't disappear off into the motor home, but apparently stayed on the pit wall and helped Mark to take a victory. I doubt this is the sign of arrogance. Plus, having met him at Goodwood last year, I can honestly say that he was a thoroughly lovely guy (staying behind to make sure I had a good picture, even when his minder was trying to get him to hurry away).

Personally, I think a lot of the anger against Sebastian comes from his success. A lot of the time, we don't really like runaway victories. We like the underdog to take the win. Look at the Michael Schumacher era - people hated Schumacher because it was a foregone conclusion that he would win. With F1 today, we don't have this predictability, so I see no reason to treat Vettel in the same way. When the overtaking incident happened last week and the backlash began, I wondered whether people would have reacted the same way if it was Mark overtaking Sebastian. Food for thought.

Overall, I think the overtake between Seb and Mark was a case of racing instincts. Webber could have fought back and gone against the team's wishes as well, but he chose not to. This was his decision, and I've got nothing against either driver for what happened. Contrast this with the team orders given down at Mercedes. Hamilton was in third place and was told to turn down his engine and save fuel. Rosberg was much faster, but held station behind Hamilton. Arguably, we were denied racing at this point. Rosberg tried to argue against the decision, however ultimately he obeyed Ross Brawn and stayed behind. As a fan of racing, I'm disappointed by this. I'm not blaming Rosberg, but I think this is something fundamentally wrong with F1 today.

In Hockenheim 2010, Massa was leading the race. Then, we heard the infamous call 'Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?'. After a few laps, Massa moved out of Alonso's way, and he was handed the victory. Rob Smedly, Massa's race engineer was heard on the radio at this point saying 'sorry'. Everyone was, understandably, outraged. Massa was leading, he was racing, and he was forced to give up the place without a fight. If Alonso was truly faster, then why did the team have to tell Massa to move? This was the era in which team orders were banned, and racing was racing, whether it was your team-mate or a rival.

In 2011, team orders were made legal once again, however this wasn't something that many of us were particularly pleased about. As a fan of F1, I want to see who is the best driver. This is something that we can see with overtaking, and what better a test of driver against driver than racing against someone in the same car as you? It's up to the drivers to avoid hitting one another, and no overtake is without risk. I understand that teams want to maximise their points for the constructors' championship, however to do this at the expense of racing is, in my opinion, wrong.

While I get that Vettel directly disobeyed what his team said, and that many people view this is arrogance, I feel differently about this than most people. I'm much more disappointed by the fact that we were denied a fight between Rosberg and Hamilton, and I think that the Vettel/Webber pass was one of the most exciting parts of the race. Ultimately, it's not my job to define the rules. However, I think we need to get away from team orders in F1. We need F1 to remain a show, and not a procession. Team orders don't facilitate this. Whatever happens though, this drama will blow over and be replaced by another soon enough. That's the only thing we can be certain of in modern F1. Bring on the next race!