What’s eating Sebastian Vettel?
Absence of exhaust-boosted aerodynamics is thought to be the cause of the world champion’s struggle for pace
Sebastian Vettel has known for some time that he would face a difcult start to the season. Engine partner Renault’s lack of competitiveness was well known to Red Bull back in December, and pre-season testing was a disaster.
But what Vettel will not have been prepared for, is to be under such pressure from his new team-mate. Daniel Ricciardo has impressed from the off, with P2 in both qualifying and the race at the season-opener in Australia, even though he was subsequently disqualied.
Vettel suffered technical problems in qualifying in Melbourne and retired early in the race and was the faster Red Bull driver in Malaysia. But in Bahrain and China he was beaten hands down by Ricciardo – and had to suffer the ignominy of being asked by his team to let the Australian past in both races.
Vettel is clearly not enjoying the situation, and he and Red Bull seem bafed by it. He admitted he is not happy with the car’s setup and team principal Christian Horner said: “He’s struggling and it’s hard to explain why.”
Vettel has certainly had some issues with reliability and, according to Horner, has borne the brunt of the issues with Renault’s energy recovery system. Even so, in China and Bahrain, he was just plain beaten.
A likely explanation for this is the absence of exhaust-inuenced rear aerodynamics, which Vettel exploited to such great effect in his four title-winning seasons, especially from 2011. Red Bull were better at this than anyone else, and Vettel was able to adapt his driving style to get the best from it in a way Mark Webber could not.
It is fair to say that while Vettel is clearly gifted, he was never as good when he did not have this technology. When the Red Bull was just a very good ‘normal’ car, as it was through most of 2010, or the rst half of 2012, he and Webber were much more evenly matched. And even with exhaust-blown diffusers, Vettel’s advantage over Webber was only ever in the slow corners. To the end of his career, Webber was better than Vettel in fast parts, as a glance at the sector two times from Austin last year shows.
This year, the Red Bull is once again a very good ‘normal’ car – and Ricciardo is proving a match for his team-mate. Vettel and Red Bull are even aware of this themselves. Vettel has talked in the past of needing to have the car a certain way to perform his “tricks”.
Motorsport boss Helmut Marko said after the 2012 nale, referring back to their early-season struggles to get the exhaust blowing working again: “I told my people, ‘Boys, there is no need for Vettel if we can’t give him the car he needs in order for his skills to shine.’”
This year, there is no prospect of nding a new way of doing this. What that means for Vettel remains to be seen.
In both Bahrain and China, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo outperformed his four-time champion team-mate Sebastian Vettel