Season of struggles leaves world champion Vettel in rare role of also-ran
When Sebastian Vettel crossed the finish line last November in his Red Bull Racing car to win the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo, he was on top of the world.
The German had become the first man to win nine successive races in a season, had matched Michael Schumacher’s record of 13 triumphs in one campaign and had won his fourth drivers’ championship in the process.
Wind on the clock 10 months and Vettel, 27, has seven races of the 2014 season remaining to avoid becoming the first driver since Jacques Villeneuve in 1998 to fail to win at least once during a title defence.
The chance of a fifth title on the trot effectively ended a long time ago, and Vettel is now 122 points behind compatriot and standings leader Nico Rosberg.
Two third-place finishes in 12 races would not have been what Vettel envisaged when he stood on the top step of the podium in Sao Paulo, but this has grown into his worst season in F1 in terms of personal performance since he entered the sport in 2007.
The Red Bull has not been on the pace of the Mercedes-GP, largely because of the lack of power that Renault, their engine supplier, have provided in their units.
The Austrian team’s car still has plenty of aerodynamic grip, but what they have gained in corners they lose on the straights when the cars with Mercedes engines can power away.
That is not Vettel’s fault. He is not in charge of the machinery – he just drives it.
But if you do not have the best car in the field, the best mark of your form is how you match up to your teammate and, in that regard, Vettel falls down badly.
Ahead of Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix, he trails Daniel Ricciardo by 58 points, a margin that would have been larger had Ricciardo not been disqualified for fuel flow problems in Australia, losing him the 18 points he had earned for finishing second.
Vettel has not proven as comfortable with the RB10 and the new regulations as he has its predecessors. Ricciardo, though, has been able to push harder with the package and do so while looking after his tyres and increasing his performance.
It is not as if Vettel has gone off the boil completely. He has endured the bulk of the mechanical unreliability compared to Ricciardo, and that does explain a fair chunk of the points deficit.
He qualified second in Hungary and was the fastest non-Mercedes-GP driver in Belgium in qualifying, but he has not matched that form in the races, unlike in previous years.
The most galling thing for a man who celebrated his race wins in the past by cocking a single finger in the air at the nearest TV camera to symbolise he was No 1 is that the RB10 has won races this year – just not with him behind the wheel.
Ricciardo has won three times, but in Canada and in Belgium, two of the Australian’s successes, Vettel was running ahead of him, only to end up beaten by the man driving the same machinery.
He was running second in the opening laps in Spa-Francorchamps two weeks ago, but he ran wide as he struggled with the lack of downforce on his car, given up to allow it to be competitive on the straights, allowing Ricciardo to go through.
Ricciardo won the race as Vettel fell away to finish fifth and required an extra pit stop because of high tyre wear, a result that epitomises the season.
Vettel has seven more chances to triumph this year, but he can already be ruled out for tomorrow as the long straights of Monza put Red Bull and Renault at a disadvantage.
This will almost certainly be the first time that Vettel will be beaten by a teammate over a season on points scored, having got the better of Vitantonio Liuzzi and Sebastien Bourdais at Toro Rosso in 2007 and 2008, before beating Mark Webber the past five seasons at Red Bull.
It can happen. A chassis can suit one driver more than another. Vettel certainly enjoyed that against Webber in the past, but this year Ricciardo has had the best from the RB10.
The important thing for Vettel is to finish the season well and bounce back next year, ideally fighting for the title but at least getting the better of Ricciardo.
Being beaten by his teammate has done little to hurt his reputation with McLaren-Mercedes reported to be interested in signing him, either next season or for 2016.
Vettel is a four-time world champion, and one average season cannot take away that achievement. But if he wants to remain in the interests of rival teams and at the top of the sport, he needs to ensure 2014 is just a one-off.
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Updated: September 5, 2014 04:00 AM