• Malaysian Grand Prix - The Final Stint

Friction at the front

Chris Medland and Laurence Edmondson
March 24, 2013

A round-up of the good, the bad and the downright ugly from the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix

Mark Webber declined to accept Sebastian Vettel's apologies after the race © Sutton Images
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The ruction at Red Bull
The race itself has paled in to insignificance against the backdrop of the drama within the Red Bull team. A driver partnership that was fractious to say the least was blown apart once again when Vettel disobeyed team orders to hold position after the final pit stop and a bitter battle ensued which - while highly entertaining for observers - was a Red Bull nightmare. Make no mistake; the racing was fantastic with both drivers desperate to earn the position - Vettel presumably driven by red mist and Webber enraged in response - but the pair came so close to disaster up against the pit wall which would have cost the team 43 world championship points. Webber's reaction was to raise a finger behind Vettel at 160mph, and that he didn't go further in public after the race is testament to his professionalism. Vettel told television reporters "I wasn't aware of it ... I want to stick to the truth". However, in the official Red Bull release he admitted "I got the call and I ignored it". Vettel retains that he respects Webber, but the biggest problem for Red Bull right now is that it's a claim which doesn't appear to be true and is resulting in a dynamic that could scupper its hopes of a fourth consecutive pair of championships.

Lotus' loss
Kimi Raikkonen's impressive victory in Australia ensured he arrived in Malaysia as one of the favourites for victory. Friday's free practice sessions backed up that expectation and if anything increased it as Red Bull seemed to struggle with tyre wear. Again, Raikkonen would just need to qualify somewhere near the front to be able to make use of the pace as he had a week ago and he would be in good shape. But on Saturday morning Kimi found himself driving a car that felt very different to the previous day and neither he nor the team had the answer. Qualifying was a case of damage limitation in the wet but seventh place became tenth after a grid penalty for blocking Nico Rosberg and his race pace was no better. While most teams look to make improvements for the next race, Raikkonen wants the team to get back to its Melbourne spec, but it's a characteristic of the Pirelli tyres that teams will struggle to get the most out of their cars on each and every track.

The Story of the Weekend

© Sutton Images
  • Shock Sebastian Vettel - While Webber and Vettel have not been the best of friends for some time, ignoring team orders is not the way to go about impressing your team
  • Shocker Force India - Both cars retired due to a wheel nut problem having been well placed
  • Best overtake Romain Grosjean - He put a lot of faith in Nico Hulkenberg to pull off an impressive move in to the high-speed turn five
  • Best lap Sebastian Vettel - From the second Webber emerged from the pits on lap 44 he may have been disobeying team orders but the wheel-to-wheel action was of the highest quality and fantastic to watch
  • Worst lap Fernando Alonso - His first lap saw him run in to the back of Vettel and damage his front wing, then stay out when he should have pitted, resulting in his retirement
  • Drive of the day Jules Bianchi - As much for missing out last week, but Bianchi's 13th place was another great performance cementing his position as a star in the making

Mercedes' rivalry
Team-mate dynamics are the common theme of the weekend as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg's relationship was tested early on. Rosberg was asked about the 2-0 qualifying advantage Hamilton holds on Saturday night, showing that the results between the two will be heavily scrutinised. Perhaps that was playing on Rosberg's mind when he kept constantly asking team principal Ross Brawn to allow him through in to third place, and it was not a brief exchange that drew attention alongside the Red Bull drama. Rosberg sounded disgruntled when he said "remember this one" over the team radio after the race, but he later insisted that he understands the team's decision. Hamilton was clearly very slow but Rosberg was right not to ignore team orders; third and fourth is Mercedes' best ever haul of points and there was no reason to jeopardise that.

Super Sepang
Sepang, the original Tilkedrome, celebrated its 15th anniversary on the F1 calendar in some style this weekend. It was helped by Sebastian Vettel disobeying Red Bull, but nonetheless it proved that it's still capable of hosting close and exciting racing. When F1 first arrived in Malaysia in 1999 it received its fair share of knocks and has done in the intervening year, but with over a third of the circuits on the calendar now Tilke-designed, Sepang stands out as one of the more interesting. For starters it has gravel traps, but it also has fast corners (turns 12, 13 and 14 are arguably some of the hardest in F1) and a certain amount of character. The paddock has matured into a tropical garden, complete with towering palm trees, and the weather offers a constant source of entertainment. Since the races have been moved to coincide with the daily rain showers, the teams have had to keep one eye on the sky. It can go very wrong, as it did in 2009 with a shortened race, but on the whole it offers an exciting dimension to a race weekend. The current race contract ends in 2015, and while the circuit would benefit from its recent paint job being finished off, it would be a shame to leave just as the place is starting to become an F1 favourite.

McLaren's revival
Martin Whitmarsh faced stiff criticism on Saturday night as McLaren hosted its 'Meet the Team' press conference. His position had been questioned since the extent of the difficulties with the MP4-28 became clear in Australia, but on Sunday night he at least had something to smile about. Although the team only scored two points again, the car in Jenson Button's hands showed signs of potential up until a botched pit stop when a wheel-gun issue and a premature green light sent Button on his way without the right front attached. The stress of the last week was still clear to see in the bags under Whitmarsh's eyes and the worry lines on his brow, but at least there is now a positive. "We've now got an opportunity to go out there and prove a point. We know what we had out there wasn't optimal but we did some experiments and it responded very well to those experiments. I would be very disappointed if we didn't take another step in China. Of course expectations are a bow wave that stay ahead of you, but we should try and be positive that we achieved some things and I think we were bold and brave to make some modifications to the car this weekend to learn some things and I'm pleased the team kept its nerve and did that and we've made some progress."

Flying Felipe
It wasn't a hugely successful race for Felipe Massa, but qualifying was a different matter. Securing his first front-row grid position since Bahrain 2010 also ensured he outqualified team-mate Fernando Alonso for the fourth time in a row. Massa really is showing signs of getting back to his best - and many believe he has the toughest benchmark to measure himself against - which should bode well for Ferrari. However, while Alonso may have said he welcomes Massa's return to form, his face in the press conference when the statistic was first mentioned betrayed his real feelings that he is far from happy at the recent record on Saturdays. This weekend's intra-team issues highlight just how important it is for Ferrari to maintain the harmony.