Was Sebastian Vettel’s gearbox problem in the Brazilian Grand Prix really all it seemed?
Or, as some have already suggested, was it an elaborate ruse to gift victory to Mark Webber?
Christian Horner explained the nature of Vettel’s problem: “The gearbox had a problem from lap five, we didn’t think it would make half-distance.
“He kept it alive, he short-shifted, he did all the things that were needed to. And [it was] phenomenal for him to get it to the end.”
Vettel described how it affected his driving during the race: “Very early I got the call that we have to manage a gearbox problem. I had to turn down the engine, short-shift, and it was just getting worse throughout the race so I ended up using highest gears pretty much everywhere.”
Was it a real fault or were Red Bull using team orders to switch their drivers?
Going into the race Vettel had already won 11 races and had the championship wrapped up weeks ago. However Webber hadn’t won a race all year, and a victory could provide a much-needed boost for him after a tough season.
Getting Webber into first place was the only chance they had of securing second place in the drivers’ championship for him, which was something the team specifically set out to accomplish.
Christian Horner said last month: “Our priority is to get Mark up into second in the drivers?óÔéĽÔäó championship,” adding, “it’d be great to see him win a race this year before the year?óÔéĽÔäós out.”
Vettel’s alleged problem looked too convenient – it was apparently serious enough to cost him the win, but never grave enough to put him under threat from the likes of Fernando Alonso or Jenson Button.
Vettel even set the fastest lap at one stage, before being reminded again by the team to nurse his car.
It stretches credulity that Vettel was able to nurse his car for so long, while Lewis Hamilton retired shortly after McLaren discovered a gearbox problem on his car.
Gearbox problems can manifest themselves in different ways and are not necessarily terminal. Paul di Resta and Bruno Senna also had gearbox problems and finished the race without losing much time.
There are plenty of examples of drivers finishing in high positions with gearbox problems in the past, such as Michael Schumacher in Spain in 1994 and Ayrton Senna at Interlagos 20 years earlier – which Vettel referred to during the race.
If Red Bull did want to use team orders, why disguise them? They aren’t illegal, unlike last year. When Red Bull chose to use team orders in Silverstone, instructing Webber not to pass Vettel, they made no attempt to cover up what they were doing.
When team do use team orders they tend to wait until late in the race, because they can’t be sure how the race is going to unfold. However Vettel’s gearbox problem was acknowledged well before half-distance, and he gave up the lead on lap 30 of 71.
Vettel finished the race 17 seconds behind Webber. For a driver who has usually finished ahead of his team mate by a greater margin than that this year, it indicates Vettel probably lost a significant amount of time with his problem, but the likes of McLaren and Ferrari weren’t close enough to capitalise on it.
At the moment it’s impossible to prove conclusively whether Red Bull used covert team orders or not.
As team orders are legal and Red Bull have shown that, unlike last year, they are now prepared to use them, I don’t see a compelling reason for them to use team orders but make a secret of it.
Given the underhand methods and coded messages some teams have employed when using team orders in the past – such as Ferrari at Hockenheim last year – I’m not surprised that some people doubt Red Bull’s sincerity on this occasion.
But based on the information available to us at the moment, I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Do you think Vettel’s ‘gearbox problem’ was team orders in disguise? Cast your vote below and explain your choice in the comments.
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