Few deteriorations in fortune can have been quite so dramatic as the one suffered by Mark Webber since his final pit stop in Malaysia.
At that point in the early Kuala Lumpur evening he was leading the race, and homing in on a victory, without any expectation of a challenge from behind.
One ignoring of the ‘Multi 21’ team order later, it has all evaporated.
Sebastian Vettel disregarding that instruction has been done to death in the three weeks since Sepang – the only thing Motorhead would venture to add is that if you want to make the order clearer, one idea would be to rename it ‘No overtaking, Seb’.
There were ‘tellings-off’ from Red Bull, ‘apologies’ from Vettel, and they deserve inverted commas because they amount to three-tenths of nothing.
Vettel is honest enough to admit that if he had his time again he would most likely do exactly the same thing once more. His team principal Christian Horner claimed he had not been undermined by the incident. So that, as they say, is that.
Only the jilted number two still looks like a victim, and if he has moved on from that weekend he had little chance to prove it in Shanghai. Fate not only declined to smile on the Australian, it stole his fuel, detached his wheels, and headed for the hills.
His run in qualifying was spiked by a fuelling issue which left him parked up halfway around the track, unable to get back to the garage. He was subsequently demoted to the back of the grid for being under-fuelled.
On Sunday, Webber’s race was ended when his right rear wheel came clean off shortly after a pit stop.
Continuing his series of unfortunate incidents, the team were fined for an unsafe release from another stop, while the stewards found him responsible for a collision with the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, a coming-together punished with a five-place grid penalty in Bahrain, meaning the Australian’s misery will roll on into another Grand Prix.
In fact, the weekend was so wretched that Horner was forced to take questions about whether Webber was the victim of a conspiracy.
“Forget conspiracy,” Horner said, showing a little irritation. “It is all about getting two cars to finish as high as we can.”
A conspiracy would be great fun, but about as likely to come to pass as John Watson’s suggestion that Vettel should have been suspended by Red Bull for his actions in Sepang.
The sport’s dominant team of recent seasons are not the sort who would spite their face by cutting off their nose. All they want is points and trophies, and that is why you won’t catch them standing down their triple world champion, or sabotaging half their cars.
Webber’s walk away from his stranded vehicle, his bemused shrug of the shoulders told its own story.
But Formula One is not a sport that entertains ‘bad luck’ as an excuse for long, and whatever the cocktail of factors behind the result in China and the penalty for Bahrain, Webber doesn’t have a lot of time to emerge from the funk that he appears to have slipped into.
While there may be no conspiracy to derail him, fate is conspiring to make the road back to parity at Red Bull a very long one.
In theory, the Austrian team will let their drivers race each other. In practice, if you accept that the pair started the season on a level playing field, they are no longer in that position.
The German may have broken a rule to do it, but has consigned his team-mate to the status of number two driver, making it abundantly clear in the event of a 50/50 call which driver Horner must back first. If Webber wants that kind of treatment, he will have to outrace his team-mate,
His contract runs until the end of the season, by which time he will be 37. The suspicion before the campaign was that this might be the last of seven years with Red Bull.
If the funk persists to the midpoint of the season, when the driver market begins to take shape, the oldest driver on the grid could find himself parked as unceremoniously as his three-wheeled car was at turn 14 on Sunday.
This is not to diminish Webber’s achievements in the sport. He came within a Grand Prix of the world championship in 2010, and until the 12th round of last season, he was ahead of Vettel in the standings.
Since the new points system was put in place in 2010, Webber has outscored all but Vettel and Fernando Alonso. On top of that, he seems to be a determined competitor and a popular chap.
But Red Bull are not the sentimental kind, and if Malaysia has punctured Webber’s belief that he can outdrive his younger team-mate – if not every weekend then at least on occasion – they will not blink in finding a replacement.
Not for the first time in his Formula One career, Mark Webber, the man who goes by the name ‘Aussie Grit’ on his Twitter account, must feel like it’s him against the world. But whether he’s got the ability to grit his way through this one remains to be seen.
Mark Patterson - Follow @Mark_Eurosport
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