When Red Bull’s appeal against Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix was rejected exactly a week ago, we put it down to the team’s success in recent years.
Because Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel had enjoyed such staggering levels of domination in winning four consecutive world championships since 2010, we argued that a no-compromise culture had grown within the team.
That unwillingness to give an inch cost the team dearly in Melbourne when Red Bull decided to run Ricciardo’s car with the fuel flow information provided by the team’s own sensors rather than those of the FIA to which each of their rivals adhered.
In deciding to take the second place and fight about it afterwards rather than following the governing body’s advice and settling for a decent points finish, Red Bull bit off more than they could chew and ended up choking.
The punishment that followed and the subsequent loss of the appeal, we said, would guarantee that Red Bull would never again display such self-defeating arrogance.
Well, we were wrong. Completely and utterly wrong.
In fact, we were proven wrong within five days of the result of Red Bull’s appeal becoming public knowledge.
Vettel’s refusal to move aside for Ricciardo in the Chinese Grand Prix was the second time in 12 months that the German has consciously disobeyed the orders of his employers.
And although this was a far less controversial and high-profile incident than the Multi-21 fiasco of the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, it was arguably more costly for Red Bull.
Ricciardo’s typically relaxed post-race reaction to Sky Sports immediately diffused the situation, but the Australian was potentially denied his second podium in four races by his own team.
According to the personal website of James Allen, an F1 journalist, several leading F1 strategists were in agreement that had Vettel moved out of the way when he was first asked by the team on lap 24, Ricciardo would have moved within striking distance of the third-placed Ferrari of Fernando Alonso with around four laps to go.
These unnamed experts, however, admitted that actually passing Alonso would have been difficult for Ricciardo, whom the FIA's timing information recorded as being slower the No. 14 Ferrari (albeit by 0.2 kph) in the speed trap rankings at Shanghai.
But the probable aid of DRS coupled with the fact that Alonso had passed the 20-lap mark on his final stint on the third from last lap—and could therefore have been vulnerable to pressure from Ricciardo, who made his final stop on lap 37, four laps later than the Ferrari—suggests that a podium was a strong possibility, if not a certainty, for the Red Bull driver.
The three seconds that Ricciardo lost in fighting Vettel was ultimately decisive with the Australian eventually crossing the line 3.5 seconds behind Alonso after the Spaniard’s pace dropped off by over a second on the final lap.
And although Vettel eventually moved out of the way on lap 26 with a manoeuvre more reminiscent of a car running wide in the heat of battle than an act of kindness, fresh questions have emerged regarding his status as a team player.
Contrary to popular belief, Vettel’s recurring reluctance to follow team orders has had a positive effect on Formula One.
Since he ruthlessly stole the lead of the Malaysian Grand Prix from Mark Webber a year ago, more drivers have displayed an unwillingness to jump out of the way of their teammates.
This was clear in Abu Dhabi last season when even Charles Pic disputed Caterham’s calls to allow Giedo van der Garde, the Frenchman’s teammate, to finish a laughable 18th place. The war against team orders has continued into this year, too, with Felipe Massa’s refusal to let Williams colleague Valtteri Bottas through to finish seventh in Sepang.
Thanks to Vettel, drivers—even those with little or nothing to play for—have rediscovered a sense of personal and professional pride that had appeared to have been lost forever in the days when Rubens Barrichello acted as the fall-guy to Michael Schumacher.
In Shanghai, however, Vettel took that pride beyond the level of acceptability.
Although the German was within his rights to ask his race engineer, Guillaume Rocquelin, why he was being forced to move aside for Ricciardo, his reply—"tough luck"—when informed that his teammate was on prime tyres displayed a blatant disregard for his colleagues and the institution that Red Bull have become.
Just like his bosses in Melbourne, Vettel was guilty of being incapable of seeing beyond the end of his nose.
He was unwilling to accept that his difficulties with tyre graining were making him slower than his teammate in Shanghai, just as the Red Bull hierarchy refused to acknowledge that their fuel-related frailties would have made their car a sitting duck for the McLarens at Albert Park.
With both the lead driver and the team having fallen foul of the winning habit within seven days, it points to a fundamental flaw in Red Bull’s current mindset, which must be rectified sooner rather than later if they are to stop being their own worst enemy.
But don’t bank on it.