AFP – Red Bull faced a pivotal moment Monday in their push for a fourth straight double world title, with the team in crisis after Sebastian Vettel defied strict orders at the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Team principal Christian Horner admitted the British-based outfit would have to go through difficult discussions after Vettel’s late overtaking manoeuvre incensed stablemate Mark Webber and left him considering his future.
As Webber, robbed of victory by Vettel’s late pass, flew back to Australia for a surfing break, and Vettel headed in the other direction to Europe, the team’s deep divisions recalled the tensions of some of the sport’s great internal rivalries.
With Webber leading Sunday’s race into the closing stages and Vettel on his tail, the team issued a coded order for the drivers to hold their positions and not risk wearing out their tyres or colliding.
But Vettel, showing the ruthless streak which has taken him to three straight drivers’ titles by the age of 25, took advantage of his fresher, quicker tyres to pass Webber in a risky move which drew a middle-finger salute from the Australian.
Afterwards, there were none of the customary team celebrations on the pit wall and Vettel received lukewarm congratulations from his colleagues. After a fiery exchange in the team garage, both drivers scowled their way through the victory ceremony.
Vettel later apologised profusely to Webber but stopped short of pledging he would compensate for his error by returning the favour if he gets the chance.
Horner, who had publicly rebuked Vettel over the team radio, said he would discuss the matter with the drivers in private — with the continuation of Red Bull’s hegemony at stake.
“It’s frustrating. Formula One is both a team and an individual sport and sometimes there is a conflict between a driver’s desire and a team’s interest,” Horner said.
“What happened today is something that shouldn’t have happened. It’s something that Sebastian has apologised for and it’s something that we will discuss internally as a team.”
However, it will take masterful diplomacy to placate the angry Webber, who has long believed Red Bull shows favouritism to Vettel, and persuade him that the young German can be trusted.
It is also far from clear that Vettel, despite his unstinting mea culpa after the race, would not act the same way again. For Webber, it adds insult to injury after years of what he called “protection” for the world champion.
“Let’s just say there were a lot of things going through my mind in the last 15 laps of the grand prix, lots of different reasons, not just from today but also from the past,” said Webber, who admitted he considered quitting the team and the sport.
“I think it’s very early days right now, it’s very raw, obviously, and we need to work out how the team best goes forwards from here,” Webber added. “That’s obviously going to be discussed this week.
“I will be in Australia on my surfboard, the phone won’t be engaged. We’ll see what happens.”
The incident gave Sunday’s race a soap-opera feel and revived memories of the bitter feuds at McLaren between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna and, more recently, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.
“It doesn’t happen at Ferrari — we’re the most united team,” Alonso, now with Ferrari, was quoted as saying by Spanish media. “They (Red Bull) say they are, but you can see that they are not.”
Vettel’s laid-back, friendly image received a rapid makeover as Niki Lauda called his actions a “serious mistake” and Germany’s Bild compared him to the uncompromising Michael Schumacher, a seven-time world champion.
“More and more, he reminds of his idol Michael Schumacher, who was loved and hated, and Vettel is on the way there,” the popular newspaper commented.