Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has moved to diffuse the debate over whether Sebastian Vettel attempted to defy order to move aside for Daniel Ricciardo in the Chinese Grand Prix.
Having been asked to cede to the Australian in Bahrain two weeks ago, when the pair were running different strategies on different tyres, the four-time world champion again received the call to let his faster team-mate past in Shanghai – but appeared poised to ignore the order even if it hampered Ricciardo's charge, telling the team 'tough luck' when he learned that the pair were running on the same tyre compound.
Horner, however, insisted that, at the point the call was made, Vettel believed the two Red Bull cars to be running to the same strategy, even though, in reality, Ricciardo had made his first set of tyres – the softer Pirelli option – last several laps longer than those on the #1 machine before switching to the harder mediums.
“He's a racer and, of course, he asked first of all what tyre was Daniel on,” Horner said of Vettel, “Then, at that point, what he didn't realise was that we were looking at a different strategy – because Seb was going through the tyre phases quicker – to convert Sebastian on to a three-stop.
“I think he was understanding that they were on the same tyres and that they were on the same strategy and he wanted to race. The situation was that, obviously, his tyres were quite a bit older at that stage, he was going through the tyre quicker and it looked very much like a three-stop [race].
“As soon as he understood that, he immediately let him through and could see that he just simply didn't have the pace to hold him back, therefore it was pointless.”
Vettel concurred during interviews with the media, admitting that he wasn't going to hold his team-mate up any more than necessary.
“I think there was no point holding him back further - he was quite a lot quicker and, at that stage, we were on different strategies,” he confirmed, “Once I was told that, I decided to let him go as I had to realise more and more towards the end that I couldn't hold him back. The first stint looked alright, [but] the last two, on the primes, I was just too slow.”
Asked whether Vettel's initial recalcitrance had potentially cost Ricciardo a shot at a podium finish, given that the Australian was within a couple of seconds of Fernando Alonso at the chequered flag, Horner insisted that the delay probably hadn't been that big.
“I think that, arguably, he would have been a second further up the road, but [Vettel] did the right thing for the team and let his team-mate through,” he ruminated, “Catching [Alonso] was one thing but, with the deficit that we have on the kilometre-long straight here, I think passing was going to be something quite different.”
With Vettel eventually switched back to a two-stop strategy – “the problem was that the windows of traffic weren't opening up for him behind [and] we could see with our lack of straight-line pace that overtaking despite fresher tyres would be very difficult, so therefore in the end we concluded that actually a two stop would be the best strategy for him as well,” Horner noted – the two Red Bulls came home fourth and fifth on the road, having started second and third.
“I definitely would have had a sniff [of a podium] in another lap,” Ricciardo claimed, before the result was amended to take account of the order after 54 laps rather then 56, “I think we crossed the line 1.2secs or so behind, so I could potentially have got the DRS on the next lap. Give it a couple [of laps] and I definitely would have had a crack. But ifs and buts… I won't give you too many of those. We got close but not close enough so I'll just have to try and get [the podium] in Spain – it's just making me more and more hungry with each race.”
Ricciardo admitted that he had been unaware of any team orders controversy while on the track, and couldn't tell whether Vettel had let him through or simply made an error under pressure from his team-mate.
“I don't know, I'm not too sure to be honest,” he confessed, “I was just told about the radio [conversation] now, so I wasn't really aware of it on track. I had a bit of a look [in turn one] and I don't know if he went deep or gave me a bit of room, but I managed to get by, so it wasn't too bad.”
Where the previous Vettel-Mark Webber partnership was badly fractured when the pair came together in Turkey, Ricciardo does not believe that the current pairing will be dented by the events of the past couple of races.
“Your team-mate is the first guy you look at, and I'm sure Seb won't be happy with his result today, but it's not going to make him not talk to me, I'm confident of that,” he grinned, “We're still going to chat, but I'm sure he's just going to work a bit harder and find out where he can improve for the next one. I definitely won't rest either though, and there's still three guys in front of us that we have to beat.”