Rubens Barrichello’s daughter once asked him why he looked so sad on the podium; to make his children as well as the tifosi feel better about Ferrari’s relentless approach to team orders, he decided to make sure he always smiled from then on. The contrast between the crinkled mouth and unsmiling eyes he displayed in the podiums after that makes for an interesting study in human dynamics. How can a man feel so conflicted about standing on the most important podium in the racing world, week in and week out?
At the end of the Malaysian Grand Prix yesterday, however, there were no smiling faces at all.
It was a day of team decisions and team orders. Fernando Alonso bashed his front wing in at the start and should have headed directly in for another, but with a drying track and the unlovable prospect of two pitstops within a few laps, he decided to stay out. Or perhaps the team decided. Ferrari’s pit crew were reportedly out and ready with a new nose when Alonso went by. Was that simple insurance? Or did the man himself decide to chance another lap? Ferrari’s official statement assigns responsibility for the decision to the team, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? Surely Alonso will miss these points later on in the season.
With Fernando off-track and Massa looking unlikely to challenge for the podium, it became a tale of two teams. First, the Mercedes team of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Few people have been paid as much to accomplish as little as Mr. Rosberg has in Formula One; during his years with Michael Schumacher he usually outqualified the old man but he could also be counted on to fall back during the start while the seven-time world champion pushed forward. He also frequently yielded to his brasher, braver former GP2 competitor Lewis Hamilton on-track in a fashion that can best be described as “wince-inducing”.
With Hamilton as his teammate, however, Rosberg appears to be slightly less meek about the whole thing. Near the end of the race, he and Hamilton raced for position and when Ross Brawn, the team principal, ordered them into line to finish the race, Rosberg complained over the radio in a manner that was clearly meant to be heard around the world — and was. “I could go so much faster,” he whined, “if he would get out of the way.”
“Lewis is also under control,” Brawn replied. In other words: Stop kidding yourself. Hamilton’s conserving fuel and in a straight fight he’d pull your panties off the same way he’s been doing it for over half a decade now. Mr. Hamilton, meanwhile, provided a moment of amusement when he inadvertently pitted at the McLaren garage for tires. The Woking crew, perhaps still feeling a little bitter about the way Hamilton has left the team for more money after being basically a charity project for Ron Dennis in his youth, waved him out and over to his new home. Still, Lewis looked sad on the podium, and in the after-race press statement indicated that Rosberg deserved the position. Gracious, but unnecessary. Only a blind man without access to Braille reports of the past five seasons could possibly think Rosberg will seriously contend against his teammate in 2013 for anything other than endorsement contracts. As much as I despise Lewis Hamilton as a human being, his talent exceeds Nico’s by an order of magnitude.
Two steps up the podium from Hamilton stood the triple world champion himself, young Sebastian Vettel. Your humble author had the pleasure of watching Vettel’s F1 debut at the USGP years ago and was impressed then and now. Yes, Sebastian has usually had the best car; no, it hasn’t been easy to put that best car on top three years running. At an age where most young men are incapable of completing college homework assignments on time or getting their Civics cleaned up in time for an import-drag-race event, Sebastian has driven at the highest level possible with astounding consistency. And if you think the car wins races by itself, an examination of Mark Webber’s record shows that it doesn’t.
That was surely on Vettel’s mind as the team orders came through to him at the final round of pitstops. Dial back the engines, conserve fuel, “multi21” (which apparently means that the #2 driver may stay in front of the #1 driver). Your humble author does not pretend to have a sliver of Vettel’s talent, but as someone who possesses a hotter-than-average racing temperament I would be more than happy to suggest the German’s interior monologue:
Seven points. Seven points. They want me to hold station and give this idiot seven points. The championship is often won and lost on less, and they want me to circle around behind this half-ass, this indifferent starter, this whiner, this never-was. Oh, fuck that twice.
DRIVE’s Leo Parente, no stranger to competing at the sharp end of an open-wheel series himself, has said, “If you hate Seb for this, you hate a real racer.” I’m inclined to agree. Nominally speaking, it would have been the reasonable, team-oriented, responsible thing to do to follow Webber home. As a racer myself, I have to agree with Vettel. Mr. Webber will never win the world championship. He’s incapable of driving at the level required on a consistent basis. His starts are pathetic. He is difficult to pass, but he’s not a great passer. Most importantly, he fails again and again at the fundamental F1 skill of driving to plan with metronomic perfection for an entire stint. I’d love to ride some mountain bikes with Mark Webber, I admire him as an individual, I think that of the entire grid he’s probably one of the so-called best blokes out there, but he cannot and will not get the job done and in that situation TAKE THE SEVEN POINTS AWAY FROM HIM NOW.
The failing wasn’t Sebastian’s, it was Christian Horner’s for not moving the guy who cannot win the championship out of the way of the guy who can. That’s the bottom line. Teamwork wins championships, and there was a deficiency of teamwork at the Red Bull garage. Ross Brawn kept Rosberg behind Hamilton because Rosberg isn’t a winner and Hamilton is. Mr. Horner should learn from his elders in this case. Luckily for him and for the possibilities of a fourth world championship, Sebastian Vettel did what was necessary.