The 2014 Formula One season made its start in Asia-Pacific as usual. Unlike the past four years, however, there is a strong hint that it won’t be business as usual.
Germany’s Sebastian Vettel, who has claimed the last four Formula One crowns, finished 2013 by winning a record nine consecutive races. But in the 2014 season-opening race in Australia, he was shockingly out of contention after just five laps. He followed that up with a distant third in Malaysia last week.
As the circuit moves to Bahrain for Sunday’s Grand Prix under the lights, it appears Vettel’s reign as the king of Formula One is over just three events into the new season. His pursuit of fellow German Michael Schumacher’s seven F-1 titles looks to be on hold.
“It’s going to be a long season,” Vettel said after his sudden retirement from the race in Australia because of engine trouble. And the trials are only beginning for the 26-year-old wunderkind and his Red Bull Racing Team.
After the 2013 season, Formula One mandated sweeping changes for its cars with the primary aim being fuel economy. The vehicles are now equipped with a new 1.6-liter, V6 turbocharged engine. The new design allows the cars to run races on 35 percent less fuel than the old 2.4-liter, V8 engine.
Mercedes was the constructor quickest to adapt to the offseason changes and got ahead of other teams during winter testing. So it’s no surprise that Mercedes has jumped out to a big lead in the constructors’ standings after its drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton won the season’s first two races, respectively.
Red Bull, meanwhile, has been playing catch-up the entire offseason, logging just a third of Mercedes’ miles in winter testing. The lackluster performance of the new engine has frustrated Vettel, who denigrated the new equipment prior to the Malaysian Grand Prix, drawing a warning from F-1.
“It is sh-t,” Vettel said in Kuala Lumpur. “I was on the pit wall during the race, and it is quieter than in a bar. I think for the fans it is not good. I think F-1 has to be spectacular – and the sound is one of the most important things.
“When I was 6 years old we went to see the cars live in free practice in Germany, and the one thing I remember was the sound and how loud the cars were, and to feel the cars through the ground as it was vibrating. It is a shame we don’t have that any more.”
Whether Vettel and Red Bull can make up ground on Mercedes will be the question dominating the 2014 F-1 season. After the disaster in Australia, Vettel did bounce back and was No. 2 in qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix. But in the race his car was no match for the two Mercedes drivers, with Hamilton and Rosberg finishing 1-2.
Of course, it’s a little early and quite foolish to dismiss the über-competitive Vettel, who’s usually reserved and a self-described “normal guy.” If he can defy expectations and win with an inferior Renault engine plagued by software issues, then he’ll be adding another chapter to his young and yet considerable legend.
“I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anyone,” Vettel told London’s Daily Telegraph in a lengthy recent profile. “If anything I have something to prove to myself, still, and I’m happy to do that. This has been like that since as long as I can remember. I’m going out, trying to be fastest and not be 10th, fifth or second.
“The fact that you are competing against the best in the world, you are racing in the best cars in the world. It’s what I was dreaming of when I was a young boy. I have to say it’s everything I ever dreamt of, if not better… Of course I complain, I’m German after all, but we all have the chance to be happy.”
This is the driver who managed to claim his maiden F-1 victory in the 2008 Italian Grand Prix while driving for Red Bull’s junior Toro Rosso team as a 21-year-old. He holds more than a dozen F-1 records already, including being its youngest champion at 22 years old. He didn’t always have the best car, but he more often than not emerged as the fastest.
The season is young yet, after Bahrain the circuit heads to Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix on April 20 before beginning its European portion. It will come all the way back next door in Abu Dhabi for the final race on Nov. 23.
Write Vettel off now at your own peril.