It should have been a celebration not just of a timely Red Bull one-two that catapulted the team from Milton Keynes to the top of both the drivers' and constructors’ world championships, but also of Sebastian Vettel equalling Sir Jackie Stewart’s tally of 27 grand prix victories.
Instead, the triple champion’s controversial success when he ignored team instructions to overtake his team-mate Mark Webber became a public relations grenade for the team and exposed the German’s ruthless desire to win at all costs. It also tore apart the fragile truce that has existed between Vettel and Webber since 2010.
After Vettel had defied team orders that instructed him to remain behind his Australian team-mate, who had driven beautifully while doing as the team management had asked in conserving his tyres and fuel, and had stolen the victory, Vettel realised the magnitude of his duplicity and was smart enough to offer what initially sounded like a contrite and convincing apology.
“At the end I felt I had strong pace and on a new set of medium tyres I had a bit more speed and it was a close fight,” he began, “but I did a big mistake today. We should have stayed in the positions we were in. I didn’t ignore the order on purpose, but I messed up in that situation. I took the lead from Mark, which I can see now he is upset about, but I want to be honest and stick to the truth, and to apologise.
“I took quite a lot of risk to pass him and I should have behaved better. It doesn’t help his feelings right now. Apologies to Mark and now the result is there, but all I can say is that I didn’t do it deliberately.”
This was a race that was as much about radio messages from team to driver and vice versa as it was about the on-track action, which at time became very fraught in several instances, not just between the Red Bull drivers but all down the field. As early as the 29th lap Vettel was tearing a page from the Fernando Alonso phrasebook and demanding that Red Bull make Webber move over. “Mark is too slow, get him out of the way,” he instructed. Later, as he repeatedly challenged Webber, against orders to hold station, team boss Christian Horner beseeched him to back off. “This is silly, Seb,” Horner told him, just as Vettel forced his way to the front with a precarious move on the 46th lap.
For several corners the two Red Bulls ran inches apart, as Webber fought back. But after Vettel was able to pull away, Horner warned him: “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, Seb.”
So Vettel knew perfectly well what he had done, long before Webber’s angry expression and manner on the way to a subdued podium, and his comments there.
The spat has opened up all the old wounds that were inflicted when the two of them collided while fighting for the lead of the 2010 Turkish GP, or the incident in the British GP that season when, having won the race in a car that lacked the new front wing that only Vettel was allowed to use, Webber had declared sarcastically over the radio, “Not bad for a No 2 driver.”
As he stood po-faced on the podium, the Australian made his feelings clear to commentator Martin Brundle: “We had the right strategy early on, and then it was just really controlling race and getting it all in place. Then after the last pit stop the team told me the race was over so we turned the engines down, then the team changed that and Seb made his own decisions today.”
His emotions at their most raw, the frustration he has long harboured about the way he is sometimes treated within the camp welled up and he could not resist adding: “He’ll have protection as usual,” inferring that team director Helmut Marko would once again excuse his protégé’s action. “It’s still very raw at the moment.”
Vettel’s defence, and his reference to himself as “the black sheep now,” sounded as lame as the comment Horner mustered.
“They’ve never been the best of mates and they are never going to spend Christmas together, but there is a respect between the two of them and I’m sure with a little time to reflect we’ll quickly move on from this.”
Webber sat listening to all the cant, clearly neither fooled nor pacified, and did not deny that over the remaining laps he was minded to consider his future with the team, and perhaps even in Formula One. “My mind was thinking many things,” he said. “Many, many things.”
There had been drama right from the start when the race began on a wet track and saw Fernando Alonso run into the back of Vettel in the second corner. Ferrari gambled on keeping their man out for the handful of laps before dry weather tyres would be feasible, but his damaged front wing broke on the second lap, pitching him off the road. Vettel pitted a lap too early for slicks, handing the advantage to Webber, who then controlled things until the controversy on the 46th lap.
Further back Mercedes team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg battled throughout to third and fourth places respectively, but a loose wheel ruined a fine drive by Jenson Button and left Felipe Massa to salvage fifth place for Ferrari ahead of Lotus duo Romain Grosjean and Melbourne winner Kimi Raikkonen.