Singapore, last Sunday. The t-shirt left no doubt as to which Red Bull driver was in its wearer’s sights. ‘What part of Multi 21 don’t you understand?’ it read, and there’s a fair chance that said wearer was directing a chorus of boos at the winner of the 13th race of this year’s Formula One world championship a few hours later.
The thing is, it needn’t be this way. As a driver, Sebastian Vettel is breathtakingly good. Singapore was perhaps the best example of that, the first time all season we’ve seen him allowed completely off the chain as Red Bull tried to build a gap of a pit stop over the rest of the field after the safety car bunched up the pack just before half-distance. The result was an advantage of two seconds a lap, lap after lap, which sent jaws dropping the length of the pit lane. Those in the know suspected Vettel had, in this tyre-management age of ‘racing’ that is F1, been keeping his ultimate pace in reserve in recent races; few realised he had that much in store as he made the rest of the sport’s best drivers look silly.
For that demonstration of how to drive an F1 car better than anyone on the planet, the German was booed yet again on the podium as he received yet another winners’ trophy. And it wasn’t for that extended index finger, tiresome as it can become sometimes. For the third race (and victory) in a row, his post-race interview was drowned out by howls of discontent. No, those boos weren’t anything to do with one driver racking up win after methodical win on the way to another world title. And perhaps those boos shouldn’t be directed at Vettel at all.
Let’s be honest: the boos are as much about the way Red Bull Racing handled Malaysia and ‘Multi 21’ – and numerous incidents before that – while insisting that there’s no number one driver in its team and its drivers are treated equally. Since Turkey 2010 if we’re being honest, when the car that had the temerity of allowing itself to be driven into by its sister machine was somehow deemed by some as being equally at fault in a two-car accident. People aren’t stupid and they know the score.
The booing has everything to do with the position Vettel has been allowed to create for himself within the team or that the team has allowed him to create, one or the other. And the complete lack of ramifications for his actions in Malaysia. Would Mark Webber (or any other teammate for that matter) have even kept his job had the roles been reversed at Sepang? Very unlikely.
Is the booing a bad look for Formula One? Undoubtedly. Is it justified? Perhaps. Is it up to people on the inside of the sport to tell the fans how to behave, saying they don’t agree with it? Absolutely not. The fans pay very good money to be at races, and that investment means they can support their drivers/teams and be as passionate/emotional as they like. People can’t be told to turn that off, not should they. Making a big deal out of it will only encourage the fans to continue.
So far we’ve had Belgium, where Vettel was booed lustily on the drivers’ parade before he won that race as well as the top step of the podium, Monza – Ferrari territory, no further explanation needed – and Singapore, where a large percentage of the crowd were visiting Australians. It doesn’t make the booing right, but does explain a few things.
We’ll know more whether the booing at the last three Grands Prix has been a coincidence or will become a trend after the next two races – Korea, where few people turn up or know the sport anywhere well enough to be emotionally invested, and Japan, where the Suzuka crowds are as nice a bunch as could be imagined and know a brilliant driver when they see one even if he’s done the odd questionable thing from a sportsmanship point of view over the years (see Senna, Ayrton). Given Vettel’s imposing record at those two circuits in recent times, there’s a fair chance he’ll be stepping onto the top step of the podium twice more in the next three weekends. Or, if you believe Mercedes, perhaps at all six races for the rest of the year.
People aren’t booing Vettel for winning, far from it. He could come 14th and still get an earful at the moment. No, blame the lack of consequences for his actions over the years – particularly for the Malaysia incident – for the cacophony of derision that’s likely to be sent his way for the immediate future. Is it uncomfortable for those of us who love watching the best in the sport chase perfection? Undoubtedly. But, as the old saying reminds us, you reap what you sow.
A genuine apology, a story that was consistent and didn’t change on the fly as the court of public opinion made its views known and perhaps the suggestion of future consequences should it happen again would have sufficed back in March. And then perhaps we’d be talking only about the exploits of a driver that, when the dust settles on his career, could well own every record of note in his sport if he continues on in the same vein as Singapore last weekend.