Four races into the 2014 Formula 1 season and the start has been less than impressive for the quadruple world champion, who came into the season on the back of a record nine straight wins in 2013. A retirement in Australia, an inspiring third place in Malaysia, a respectable sixth in Bahrain followed by a disappointing sixth after qualifying in third position in China, sees Sebastian Vettel in uncharted territory and at risk of not retaining his title for a fifth consecutive year.
The problems Vettel and the Red Bull team are facing relate to the revolutionary new engine regulations in place this season, which has seen 1.6 litre turbocharged V6 units replace the normally-aspirated 2.4-litre V8 engines. The move has put a huge onus on cooling the Energy Recovery System (ERS) and turbocharger units that throw out around 160bhp for approximately 33 seconds per lap. Reliability was expected to be a major concern with this change, and during the winter testing in January and February this was confirmed. The Renault-powered engines struggled the most and were miles behind the Mercedes-powered teams, with Vettel’s car having battery problems related to the ERS unit.
The problems continued throughout winter testing and into the first round of the season. Vettel struggled early on in Australia and was forced to retire after just only three laps due to engine problems. A fortnight later in Malaysia Red Bull made progress with the car and Vettel delivered a strong drive to finish third but was still far off the pace, finishing 24.5 seconds behind race winner Lewis Hamilton. Issues with straight line speed in Bahrain and China resulted in Vettel finishing sixth in both races, and behind new teammate Daniel Ricciardo in both races.
You cannot deny the talent and ability of the record-breaking Vettel, however Formula 1 fans turned on him in 2013 complaining his dominance was making the sport boring. He was repeatedly greeted by boos on the podium and his likeability declined, for no reason other than he was unbeatable. This year Vettel’s dominance is no longer there as he battles the seemingly unbeatable Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, and struggles against Ricciardo who is faster and arguably hungrier than he is.
So what does the rest of 2014 have in store for the world champion? Red Bull has certainly made more progress with Vettel’s car than originally anticipated at this stage of the season. To have any points on the board for Vettel seems like a minor miracle after their problem plagued winter testing sessions. But there is still a long way to go before Vettel is competitive not only against Mercedes, but against his new teammate as well.
This year the world champion is facing the greatest challenge of his career to date as he struggles to adapt to and understand the new generation of cars, and at the same time he finds himself repeatedly out-performed by a new teammate. Vettel had the edge over former teammate Mark Webber, but Ricciardo is no pushover and has quickly shown the world he has earned his place at Red Bull. Vettel is frustrated, and his frustration is showing in his driving.
This year his car has a lower level of downforce than he is used to and he is not yet comfortable in the RB10. However, unlike previous years where upgrades later in the season worked to his advantage, this year there does not appear to be a way for Red Bull to replicate the level of downforce Vettel prefers, and he is struggling to adapt his driving style to suit the new lower-grip car.
Winning builds confidence but losing builds character, and Vettel is facing a true test of character right now. He has not yet succeeded in Formula 1 in an uncompetitive car and is facing both a physical and mental battle to get used to the new car and gain the edge over Ricciardo. Sebastian Vettel would undoubtedly prefer to win than lose, however losing is instructive as it is the losses that lead to improvement and a stronger desire to succeed. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts”.
History dictates anything can happen in Formula 1. In 2010 when Vettel won his fist championship, the first five races of the season yielded five different winners, and Vettel himself won only four races with an additional six podiums to win his first title. If Vettel defies the odds and stages the comeback of all comebacks to win a fifth consecutive title this year, the critics can no longer say he won only because he was driving the fastest car. He will come out as a champion and few will be able to doubt him and his ability. But if Red Bull’s woes persist and Vettel continues to struggle for podiums this year, then he will learn a lot about himself. The challenges he is facing this season are character building and will ultimately make him an even better driver and a much tougher competitor. After all, a true champion can adapt to anything.
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