In the media centre at Sepang on Sunday night, an air-conditioned refuge from the most stifling conditions in Formula One, former drivers and gnarled old race-watchers were on their feet, mouths gaping, as they watched the TV monitors.
It was not because Sebastian Vettel had had the effrontery to ignore team orders from Red Bull’s pitwall HQ to hold his position behind Mark Webber — well, OK, that was part of it — but the real reason was that there was some absolutely compelling racing going on.
There is not much love lost between Vettel and his team-mate Webber but that made their duel all the more exciting. And it was a proper battle. This is what we see all too little of in F1: racing. Everyone is so concerned about conserving their fuel and looking after their tyres and following the dreaded team orders that they forget why we are really here.
But, here on Sunday evening, we had some good old-fashioned racing, even though it took a break from convention on the part of Vettel, who ignored instructions from his team principal, Christian Horner, and decided to challenge Webber for the win, which he duly achieved.
Vettel, though, did not come out of the incident well. What he did on the track was bad enough in terms of jeopardising the team’s chances but it was his shifty behaviour afterwards that will have lost him a lot of admirers. He said: “I just didn't get the message. I got it. I heard it. But obviously no action followed because I misunderstood.” What does that mean? He would have come away with a lot more credit if he had told Horner on the radio: “No, Christian, I’m going for this. I’m going for the win.”
Even though Red Bull got the 43 points they were after, with their 13th one-two finish, what happened has placed them in a tricky position. Horner needs to reassert his authority, show that Red Bull is not just Vettel’s toy shop. When he said on the radio: “This is silly, Seb. Come on!” it did not have the sense of command the Mercedes principal, Ross Brawn, conveyed when issuing his orders to Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in the race. Rosberg, of course, remained behind Hamilton.
Also, when Horner was asked why he did not tell Vettel to give his place back, he said: “Do you honestly think if we had told him to slow down and give the place back he’d have given it back?”
But did he try? “There's no point,” Horner replied. “He'd made it quite clear what his intention was by making the move. He knew what the communication was. He chose to ignore it.” Again Horner, the best team boss out there, did not sound like a boss at all there. Is Vettel really top dog at Red Bull?
It is where the whole affair leaves Webber that is most interesting. Although he was the fall guy on this occasion — not for the first time — it could backfire on him rather than Vettel. At 36 and with only a one-year contract, he may feel that his relationship with Vettel, never good since 2010 but manageable, is now so poisoned that he will walk away at the end of the year.
If he does not decide to go, though, Red Bull might dispense with him anyway. Better that, they may feel, than deal with feuding teammates.
When Vettel and Webber face off, in or out of a Formula One car, at present there is only one winner. At Red Bull, Vettel truly is the chosen one. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013