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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The more things change...

Another F1 season, another team order controversy (or two).

F1’s second race, the Malaysian round, provided plenty of action, and it seems another interesting season is begun. But the big talk at the end of the race was Webber vs. Vettel and Hamilton vs. Rosberg.

The simple fact, team orders exist. The FIA has proven there is no way to ban them. It tried.

From DC pulling over for Mika, to Rubinho and Schumi, to “Fernando is faster than you,” team orders are a necessary ingredient to the ultimate team racing sport.

It is the team that puts up the money. It is the team that constructs the cars. And it is the team that pays the driver, simply put, another piece of the equipment.

So the team is completely within its rights to dictate who stands on what step of the podium, and when to dial back the mixture. It has always been this way, and likely always will be.

Let’s not forget the days when drivers gave up their car mid-race to support the team leader.

So let’s set aside the latest round of complaints about team orders. This is a bitter pill for many U.S.-based fans to swallow, because we are less obvious about the practice, but if you are going to be a fan of this sport, you have to accept it on its merits.

Thus, Mercedes’ decision to ask Hamilton and Rosberg to hold position is good business. Yes, Lewis may feel he didn’t “earn” the win, but he’ll savor the points in the end if they make the difference in his championship. And Mercedes will be happy getting maximum points from both cars, rather than “doing a Turkey” as Vettel and Webber did in 2010. So Nico is the odd man out, but he also needs to see the writing on the wall. If Mercedes felt he was the driver to win them the championship, they would have found him a much more supportive (and cheaper) teammate.

Someone like Mark Webber.

Let me preface this by saying I am a big Webber fan. I was a big Coulthard fan, too. But in our heart of hearts, as big a fan as we may be, we realize these drivers support the lead driver in the team. Maybe that is why we like them. They’re the underdog.

Teams like them because they follow orders. They dial it back. They save the tires. They hold up the train. They maximize the points when their teammate retires. They even get a few wins.

But when we talk championships, the names that come up are Vettel. Alonso. Hamilton. Raikkonen. Not Massa, Webber, Rosberg or Grosjean. Eddie Irvine didn’t even sniff a title until Schumacher broke his leg. Then Ferrari went out and signed a driver to support EI. Imagine that.

That isn’t to say those drivers aren’t capable of winning a championship. Some have. Massa and Webber were mighty close at one time. But we are several years on, and reality is reality.

And that is what eats at a guy like Mark Webber. It would most drivers. They are bred to win. And when Flavio Briatore says one of the drivers may not be back in 2014, he’s right. I’ll put  my money on the return of the triple world champion over the 37-year-old on the one-year deal. The window is closing, and Webber knows it.

So when he dials it back as per team orders, and assumes everyone will hold position, you bet he feels betrayed — on many fronts. Betrayed by his teammate, and betrayed by a pitwall that didn’t seem to fight for him when he was wronged. And he is anticipating the one man with an opinion that actually matters in the team — Helmut Marko (Not Dietrich, not Horner) will back the home-grown product. After all, he always has in the past.

So, Webber is right to feel miffed. But, he chose this contract. Probably because it was the best available option. He knew what he was buying into, so get on with it.

Which finally brings us to the crux of the matter — Sebastian Vettel.

We’d like to believe we are angry because Seb let us down, but, in reality, that’s our problem.

All along, we’ve let ourselves believe that the smiling boy with the mop of hair was Mr. Nice Guy. After all, it was easy. Fernando and Lewis where the whiners (an image Alonso has been able to get away from at Ferrari — not so much yet for Lewis), and Kimi has become the anti-hero since his exile. Vettel was the good boy who names his cars, has a prominent finger, won for Toro Rosso and has notched up three championships.

Yet, how does one win all those races, all those championships? He emulates the best. Racing “gentlemen” like Senna, and Seb’s idol (and Race of Champions teammate) Michael Schumacher. He takes points first, and answers for his trespasses later. He’s ruthless.

“Towards the end I feel I had quite a strong pace and obviously at the very end on a new set of medium tyres had a bit more speed and it was a close fight but I think… yeah… as you can see I’m not entirely happy. I think I did a big mistake today. I think we should have stayed in the positions that we were. I didn’t ignore it on purpose but I messed up in that situation and obviously took the lead which, I can see now he’s upset, but yeah, I want to be honest at least and stick to the truth and apologise. I know that it doesn’t really help his feelings right now but I think other than that, obviously a very good race for the team. We handed the tyres I think pretty well today. To sum it up, apologies to Mark, obviously now the result is there but… yeah, all I can say is that I didn’t do it deliberately.”

And when he apologizes, it sounds disingenuous. Because we know it isn’t the truth. Maybe some small part of it is. My guess is less that he feels bad about taking the points than he does about not exactly winning the race on merit. But it WAS deliberate.

But again — this is our problem. It is the age-old argument of expecting too much from our very human role model athletes. It might be better for all of us if we just accept race drivers as greedy and whiny with (dare I say) sociopathic tendencies, and let them surprise us by rising above expectations, rather than the reverse.

But Vettel DID do wrong here. Not to the fans, but to his team. He disobeyed orders. If he weren’t triple world champion, and the team’s best hope for another, that would be a fireable offense. Webber is right, Vettel is “protected,” but he has earned that right. Christian Horner, however, has a task in front of him. Somehow, he and Seb need to have a Come to Jesus meeting, or it will fast become obvious Horner does not have control over his team. His lead driver publicly emasculated him on global television, ignoring orders while the team principal was left to make impotent noises about “not being silly” from the pitwall.

That cannot stand.

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