For the first time in two years Sebastian Vettel has been beaten in consecutive races by a team-mate. How will the current champion respond to a lowly start to 2014?
One of the most intriguing stories of the season so far has been the developing relationship between reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel and new Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo was impressive in Australia before his eventual exclusion – although Vettel’s woes that weekend meant that the normal order was restored in Malaysia. Bahrain and China, however, played host to slightly different scenarios.
Firstly, in analysing Vettel’s issues in 2014 it’s important not to discredit just what a good job Ricciardo is doing with the tools at his disposal.
His happy-go-lucky exterior hides a determined racing driver – hence the picture of a honey badger on his helmet – and his performances in 2013 were far greater than results portrayed. The consequences of excelling in qualifying frequently left him down on tyres in the race, a situation exacerbated by Toro Rosso’s questionable strategies.
Therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Ricciardo fighting at the front end of the grid – after all, he’s had the best education possible for the past four or five years of his career.
But there is a narrative behind the pure results. Rightly or wrongly, drivers are held to different expectations. There wasn’t a hoo-hah in Malaysia when Vettel went a second quicker than Ricciardo in qualifying and raced ahead of him. It’s what’s expected of a driver of Vettel’s calibre and experience. But when the roles are reversed, it’s a different story…
The narrative fits a certain approach with the characters in the sport. Vettel has been painted as the villain of the piece for the last few years and often portrayed as the kid who got lucky with excellent machinery at his feet. This is, of course, partly true. But Vettel didn’t win four titles by accident, even if some are using a couple of below-par races to question his legacy.
But Shanghai provided a glimpse that Ricciardo is beginning to rattle Vettel and the German himself admitted that his new team-mate had so far done a better job.
Judging drivers by radio messages is a dangerous game – it is selected by the broadcaster – but Vettel’s terse response of ‘tough luck’ when asked to allow Ricciardo through was indicative of a driver ill at ease with his current predicament.
The duo consequently swapped positions, with Vettel claiming that further radio messages – not broadcasted – persuaded him to allow his team-mate through. But his combative approach and location of ceding the position – into turn one – left his words unconvincing.
The changes to the regulations have left Vettel unable to feel at ease with the rear stability offered by the RB10 and unable to rotate the rear as he likes.
“I am not yet where I want to be, and I’m pretty much fighting with the car,” he says. “It is an ongoing process. Sometimes it feels that we are making one step forward, but then also one backward again.”
Vettel’s sensitivity towards the feeling of a car has left him on the back foot in terms of set-up, which has had a knock on effect of greater tyre wear.
Since Pirelli’s tyres were introduced at the start of 2011, Vettel has mastered the optimum strategy of taking pole position, getting out of DRS range, saving the tyres and reacting to the opposition.
The ultimate speed of the Mercedes has made conducting that strategy an obsolete proposition for Red Bull, while the current inferiority of Renault’s top speed – allied to Red Bull choosing a high downforce set-up, it should be said – has made recovering positions a difficult task. But Vettel, usually supreme at tyre preservation, struggled in China.
On the option tyres, Vettel was regularly several tenths of a second faster than his team-mate. But once he put on the primes, he slipped back and eventually finished 20 odd seconds down on Ricciardo.
“I did not have a chance to overtake Fernando [Alonso] and this is why I decided to drop back,” he said. “What happened next I do not know, and I do not fully understand yet. I was very slow on the prime tyres.”
Few expected Red Bull to compete for overall honours following their disastrous pre-season campaign, so to have two cars in the top five is a testament to the extraordinary job carried out by the reigning champions. Mercedes’s current steamrollering of the opposition means that a fifth successive title is a far-fetched idea, but the RB10 has inherent aerodynamic ability. Once Renault makes a few tweaks to their power units, there’s little reason to doubt that Red Bull will be in the game. Their lack of pre-season running means they’re still playing catch-up, especially in terms of getting a car suited to Vettel’s driving style.
“The truth is that we have a great car, and now we need to work on the upgrades and implement them in the best possible way to make sure we get more power out of the engine,” says the current world champion.
It would be naïve to think that Vettel can mount a challenge, especially considering Mercedes’s enormous advantage, but many have been too hasty to write off a talented champion. Every racing driver has peaks and troughs in his career - two of Vettel's most esteemed rivals, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, have bounced back from below-par races. Vettel has operated at a high level for years - what happened in 2012 should be an example of that.
But for now, the developing relationship between the two Red Bull drivers is fascinating. What can Vettel do when the sport returns to Europe? Can Ricciardo continue his good form - or can he raise the bar further if - or should that be when - Vettel responds? It's likely to be one of many sub-plots that runs throughout the 2014 season.