Sebastian Vettel on a rare excursion from the pits during testing
Reigning champion Sebastian Vettel has not even completed a full race distance in his new Red Bull machine.
Yet, counter-intuitive as it may seem, his likely struggles in the opening races could end up being the worst possible news for his rivals.
Vettel is not used to this type of situation. Not since his debut season in 2008 has he started the year in a car that has virtually no chance of winning the opening race. Never has he begun the year in a car that is potentially even at risk of not even starting it.
The Red Bull garage is always a busy place in winter, but whereas normally that is because of the relentless introduction of development parts, this year it’s because the mechanics have been busy on the achingly slow repair work that has been all too regularly required just to get the car out on track.
When it has made it out of the garage it has shown signs of promise, with good high-speed downforce and a nice balance, but so far the team hasn’t been able to push the engine hard enough to deliver performance anywhere near comparable to the front-runners.
Four-time champion Vettel has been an observer for much of his scheduled six days of testing (he managed a total of 162 laps), and Red Bull heads to Melbourne with fewer laps than any of the teams bar Lotus and Caterham, who both missed all or part of the opening test.
But rather than mouthing off and criticising the team and car, Vettel has taken a pragmatic approach to the whole situation.
And that calm and composed reaction speaks volumes.
If Red Bull had done what McLaren did last year and got into trouble because they steered away from a tried and tested concept and took a gamble on a direction that didn’t work, you could expect fireworks. But Red Bull hasn’t done that, and this situation is very different.
Like all teams, Red Bull had to come up with a new solution because of this year’s rule changes. It just so happens that Renault’s power plant design is not yet perfected and Red Bull’s desire to push boundaries has put them in deep trouble with overheating – hampering reliability and preventing them pushing to any level of competitive performance.
Vettel, however, trusts his team implicitly and knows they can come back. Yes, they are in trouble; but he has total confidence that the solution will be found.
It’s an inner belief that comes from winning four titles in a row. Not all those campaigns have been easy going, but whether they were dominant or playing catch-up, Red Bull has always been blessed with the two vital elements that deliver F1 success: rich resource and engineering intelligence.
Right now, Vettel is resigned to the fact that he will at best be picking up the pieces in the opening races, scrapping for points while things sort themselves out.
But he also knows the fundamental baseline of the car has potential and although he may be taking a bit of a blinkered view of the situation, believing that once his team solve the reliability issues the pace will definitely come, the team’s record suggests there is little reason to believe that will not be the case.
The next few months will truly be a test of the whole team’s resolve, but Vettel’s in particular.
When Ferrari has struggled in the past, Fernando Alonso has grafted through but has also been quick to criticise. Vettel, perhaps, has not been faced with such a situation before, but even so, it’s hard to see the German taking such a stance.
And if they do work through it all together, it will only go to further Vettel’s confidence and belief in the team – and that could ensure the dominant partnership continues on for some time.
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