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GP Week : Issue 147
Drivers are often taken to task for their post-race comments, media-generated storms in a teacup that would never happen without the ever-present lens of the TV camera at precisely those moments when the pressure is at its highest. But pressure doesn’t explain why the Red Bull driver is having a more difficult start to the season than expected. The simple truth is that a range of factors have contributed to Vettel’s relative drop in performance. First and foremost, the German driver isn’t getting as much performance out of this year’s Pirellis as his team-mate. Last year, the situation was reversed, which is why Seb was so often able to outqualify Mark. This year, Webber has the advantage, although there’s no telling how long it will last. Vettel is an intelligent racer, and a fast learner. He will be putting all of his effort into learning how to best use this year’s compounds; how to get them up to temperature without reducing their lifespan. Second, the RB8 currently lacks the outright pace to dominate qualifying as the RB7 did. To say that Vettel can only race from the front is to do the double champion a disser vice, as last month’s season- opening race in Albert Park proved. But it can’t be denied that throughout 2011, it seemed as though all that Vettel needed to do to put his car on pole on a Saturday afternoon was show up. This year, the Red Bull is not the fastest car in qualifying. The McLaren is undoubtedly faster for the moment, as two front row lock-outs in two races will attest. Both the Lotus E20 and the Mercedes W03 have shown that they too can be faster than the RB8 when it counts. And while that’s a situation that Vettel experienced regularly as a Toro Rosso driver, the past few years have seen him at or near the front. There’s no need to remind you of his 2011 pole record, either... Having spent a year and a half zooming off into the distance the moment the lights go out, he will take a few races to readjust to running in the pack. Third, you have to remember that Vettel has come of age as a driver in an era dominated by blown and double diffuser technology. The seasons in which he has been most successful – 2009, 2010, and 2011– all saw vastly increased levels of rear downforce on the cars as a result of exhaust gas manipulation that has now been banned. Red Bull mastered the blown diffuser in 2010 and 2011, and having had the most to gain from the technology it stands to reason that they also had the most to lose. Mark Webber has had more experience of driving without the additional downforce, and has been better able to adapt to the car’s handling than his team-mate, at least in the wet. Does Webber have what it takes to eke that extra something out of a less- than-perfect car? Not necessarily. The Australian driver is more experienced, and has proved himself to be more adaptable. But then he’s needed to – Webber has driven for a number of teams with a range of competing design philosophies. Vettel may have got his F1 start thanks to BMW-Sauber, but he has spent almost all his F1 career in cars designed by Adrian Newey. Now that Newey appears to have delivered a solid car without an in-built advantage, Webber is able to call on experience of working with less competitive cars to get more out of the machine. But Vettel is an intelligent lad, and he will adapt quickly. Besides, who’s to say that Vettel’s doing badly? Look at the numbers. In points terms – the only numbers that count for the championship – Webber is ahead of his teammate, with 24 points to Vettel’s 18. But those six points are a slim margin, easily made up in a single race. All it takes is a for Seb to reach the podium in a race where Mark finishes in the lower end of the points and the defending world champion will be equal to or ahead of his team-mate. Despite being behind where it counts, Vettel is roughly on a par with his team- mate when it comes to in-race stats. Webber may have scored the fastest Red Bull lap in Malaysia, but Vettel was ahead in Australia. Both drivers have taken their turns dominating the intra-team battle for maximum speeds, but Webber tended to be faster in individual sectors than his teammate at both Albert Park and Sepang. But Vettel is nothing if not a fighter. Unlike his many of his opponents, the Red Bull champion does not restrict his efforts to the track. The young German can often be found at the circuit late into the night, deep in discussions with his engineers about the car’s set-up, or studying his telemetry. Vettel’s attention to detail is unparalleled in the current paddock, and it will not take long before his dedication begins to pay off. Working in Vettel’s favour is the fact that 2012 – his annus not so horribilis – is the year in which in-season testing is making something of a comeback. When the F1 circus returns to Europe at the end of April, there is a three-week break before the summer leg of the season kicks off in Barcelona. In that break, the FIA have scheduled three days of in-season testing. If properly managed, those three days could be the saving of Vettel’s championship campaign. By hammering out the laps at Mugello and identifying the ideal set-up for the car he’s yet to click with, Sebastian Vettel will be able to get in the necessary miles to improve his chances in the championship before his rivals have a chance to build up much of a points cushion. Only a fool would underestimate a driver with Vettel’s talent and determination. 25 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: F1 >>> FEATURE