Has Sebastian Vettel been found out?


If nothing else, Sebastian Vettel has improved his public image this season.

Because after five years of poorly-masked tension with Mark Webber, he seems far more at ease with new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.

That was in evidence following the Canadian Grand Prix. When they’d climbed from their cars, Vettel embraced race-winner Ricciardo in what seemed a genuine display of mutual respect. He was clearly pleased for his team-mate.

But you cannot escape the fact that Vettel, the four-time world champion and winner of 39 grands prix, should have been the man to snatch Red Bull’s first victory of 2014. And the fact that he didn’t poses questions over just how deserving of all that success Seb is.

It’s not the first time people have wondered aloud about the true depth of his abilities. He made some high-profile mistakes in 2010, but he was still very young and recovered to become world champion; 2011 was a stroll in the park, but that led to accusations that he couldn’t race.

In 2012 he was very good, but not quite as good as Fernando Alonso, and in some respects he was fortunate to win world title number three. 2013 was utter dominance, but again his car was untouchable and team-mate Webber seemed to have thrown in the towel. What’s more, the Multi-21 fallout in Malaysia did little for Vettel’s reputation.

When it became clear that the 2014 Red Bull would not be the class of the field, many believed that this season would prove Vettel’s doubters wrong. He’d been racking up the world titles in the best car but now, with less dominant machinery, he’d show that he was truly worthy of his success.

But he hasn’t. There have been some top showings - a sterling driver through the field in Spain and a mega qualifying lap in Canada - but otherwise he’s just been plain good.

We were looking for the kind of performances Ayrton Senna dragged from the 1993 McLaren, or Michael Schumacher pulled out of the 1996 Ferrari. But Vettel seems to be driving at, or perhaps a little above, the Red Bull RB10’s capabilities. What made Senna and Schumacher so special was not their wins in the best cars, it was their success when the machinery wasn’t quite up to scratch. We wanted to see the same from Vettel, but as yet we haven’t.

And then there’s the team-mate issue. Before the season began, no one would have believed that Ricciardo would be 19 points clear of Vettel after seven races. Perhaps Daniel believed it himself, but even this isn’t certain.

But that is the reality, and it is because Ricciardo has been demonstrably better aboard the RB10 than Seb. It is quite something to note that the Red Bull qualifying battle is currently 5-2 in the Australian’s favour. After all, Vettel is supposed to be a one-lap specialist. It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that, on the four occasions that both Red Bulls have finished, Daniel has been ahead every time. Let’s put it another way: Vettel has not beaten Ricciardo in a grand prix all season.

That’s not been lost on the Red Bull hierarchy. The team’s motorsport advisor, Dr Helmut Marko, has always been Vettel’s staunchest supporter and, when required, his fiercest defender. But now even Marko has felt the need to give Seb the hurry up.

"I told him: 'There are 50 engineers working on this engine and they can't sort it out," Marko said in an interview ahead of this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix. "'You're a top driver, it's up to you. You have to do it.'

“He has to raise his game,” Marko added ominously.

No one can question that Vettel is an extremely talented racing driver. You don’t put in some of the performances he has over the past eight years without huge natural talent and a fantastic work ethic.

But does he sit comfortably alongside the greats? Can we talk about him in the same breath as Senna or Schumacher, as Prost or Lauda, as Clark, Stewart or Fangio?

No. He has won more titles than Lauda, Clark and Stewart, but you would need to be a dedicated Vettel fan to suggest he is a superior driver to those men. He has as many as Prost, but even Seb’s supporters can’t claim he’s on the same level as The Professor.

Still, there is a long way to go. Seb only turns 27 next month, meaning he is now at or just approaching his peak as a racing driver. He has incredible reserves of experience and will always be in demand among the top teams, if only by dint of his past achievements. And there could be plenty more to come.

Or perhaps his best days are already behind him. With Adrian Newey set to scale back his role at Red Bull, Vettel may not be able to count on the kind of dominant machinery he has in recent years. It would seem that Ricciardo is more of a scrapper than Seb, more capable of dragging that extra bit of performance from a car; that augers badly for the German if Mercedes continue to dominate.

This weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix marks Formula One’s return to the country after a decade’s absence. Red Bull were instrumental in making this happen - the circuit is now known as Red Bull Ring - and will want their drivers to be at their very best. If Ricciardo comes out on top again this weekend, Dr Marko may have a few more choice words for Sebastian Vettel.