Oh, to be a fly on the wall inside Red Bull Racing’s debriefs last week, where heads were scratched, frowns were plastered on faces (apart from that of the eternally jolly Daniel Ricciardo, of course) and patience was worn thin.
Having completed only 21 laps over the course of four days in Jerez compared to the several hundred recorded by Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren, Red Bull’s three closest rivals, it would not be unfair to suggest that the reigning champions will be playing catch-up by the time pre-season testing resumes in Bahrain in a fortnight’s time.
This is nothing new, of course, as since Formula One’s last major technical overhaul in the winter of 2008/09, at least one front-running has tended to make a complete and utter hash of their new car.
We witnessed McLaren and Ferrari suffer a hangover from their 2008 championship battle in 2009; Mercedes’ grand return to the sport with Michael Schumacher often felt more like a damp squib in 2010 and, although Lewis Hamilton remained in contention for the title until the final race of that season, McLaren were always on the fringes of the fight between Red Bull and Ferrari.
It was Ferrari’s turn to suffer, along with Mercedes, in 2011, a season which saw Fernando Alonso claim only one victory, while the Prancing Horse’s 2012 car somehow kept the Spaniard in with a chance of the title until the final round; and 2013 will be remembered for McLaren’s inability to score a single podium finish in its 50th anniversary year.
After dominating the sport in that period, with only a slight lapse at the beginning of 2012 when a third-place finish was considered a disastrous result, Red Bull have had it all too easy, with much of its success – which reached its peak as Sebastian Vettel embarked on a nine-race winning streak in the second half of last season – due to its rivals being unable to present a stern challenge.
So how refreshing it was, then, to see the drivers of Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren pounding around the Jerez circuit until they succumbed to boredom while Vettel and Ricciardo were barely able to make it beyond the end of the pit-lane.
And how frustrating it must be for Red Bull, Vettel, Ricciardo, Christian Horner and Adrian Newey that their problems are rooted with an external influence, Renault, the team’s engine manufacturer, which has endured the most difficult week of F1’s three powertrain brands.
Although engine development is sure to be among the defining factors of the 2014 season, with Red Bull adamant that its issues will be ironed out in time for the Bahrain tests, the possibility of Red Bull beginning the season with a performance deficit to its rivals could present Vettel with a golden opportunity to put his status among the sport’s all-time greats beyond any lingering doubt in his pursuit of a fifth consecutive title.
The main criticism of Vettel since 2010 is that he is merely a decent driver in an outstanding car, which would be harmless if it were a view shared by the sport’s fans, whom Formula One looks upon as an irrelevance in the grand scheme of things.
However, the fact that Vettel’s peers, most notably Alonso and Hamilton, two of the finest drivers on the grid, have both publicly suggested this to be the case in recent years has only served to undermine Vettel’s achievements.
Vettel has never had to scrap, unlike us. Vettel has never had to dig deep, unlike us. And remember Brazil 2012, the only time he has ever been subject to true, intense pressure? He nearly made a mess of it that day.
It is true that we learn most about a person’s character, spirit and credentials when they are faced with extreme difficulty, particularly in sport.
They can either cower, fall apart at the seams, implode and lose any sense of hope and direction – as the England cricket team have done so spectacularly in Australia since November – or they soldier on and succeed against the odds or at least go down with a fight and retain their dignity, as Rafael Nadal did so honourably in his Australian Open final loss to Stanislas Wawrinka little more than a week ago.
The latter option is, after all, why Alonso emerged from the 2012 season having taken a moral victory over Vettel, despite missing out on the championship to his rival.
That is why, should Vettel find himself lagging behind Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 16 and beyond, he should not view it as the beginning of the end of an era, but instead a chance to stamp his name not only within the history but, perhaps more importantly, within the hearts of Formula One.
Image courtesy of Octane Photographic