Vettel: A Season of Struggle?

Thursday 12-June-2014 07:45

This is Sebastian Vettel's eighth season racing in Formula One. Irrespective of whether they like him or not, almost everyone watching will agree that he has an enviable record in this sport, littered with moments that will render even the greatest of F1 drivers jealous.

The 2007 United States GP (then held at Indianapolis) now seems to be a distant past. But some things never change. Just as it is today, even back then, it was no mean feat for a 19-year old to qualify P7 in his first full race weekend and then go on to take his first ever F1 point, finishing eighth (points were harder to come by in those days). Four months later he finished fourth at the Chinese GP, Toro Rosso's best-ever result until then.

It has been a long journey since then and some pivotal moments can be recounted easily. That inaugural victory at Monza in the wet, finishing runners-up in 2009 in his first full season at Red Bull, and then a line of championship wins from 2010 through 2013. Most of these, along with a few F1 records, came with the 'youngest to do so' tag.

You will remember how he cried on winning his first title under the lights of Abu Dhabi. You will also remember how he bowed down to his car at the Indian GP. Alternately, you will remember how he drove into Mark Webber at the 2010 Turkish GP, or how he was booed with much gusto at most of the races in 2013. There is much to choose from and it will depend on what side of the fence you sit.

If there is one racing weekend that perhaps best encapsulates Vettel's career so far, it is the 2013 Singapore GP. He may have won 13 out of 19 races, the last nine without exception, but none more dominant than the one under lights at Marina Bay. He easily got pole, using the third sector of the lap to draw maximum performance from his tyres. In the race, he used his car's superior aerodynamics to blitz the field. Twice he built gaps of nearly six seconds within three laps to second-placed Nico Rosberg - at the start and then at the restart after the safety car (lap 24) was pulled in.

Vettel won that race by a margin of 32 seconds despite that safety car period. It was rare dominance, seen previously when Michael Schumacher drove for Ferrari or even further back, Nigel Mansell for Williams. At the same time, Mark Webber (who didn't finish the race) in the same car was struggling for a podium place. Yet, Vettel was booed at the podium ceremony.

Conducting the podium interviews, Martin Brundle was irate. Niki Lauda went so far as to term those booed him, ignorant about F1. Truth be told, it was a little too much to take in. One driver had just decimated the entire grid while his team-mate had arguably struggled. From the outside view, maybe it was just processional racing at its best, nothing more.

A chance interaction with commentator James Allen that weekend brought forth two conclusions: one, despite their differences, the Vettel-Webber pairing was a dream-team for developing the Red Bull cars. And two, with aero taking a backseat in 2014, it was always going to be an uphill task for this team, at least to start with this new cycle of rules.

These points are very significant with what is happening at Red Bull now, independent of Renault's inability to match Mercedes engines. Webber was revered at Milton Keynes and anyone who thinks that this 'drinks company' invested millions in F1 just to make sure he finished behind the German four-time champion is insane. Simply put, they took notice of the fact that Webber was beaten so comprehensively by Vettel over five seasons (2009 to 2013).

From the inside view, it was apparently clear that Vettel and his RB9 were so much in sync with the existing regulations that they were simply unbeatable. Proof of this can be seen from Webber's best years challenging Vettel - 2009 and 2010 - after which he faded (3rd in 2011, 5th in 2012 and 3rd again in 2013 but with an immense gap of 198 points). In those two seasons, the diffuser rules were not set in stone and Adrian Newey was still exploring more downforce from the exhausts. As he found success, it suited Vettel's style of driving, and voila!

Webber had been with Red Bull since 2007 but never did downforce play such an essential part of their design as it did in Vettel's championship years. It was pivotal in helping the German control wear-rate of his tyres (Bridgestone or Pirelli). It particularly helped in grinding out their performance in the last two sectors of a qualifying lap, one of the reasons why he was almost always on pole in a dominating car. However it was not always about the machinery, and there is evidence from 2014 - in a relatively inferior car - that proves so.

In Malaysia this year, during a wet qualifying when Mercedes' dry-pace advantage was nullified, Vettel put in a P2 lap-time of 1'59.486 compared to Lewis Hamilton's pole-time of 1'59.431. In Monaco, before Rosberg made that 'mistake' on his last-run and denied him - and others - a second run on option tyres, in Q2 Vettel clocked a P3 time of 1'17.074, reportedly without any ERS assistance, almost 0.2s ahead of Daniel Ricciardo. He finished P4 in the end, by nearly that same margin, but still maintained the gap to Ferrari despite his problems.

This past weekend in Canada, Red Bull and Williams were pretty evenly matched in terms of pace, fighting for honours in both qualifying and race. Their four drivers spread from P3 to P6 after qualifying were separated by a mere 0.041s. Driver skill matters in such proximity and Vettel pulled an amazing final lap in Q3 to finish ahead of the other three drivers, despite having been the slowest of all four in both Q1 and Q2 prior.

The problem herein is that these are not enough markers to remember Vettel's season so far. Apart from the podium in Malaysia, he has found little confidence in his car and has been out-driven by his new team-mate. His second podium finish of the season in Canada is surely lost in the deserved euphoria of Daniel Ricciardo's maiden F1 win.

Moving on, the umpteen reliability problems plaguing him nearly every weekend have denied Vettel enough time in the car to grow any confidence in the new downfoce levels. Webber's struggles in the latter part of his Red Bull career, perhaps, indirectly point to Vettel's current form. With redefined downforce levels not optimised to his driving style, he is struggling to cope with the machinery at hand which however retains much of its aero superiority. A prime example is the Chinese GP, where his tyre-wear rates were very high and he lost massive pace leading to some fun radio communications.

At the same time, Ricciardo has found the car to his liking. Frankly, he has never driven a better car, thus able to push and wring out its maximum, seeking new limits at every weekend. Vettel will desperately want to win a race this season, just to prove that he is not being out-driven by the new Australian-on-the-block, but a second Red Bull victory will surely need yet another Mercedes failure.

In the meantime, how the defending champion responds to this winning marker laid down by his team-mate will add a significant chapter in Vettel's memoirs a few seasons from now.

Chetan Narula

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