A decade after one of F1’s biggest controversies: ‘Multi-21 Seb’
When comparing Formula 1 in 2023 to 2013, it’s hard to tell a difference, if you look at the form guide.
Red Bull is dominant up front. A multiple world champion from Europe leads the team which, let’s just say, isn’t universally loved and an Australian is a key fixture.
Apart from the obvious technical factors that differentiate the cars a decade later, as well as the growing popularity of the sport, a key difference that exists is the high level of tension and controversy around the Austrian team mates.
One incident forever changed the landscape within the walls of Milton Keynes and has been summed up in three immortal words.
Yes, this iconic moment is now officially ten years old today. Hard to believe right? But it’s a moment that, a decade later, has stood the test of time among the F1 zeitgeist and still pierces the heart of any Australian F1 fan.
First, a brief history for those unfamiliar with the situation. At the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, a dominant Red Bull controlled the race, with Aussie Mark Webber leapfrogging then three-time world champion team-mate Sebastian Vettel for the lead after the first lap of pit stops.
Team orders stated that Webber would win the race and Vettel should stay behind him. An order that was then ignored by Vettel, who overtook Webber on lap 46. From there the German went on to win, Webber was incredibly angry and the F1 world was drawn into the controversy.
What happened was pure box office entertainment. Webber said Vettel would have “protection as always” on live TV in the post-race interview, called a crestfallen Vettel in the cold room before the podium with those iconic words mentioned above, before Vettel does apologize after the race.
He would reverse his apology three weeks later in China and essentially force Webber to retire, after he no longer had faith in Red Bull or felt supported by the team.
It was messy and the long brewing feud between the two has since been overshadowed by the ensuing drama at Mercedes in the following years between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. But anyone who followed the sport at the time and saw the implosion between Webber and Vettel absolutely obliged.
I was lucky enough to be there at Sepang this weekend as media for an F1 website and the events behind the scenes were just as fascinating as they were for the general public. .
During the race, my colleague and I sat firmly at our desks, watching it unfold with a key view on the pit straight, driven by the excitement of being at a race where we could see an Australian win.
The media room facilities at Sepang were ok, but a key feature that was missing in our area was the ability to listen to pit radio. When the infamous pass happened, my colleague and I were more disappointed than annoyed, as we weren’t fully aware of the situation.
However, once we found out what had happened, we did a bee line to secure front row seats at the press conference for what was to be box office gold.
Sitting awaiting the arrival of the podium drivers, we paid particular attention to the two Red Bull press officers who were patiently awaiting the arrival of their drivers, knowing they were going to have a busy night. It was a night that escalated dramatically as Webber delivered his famous dig at the team on the podium when questioned by Martin Brundle.
I will never forget the moment it happened. On hearing the words “he will be protected as usual”, the two attachés looked at each other, turned to another journalist seated near us to ask him what he had said, and on hearing the transcript, both feverishly turned to their phones typing words that put the team in extra damage control from this point on.
And it would be even more dramatic from then on.
As the drivers prepared to enter the hall, the tension between Webber and Vettel could be clearly seen. Conversations took place between the two, as well as with other members of the Red Bull team in the room before they entered to face the world press.
Having attended many press conferences for major international sporting events over the years, I can firmly say that I never felt any tension in a room like the one I had at that time. It was almost like no one knew what to say or how to ask, and you could tell Vettel and Webber were waiting to walk into a room and get him out of the prying eyes of the press.
It was perfectly summed up in a key moment that I will never forget. Vettel, after being questioned again about what had happened, claimed what he had done was a “mistake” before saying: “I had a very short word with Mark and then it bothered me. hit pretty hard and I realized I had f*****d up.”
It was shocking to hear Vettel speak so openly and candidly, in a way you’ve never seen before. The response drew silence from the room and you wondered how this brash young superstar could recover from this moment and try to win back the trust of the team and the public as he sat there so sorry after his “ error “.
The truth is of course, as mentioned before, he changed his mind quickly and by the next race he was on the front burner saying it was a pick he would do again if he ever ran. He withdrew his apology and said he did so in “revenge” for the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2012, after Webber failed to help the German in his fight for the world title.
A lot of people just couldn’t accept Vettel’s behavior, and the German was Australia’s No. 1 enemy for many years. He was constantly booed when he showed up to get autographs upon arriving at Albert Park. Talk to most F1 fans in this country at that time and ask them who their least favorite driver was and nine times out of ten it would be Vettel.
And while so, it was a difficult time to be an Australian F1 fan, it was certainly a shame to tarnish Vettel’s legacy given his impact on the sport in the early 2010s.
The unforgiving nature of the sport often results in controversial choices. Name any sports great and you can identify the moments they all had that were ruthless and tough that helped solidify their greatness.
For Vettel, he retired from the sport last year as a beloved figure who was among the most popular in F1.
A decade ago, however, that wasn’t the case, showing how far a rider can go once time passes.
Australian fans have long memories, but the hatred towards Vettel has apparently diminished over the years. One memory I will always have of Vettel is that he was always the driver who stuck around the longest when it came to engaging with the fans. Even when he was booed, he rode up and down the line signing autographs, talking and joking with those waiting for him, and putting on a friendly face that was rare among many drivers at the time.
While his taste and antics may not have been for everyone, he was certainly always himself. A self that had an edge and was in full force at Sepang this weekend.
Aussie fans quickly had a new hero to cheer for the following year, particularly against Vettel, with Daniel Ricciardo replacing retired Mark Webber in 2014 and continuing to dismantle Seb’s dominance at Red Bull in their only season in as teammates together.
Another aspect of this famous race was a small fact that has been overlooked through all the ensuing controversy. Lewis Hamilton finished third in that race, his first-ever podium finish for Mercedes, in what should have been a key talking point of the race.
He was a Hamilton who was absolutely amazed to move from McLaren to Mercedes at the end of 2012 and rode a superb race to beat team-mate Nico Rosberg for the final step of the podium.
A key fact that is still forgotten about this race is the fact that there were also team orders at Mercedes, with Ross Brawn telling Nico Rosberg not to attack his teammate, an order he followed. So while Red Bull grabbed all the media that day over their controversial team orders, many wouldn’t realize how important this moment would be at Mercedes and the ensuing feud over the three seasons. and a half to come.
During that press conference, Hamilton himself sat in the chair, also looking quite sheepish and reserved, a far cry from the confident and exuberant seven-time world champion we know today.
Ten years after multi-21, we may not have the same intra-team battles at Red Bull that we once had. The team have moved on considerably, having thrown all their eggs into the Max Verstappen basket to seemingly avoid the teammate issues they faced during their last dominant spell.
Yes, there were problems between Verstappen and Sergio Perez last year in Brazil. However, the difference is that this is clearly Verstappen’s team, versus a team in 2013 which, although technically was Vettel’s, the public face of it presented the tie between him and Webber.
One thing is certain a decade later is that F1 entertainment comes in many faces and forms. But for that moment on March 24, 2013, we were all sitting glued to a moment summed up in three simple words that would fall into F1 infamy.
A moment for which I will be eternally grateful to have been able to have a seat in the front row.