DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – As Sebastian Vettel has established himself as the most dominant Formula One driver of his generation, racing fans have come to see him as the boyish, fun-loving face of the glamorous sport.
But after his victory in the Malaysian Grand Prix on Sunday, a more complex image of the German has emerged — that of a ruthless, cunning driver who will do whatever it takes to win a race and possibly his fourth consecutive drivers' championship.
The 25-year-old German ignored team orders and overtook Red Bull teammate Mark Webber for the victory with just 10 laps remaining. The move left Webber fuming and raised questions about who is truly in charge at Red Bull.
"I think it blemished his reputation," three-time Formula One champion Jackie Stewart said.
"It was an unfortunate error of judgment by Sebastian and it will linger for some time," Stewart told The Associated Press. "There will be an awareness from now on that he may not be as stable as we originally thought. I personally would not have expected that to happen following the manner in which he has conducted himself in races."
Since winning his first F1 race in 2008 with Toro Rosso, Vettel proved he was one of the sport's most exciting drivers and has frequently been compared to the sports greats including fellow country and seven-time champion Michael Schumacher. After coming back to win the championship last year, Vettel became the first driver to win three titles in a row since Schumacher won five straight from 2000-04. The only other driver to win at least three consecutive championships was Juan Manuel Fangio from 1954-57.
Along the way, Vettel has showcased a persona that is almost boring in racing circles. Rather than model girlfriends, tattoos and nights spend at glitzy discos, Vettel comes off as modest in person and talks on the Red Bull website about his mother's home cooking and how there are things more important than one's "bank account."
On the track, he has proven to be aggressive but rarely reckless during his championship run. While Mercedes Lewis Hamilton had several run-ins with Ferrari's Felipe Massa in 2011 and Lotus driver Romain Grosjean caused several first-lap crashes last year, Vettel seemed content with simply winning races or doing enough to keep his championship title intact.
He did some of his best racing in the latter part of 2012, overcoming Ferrari's Fernando Alonso with a string of four straight victories down the stretch on the Asian swing. He also showed he could overcome adversity, finishing only one place behind Alonso in Abu Dhabi despite starting in the pits due to a penalty in qualifying for fuel irregularities. It preserved his championship title lead.
But Vettel also has shown signs of impatience, most troubling in 2010 when Webber was ahead of him in a race. That time, the two cars crashed when Vettel tried to overtake, spoiling what was a near-certain 1-2 finish.
He was largely forgiven for the Turkey crash, partly due to his youth.
But the latest incident has set off a firestorm of criticism on F1 websites and Twitter in which the German is portrayed for the first time as a villain. The British press has been especially tough, calling him egotistical, selfish and even immoral. Fans have called for him to be punished in some way — possible suspended for a race.
But others like Former F1 driver David Coulthard have been more forgiving.
In a column for the BBC, Coulthard said Vettel showed more humility than Schumacher did for several infamous infractions on the track. He noted that Schumacher took weeks to apologize for running Jacques Villeneuve off the track in their title decider in Jerez 1997 and has never apologized for "parking his car in qualifying at Monaco in 2006 to stop Fernando Alonso beating him to pole position."
"Those who like him will sympathize and listen to his words," he said of Vettel. "Those who don't will microanalyse and look for hidden meaning, but at a certain point you have to take people at face value."
Vettel hasn't responded beyond the apology he made minutes after the victory and it seems the team is standing by its top driver.
Team principal Christian Horner didn't defend Vettel's actions, but also tried to downplay the controversy. He said it would be discussed internally, though Red Bull has yet to say whether that was done.
"Obviously it wasn't right what he did. He accepts that," Horner told reporters. "He clearly said if he could wind the clocks back he wouldn't do it again. That is the way it is we need to put it behind us. We need to move on. It's not like it hasn't happened before."
Horner also predicted it wouldn't impact the team's chemistry.
"They have won three consecutive constructors' championships together, 35 victories between them. They are one of most successful pairings of all time," he said. "For sure, they have not ever been best of mates and they never will spend Christmas together. There is respect between the two of them. I'm sure with a little time to reflect we will quickly move on from that."
Critics wonder if it will be that easy — after their display Sunday.
Rather than hugging a celebrating the 1-2 finish, the drivers in a surreal scene refused to even acknowledge one another after the race. They turned away from each other on the podium, spraying champagne in the opposite direction. And when Vettel apologized, he looked out at the media, rather than at Webber who was seated beside him.
Some have suggested Webber could leave the team, although his father said he will be racing Sunday and Stewart said the Australian will remain at Red Bull for now because he wouldn't be able to find a more competitive car.
"I don't think there is anywhere better for Mark to be," Stewart said. "If Mark would go anywhere else, it would be to Ferrari. But Mark would face same problems with (Fernando) Alonso at Ferrari as he would face with Vettel at Red Bull."
If he doesn't leave, it could benefit the other teams as the season progresses.
McLaren's Jenson Button, who had his own troubles with former teammate Hamilton, told the Daily Mail that he doubts the issue will go away anytime soon and that it could lead to the two drivers fighting among themselves, rather than concentrating on other title contenders.
"Hopefully, it does help us," he said.