While Sebastian Vettel’s outburst at the Mexican Grand Prix, and the lacklustre reaction to it by the FIA, has generated plenty of interest in Formula One right now, it’s all for the wrong reasons. Language like Vettel’s has been part of F1 this season already – Daniel Ricciardo labelled Nico Rosberg a “mother******” in pursuit of him only a few races ago – but there’s a difference between language used in the heat of the moment and a direct attack on the referee of the game you’re playing. There’s no doubt Vettel crossed that line – in fact, he dived over it headlong without abandon.
The anger was justified, of course. Max Verstappen left the circuit in his robust defence of the final podium position, but the confusion over whether or not he had been told to give the place back to Sebastian began to rile the German. With it not happening, and Max brake testing the Ferrari to the point where he was attacked by the other Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo. Frustration led to anger, anger led to rage, and Vettel blew.
Vettel: Move, move. For heaven’s sake. He [Verstappen]’s a scoundrel…that’s what he is. I mean am I the only one or are you not seeing what I am seeing? He is just backing me up into Ricciardo? For heaven’s sake.
Ferrari race engineer: Charlie said…
Vettel: Here is a message for Charlie: Go away! Go away! Honestly. I mean honestly, I am going to hit someone. I think I have a puncture, rear left [after Turn 4 incident with Daniel Ricciardo].
Ferrari race engineer: Tyres are fine, tyres are fine.
Vettel: He has to give me the position. End of the story.
Ferrari race engineer: Charlie says no.
Vettel: Well here’s a message for Charlie. Go away! Honestly, go away.
Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene: Sebastian, Sebastian calm down. They are under investigation. We know it is not fair, but calm down. Put your head down and we talk afterwards.
Vettel: Okay, copy. Received.
(transcript made safe for younger readers)
It felt almost cathartic in its nature. Ferrari as a team has failed to match the highs of last season, let alone build on them and challenge Mercedes. The Italian team were the favourites to challenge Hamilton, Rosberg, et al, but have slipped behind Red Bull and have made serious strategical errors on and a worryingly consistent basis.
But those frustrations from Vettel needed to be directed at the team, first and foremost. Maybe it was because he has been sounding like a broken record to them for the last few months and needed a new outlet, but to pick Charlie Whiting as the focal point of his red mist is inexcusable. So was the disrespect shown in the choice of words made. Yes, we can argue the fact that FOM made the conscious decision to play the audio there and then, bringing into the public eye – or ears, if you will – but that’s another discussion for another day.
Not that we should put Vettel on the naughty step for using the radio waves as an opportunity to communicate with everyone and anyone, including Race Control, either. He isn’t the first driver to do so, and surely won’t be last. Current Grand Prix need the occasional injection of these moments of clarity or levity to inform and entertain us. Fernando Alonso’s 18 months of backing McLaren and Honda to the hilt in press conferences are unravelled on Sundays when his true feelings are relayed to the pit wall. Go further back, and Kimi Raikkonen could easily retire on the money made from “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” t-shirts sold over the last four seasons.
As much as high emotion was the overriding factor, Vettel was completely in control of what he was saying, and, crucially, where he was aiming. It may not have been a pointed finger in an accusing way – the inflammatory word of “cheat” wasn’t brought up, for example – which arguably could have been even worse, but it was malicious. And there’s precedent here as well; Jacques Villeneuve’s description of the new 1998 rules as “sh*t” nearly 20 years ago sent then FIA president Max Mosley into a near apoplectic fit, which nearly resulted in the book being thrown at the Canadian.
Brushing it away as an outburst brought on by pressures on and off the race track doesn’t quite cut it either. Vettel probably didn’t instantly regret it, but there was grovelling and apologies long into the Mexican night. That’s what probably prevented it from going any further in the eyes of punishment, but there is still an audible cry of injustice.
As ever, we can look to other sports for some sort of comparisons, even guidance, but it seems they vetoed the punishments for industrial language and focused more on accusations of foul play when things are going against you. For example, calling someone a cheat is a no-no in Association Football and will be looked at just as seriously as someone putting unprintable adjectives in front of it. It’s just been accepted as part of the fabric of the game.
Yet there’s still punishment if you step over that line. Cards will be shown and suspensions will be served for foul and abusive language, just not sanctions. No rules exist for bringing the game into disrepute by mouthing off, but you can still be removed from the arena of play for exactly the same amount of time as if you had been overly violent.
But then football will never be comparable to F1, no matter how hard we try. The equivalent of the Vettel incident, where his race engineer was relaying a Whiting message to the German while he tried to attack, and defend, from the Red Bulls would be like Cristiano Ronaldo bearing down on goal with his manager in his ear bellowing how many minutes of added time had just been held up by the linesman.
Did Sebastian Vettel go too far in Mexico? Definitely – we’re still talking about it now – but he was bright enough to know he was in the wrong and has grovelled accordingly to the powers that be, and that probably saved him from a fine, or even a suspended race ban.
If he could issue a statement so all the young karters, who have probably crossed the same line at tracks since then, know exactly what the standard is expected, which would show the maturity he was so desperately lacking that Sunday afternoon.