Sport Motor sport

Vettel falling from grace

Written by Ben Blaschke

Having won four consecutive world championships, 34 of the past 77 races and the 2013 Laureus World Sports Award as Sportsman of the Year – just the second racing driver ever to do so – Sebastian Vettel finds himself facing an unpleasant and rather unexpected reality this year. Not only been usurped by the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso at the top of the standings, it seems that he isn’t even the fastest driver in his team!

After four races of the current season, Vettel sits nine points ahead of his new Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo in the Driver Standings, but let’s take a closer look at how each race has panned out.

The season began in Melbourne with the Australian Grand Prix and straight away the signs were worrying for Vettel as he struggled through qualifying to start the race in an unfamiliar 13th on the grid. There were no such problems for Ricciardo though who qualified second in his home grand prix.

The race ran in a similar vein, with Vettel the victim of engine problems while Ricciardo impressed to finish in second spot. That result didn’t last long though with F1 officials finding his Red Bull team had breached new fuel regulations and disqualifying him from the race – robbing Ricciardo of 18 championship points.

Following Australia, the teams headed to Malaysia where Vettel regained some ground to qualify in third with Ricciardo back in fifth. The Aussie moved up to fourth early in the race and was mounting a challenge on his teammate until another mistake from his Red Bull team cost him dearly. Ricciardo pitted with 15 laps to go for a tyre change but was given the green light to leave his pit before his front left had been properly attached. Ricciardo was given a stop-go penalty for his crew’s error which put him a lap down before a broken front wing – also a result of the dodgy pit stop – forced him to retire. Vettel went on to record a solid third place finish.

It was off to Bahrain for the third race of the season and already the odds were against Ricciardo after officials decided to add further punishment for his pit stop in Malaysia with a 10-spot grid penalty here. Despite the setback, he recorded the third fastest time in qualifying with Vettel back in 11th, although because of the grid penalty Ricciardo actually began the race in 13th.

Again, the setback didn’t faze him as he proceeded to weave his way through the field to finish fourth ahead of Vettel in sixth. This race was highlighted by a request from Red Bull for Vettel to let his teammate past – an order he obeyed at the time but one which would take on far greater significant when repeated in China this past weekend.

The Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai was notable for any number of reasons. Lewis Hamilton won his third race in a row and Mercedes their fourth from four starts to make a clear statement about where the balance of power stands in 2014. Fernando Alonso’s podium finish also showed that Ferrari still has something to offer this season.

But again it was the battle between Vettel and Ricciardo that attracted most attention after Vettel was told for the second race in a row to let the faster Australian past. After questioning what tyres Ricciardo was using, Vettel defiantly replied “Tough luck” to the team’s request before eventually conceding a few laps later. Ricciardo went on to finish fourth – 21 seconds ahead of his teammate.

Daniel Ricciardo in his Red Bull

Daniel Ricciardo in his Red Bull

Vettel has a long history of ignoring team orders, having famously done the same to former teammate Mark Webber in Malaysia last year. There were differences then, however. For one, Vettel and Webber were known to dislike one another and given the latter never posed a serious championship threat to the German it was more a case of stubbornness than anything else.

This time though you get the sense that Vettel fears being usurped. It’s a surprising twist given how dominant he has been in recent years yet the facts are there for all to see with Ricciardo out-performing him in three of the four races so far. One wonders exactly how the Driver Standing would look had Red Bull not cost Ricciardo points in Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain. Our calculations suggest it could be as many as 33 points down the drain due to team error, which would have seen him sitting comfortably in third a full 24 points ahead of Vettel.

With the pressure now firmly on the defending world champion, it will be fascinating to see how it all transpires in Spain on 11 May.