The most telling moment of the British Grand Prix was not when Lewis Hamilton’s left rear Pirelli exploded, turning itself into what looked for most of his in-lap like some post-modern wagon wheel. It was when on lap 40 Sebastian Vettel coasted to a halt against the pitwall on the inside of the exit of Club Corner.
The significance was not that his Red Bull had failed him; even the best run teams cannot guarantee perfect reliability from first to last. It was the reaction of the crowd. Their roaring, whooping, crowing delight at such bad luck made for a pretty undignified spectacle. And let’s be clear, this wasn’t because he was driving a Red Bull. Austrian in name only, this was a home event for the men and women of Milton Keynes just up the road. Believe me, had it been Mark Webber parking up, the crowd would have been as sympathetic towards him as it was vitriolic towards Vettel. Make no mistake, this was personal.
Part of me hopes it was because it would position the man they’d come to see win the race one place higher in the rankings, though in the event and through no fault of his own, Lewis was not even to trouble the podium. However most of me knows perfectly well that it’s a manifestation of the pleasure found in having a new figure in the sport to hate.
How difficult it is to remember how hard we once clutched this Monty Python-loving, Beatles-grooving, full English-consuming Anglophile to our bosoms. Actually, it was earlier this year. But then came Malaysia and in an instant, everything changed. In fact even that’s not true. What I suspect poisoned our view of Vettel was not what he did, nor even that the man he did it to, while Australian, is considered one of us. All that was salvageable. What put him beyond the pale was his statement that put in that position again, he’d do exactly the same thing. In our eyes, that was Vettel’s Rubicon moment.
Of course he made it too easy for us. First, the statement was so blunt, so lacking in any consideration for team or team-mate it left us to infer an arrogance of such proportion that it seemed he was inviting us to hate him. Second he made the statement after our last pantomime villain had just left the stage. We needed someone to love to hate and, kind chap that he is, Vettel put his name forward in the most unambiguous way imaginable. Third, Vettel is German. When Germans are modest, funny and not always successful we love them, which is why Boris Becker is commentating at Wimbledon as we speak. But woe betide the German who not only appears to think he is superior to everyone else, but whose driving shows quite clearly there’s a very good chance he’s right.
I didn’t like what Vettel did to Webber and his team in Malaysia and despite the former’s protestations to the contrary, I’d be amazed if the latter’s move away from F1 was not motivated at least in part the knowledge that he was, is and always would have been be the un-named number two in the team. But the cheers and jeers of the British crowd upon his retirement at Silverstone were wholly inappropriate. For so many thousands of people to glory so vocally at the simple misfortune of one driver is pretty unedifying, especially as it was of no game-changing benefit to any British driver.
If the British hated Sebastian Vettel before the race, you can take it as given the feeling is now entirely mutual.