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  • Writer's pictureBen Waterworth

A decade on from one of F1's greatest controversies: "Multi-21 Seb"

When comparing Formula 1 in 2023 to 2013, it is hard to distinguish a difference, if you look at the form guide.

Red Bull are dominant out front. A multiple world champion from Europe leads the team who, let’s just say, isn’t universally loved and an Australian is a key part of the furniture.

Besides the obvious technical factors that differentiate the cars a decade on, as well as the surge in popularity the sport has gone through, one key difference that exists is the high level of tension and controversy around the teammates at the Austrian team.

One incident forever changed the landscape within the walls at Milton Keynes and was summed up in three immortal words.

“Multi-21 Seb.”

Yes, that iconic moment is now officially ten years old today. Hard to believe right? But it’s a moment that a decade on has stood the test of time amongst the F1 zeitgeist and still pierces the heart of any Australian F1 fan.

First, a quick background for those who aren’t overly familiar with the situation. At the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, a dominant Red Bull controlled the race, with Aussie Mark Webber jumping his then triple World Champion teammate Sebastian Vettel for the lead after the first round of pit stops.

Mark Webber and F1 legend Jackie Stewart. (Photo by Mark Peterson ATPImages/Getty Images)

Team orders stated that Webber would win the race and Vettel was to remain behind him. An order that was subsequently 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 to the controversy.

What played out was pure box office entertainment. Webber famously declared Vettel would have “protection as always” on live television in the post-race interview, called a sheepish Vettel out in the cool room before the podium with those iconic words mentioned above, before Vettel went on to apologise after the race.

He would rescind his apology three weeks later in China and essentially force Webber into retirement, 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 pair has since been overshadowed by the subsequent drama we had at Mercedes in the following years between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. But anybody who followed the sport back then and saw the implosion between Webber and Vettel was absolutely compelled.

I was lucky enough to be there at Sepang that weekend working as media for a F1 website and the events that occurred behind the scenes were just as fascinating as they were for the wider public.

During the race, my colleague and I were sat firmly at our desks, watching it unfold with a key view over the pit straight, buoyed with excitement of being at a race where we could see an Aussie win.

The facilities in the media room at Sepang were decent, but one key fact that was missing from our area was the ability to listen into pit radio. When the infamous pass occurred, my colleague and I were more disappointed than annoyed, as we weren’t fully aware of the situation at hand.

However, once we discovered what had happened, we made a bee line to secure front row seats in the press conference for what was set to be box office gold.

Sitting waiting for the podium drivers to arrive, we paid close attention to the two Red Bull media attaches who sat patiently waiting for their drivers to arrive, knowing they were in for a busy night. It was a night that significantly intensified the moment Webber uttered his famous dig at the team on the podium when questioned by Martin Brundle.

I’ll never forget the moment it happened. On hearing the words “he’ll have protection as usual”, both attaches looked at each other, turned to another journalist seated near us to ask what he said, and on hearing the transcript, both feverishly turned to their phones typing out words that put the team into further damage control from that moment.

And it would be even more drama from that point on.

As the drivers prepared to come into the room, you could clearly see the tension between Webber and Vettel. Conversations took place between the two, as well as other Red Bull team members in the hall before they entered to face the world’s press.

Having been in many press conferences for major international sporting events over the years, I can firmly say I have never felt tension in a room such as I had in that moment. It was almost as if nobody knew what to say or how to ask it, and you could tell that both Vettel and Webber were waiting to get into a room and have it out away from the prying eyes of the press.

That was perfectly summed up in one key moment I’ll never forget. Vettel, after being asked again about what happened, claimed what he did was a “mistake” before saying, “I had a very short word with Mark and then it hit me quite hard and I realised that I f*****d up.”

Sebastian Vettel mellowed in his later years as a driver and became one of the more popular on the grid. (Photo by Joe Portlock/Getty Images)

It was jarring to hear Vettel speak so openly and candidly, in a way that you had never seen the German act before. The answer drew silence from the room and you were left to wonder just how this brash young superstar would be able to recover from that moment and try to regain the confidence of the team and public as he sat there so apologetic after his ‘mistake’.

The truth is of course, as mentioned previously, he changed his mind promptly and by the next race he was on the front foot saying it was a choice he would make again if it presented itself. He retracted his apology and said he did it for ‘payback’ for the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2012, after Webber had not helped the German in his fight for the world title.

Many people just couldn’t accept Vettel’s behaviour, and the German was enemy number 1 in Australia for many years to come. He would constantly be booed as he showed up to get autographs on arrival at Albert Park. Talk to most F1 fans from this country at that time and ask them who their least favourite driver was and nine times out of ten it would be Vettel.

And while yes, this was a moment in time that was hard to take as an Aussie F1 fan, it certainly was a shame to tarnish the legacy of Vettel given his impact on the sport in the early 2010s.

The ruthless nature of the sport often sees controversial choices being made. Name any great of the sport and you can pinpoint moments they’ve all had which were ruthless and hard edged 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.

Ten years ago however, this was not the case, showing how far a driver can come once time passes.

Aussie fans have long memories, however the hatred towards Vettel did seemingly wane over the years. One memory I’ll always have of Vettel was that he was always the driver who stayed the longest when it came to engaging with fans. Even when being booed, he would go up and down the line signing autographs, talking and joking with those waiting for him and cutting a friendly figure that was rare among many drivers at the time.

While his taste and antics may not have been for everyone, he certainly was always himself. A self that had an edge to it and that was in full force at Sepang that weekend.

Aussie fans soon had a new hero to cheer for the following year, especially against Vettel, with Daniel Ricciardo replacing the retiring Mark Webber in 2014 and going on to dismantle Seb’s dominance at Red Bull during their one season as teammates together.

Another aspect of that famous race was one small fact that gets overlooked through all the controversy that came from it. Lewis Hamilton finished third in that race, his first ever podium for Mercedes, in what should’ve been a key talking point of the race.

This was a Hamilton who had been absolutely blasted for moving from McLaren to Mercedes at the end of 2012 and had driven a superb race to beat his teammate Nico Rosberg for the final step of the podium.

Lewis Hamilton’s amazing career was just getting started in 2013. (Photo by Michael Potts/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

A key fact that is always forgotten about that race is the fact there were team orders at Mercedes then too, with Ross Brawn telling Nico Rosberg not to attack his teammate, an order he followed. So while Red Bull got all the media that day over their controversial team orders, many would not realise just how significant a moment that would be at Mercedes, and the feud that would follow over the coming three and a half seasons.

During that press conference, Hamilton himself sat in the chair also looking quite sheepish and reserved, a far cry from the confident, exuberant seven-times world champion we know today.

Ten years on from multi-21, we may not have the same intra-team battles at Red Bull that we once had. The team has moved on significantly, having thrown all their eggs in the Max Verstappen basket to seemingly avoid team mate issues they faced during their last dominant period.

Yes, there were some issues between Verstappen and Sergio Perez last year in Brazil. However the difference is that it’s clearly Verstappen’s team, versus a team back in 2013 that although technically was Vettel’s, the public face of it presented equality between he and Webber.

One thing is certain a decade on, is that entertainment in F1 comes in many faces and forms. But for that one moment on March 24, 2013, we all sat glued to a moment summed up by three simple words that would go down in F1 infamy.

A moment I will forever be grateful I was able to have a literal front row seat for.

This article was originally written for The Roar. You can read the published version here


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