Sebastian Vettel

The Fallen Champion: Inside Sebastian Vettel’s title defence

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2014 has seen the established status quo in Formula 1 get shaken up and written off. After four-and-a-half years of omnipotence, Red Bull has finally been overthrown and become – whisper it – second best.

The team is still a force to be reckoned with in Formula 1, as proven by Daniel Ricciardo’s victory in Montreal. The cheery Australian has quickly shown that he has what it takes to fight at the front in F1 following years of midfield mediocrity with Toro Rosso. After just seven races, he has already got his feet under the table and made himself a focal part of Red Bull’s future in the sport.

Instead, the pressure lies with the last man we expected it to be on: Sebastian Vettel. Four times a champion of the world, and sights on becoming one of the greatest of all time, yet the question marks remain after a poor start to the season. Just what has happened to Sebastian Vettel in 2014?

They say that a bad workman blames his tools, but in Formula 1, it is perhaps permitted. Ultimately, the best driver in the worst car won’t win. Vettel did something close to that at Monza in 2008, when he took his Toro Rosso to a famous victory in torrential rain, but in regular conditions, he wasn’t a front-runner. A future star, without question, but he wasn’t going to win the title with Red Bull’s B team. The car simply was not good enough.

And this is true of 2014. It’s a mix of Mercedes being so devastatingly good with the W05 Hybrid and Red Bull struggling with the RB10. However, much of these woes lie with the power unit. Red Bull is a customer of Renault: it pays the bills, and gets shiny parts in return. For Mercedes, everything is in house. Its engine team at Brixworth works so closely with the Brackley designers and engineers, making it one cohesive unit. Renault’s lax start to the 2014 season has harmed its customers, so much so that it has been suggested that the French marque may even be billed for costing the teams prize money. It’s just tough luck for Red Bull that its faithful friend for the past seven years has dropped the ball.

Not all of the problems are Renault-specific though. In pursuit of another double in 2013, the team poured huge amounts of resources into developing the RB9 – perhaps unnecessarily. Sebastian Vettel’s charge to nine straight wins at the end of 2013 was jaw-dropping and mundane in equal doses, but as Red Bull continued to push, the other teams turned their attention to 2014.

Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey admitted earlier this year that the team had spent too much time on 2013 and not enough on the coming season, and in pre-season testing, the triumvirate of Newey, Christian Horner and Helmut Marko was crestfallen. How can they go from world champions to no hopers?

Many of the issues have since been combatted, and aerodynamically, the car is perhaps the best out there. Compared to Mercedes’ unified package of aero and power, though, the RB10 just cannot compete on the same level.

Vettel was left seething in Australia after an early retirement, yet Ricciardo’s charge to second place – then removed after a fuel irregularity – showed that the team still had a spark. What Seb did in Malaysia was quite superb. He managed to keep Nico Rosberg in sight for the majority of the race in spite of his compatriot’s superior car. Make no mistake of it: he can still hook it together; he didn’t win four world titles for nothing.

In terms of temperament, Vettel has established a reputation in the sport which is clear to those both inside and outside of the paddock. If things aren’t going his way, the dummy is spat out and the toys are thrown. His public rivalry with Mark Webber at Red Bull was volatile, but it stemmed from not have a ‘willing’ teammate; i.e. someone who will let him past to aid his championship bid.

So when Sebastian came to work with the RB10, it was clear not all was well. They say that a picture paints a thousand words, and in the case of this image from Bahrain (at the top of the article), it is very true. He was left frustrated last time out in Canada when the strategy did not play into his hands, leaving him stuck behind traffic and, crucially, trailing his teammate. Clearly, he isn’t yet at one with the car.

However, he can curb this, as we saw in 2012. In pursuit of a third world title, Vettel did not display the devastating pace as per 2011; instead, it took him around half of the season to actually get to grips with the RB8 car. Come the end of the European season, he had just one win to his name and trailed Fernando Alonso by 39 points in the drivers’ championship. He went on to win the next four races and claimed two further podium finishes, eventually clinching the title by three points. Once he was comfortable with the car, it all went his way again.

And perhaps the same could be said of 2014. After the seismic changes made to the regulations, the cars are more difficult to work with once again. The loss of exhaust blowing – using the gases to increase downforce  – has clearly been to his detriment. Ricciardo, on the other hand, has a style more in line with the new cars, it seems.

There might also be a case for the outside factors affecting Vettel – primarily, fatherhood. Unlike his peers, Sebastian likes to live his life outside of the public eye. His partner, Hanna, rarely comes to races, and news of her pregnancy only emerged around three months before she gave birth to their daughter, Emily. Although Sebastian has denied that it has had an effect on him, it might be worth considering.

Romain Grosjean was dubbed as the ‘crash kid’ of Formula 1 after last year’s Monaco Grand Prix, with Mark Webber even coining the verb “Grosjeaned” such were his antics. However, once he became a dad to Baby Sacha, his form improved dramatically, and he has since become one of the emerging stars of the sport. He denies that being a father has changed him, though.

“I was lucky that my baby slept through the night!” he joked in Austria. “It doesn’t change much in the car, but I don’t think it’s related. Back home it changes you, but in the car you’re still doing the job.”

That said, behind the race suits, they are just human beings.

In reality, Sebastian is still the same driver has was at the end of last season. He is still the supremely quick and talented individual that has conquered Formula 1 for the past four years. Given the right tools, he would be fighting for title number five alongside the Mercedes duo, but he isn’t totally comfortable with the car at the moment.

When asked about Red Bull’s season so far, Fernando Alonso was confident that Vettel would soon curb the teething problems. “I think Daniel is doing a fantastic job, and Sebastian was also doing a good job in some races with some bad luck, but I’m sure that at the end of the year is when you need to see how the championship went.

“I’m sure that Sebastian will come back very strong sooner or later, so we will see.”

As his 2012 campaign showed, once he gets to grips with the RB10 – and once the team and engine supplier have removed their gremlins – Vettel will once again be at the top table in Formula 1. Underestimate him at your peril.

Sean Rayhall’s season of variety rolls on with Thunderhill drive in Radical SR3

Photo: Darkhorse Autosport
Photo: Darkhorse Autosport
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I guess at a certain point, it’s good to lose count of how many types of machinery a driver has driven in a calendar year?

Anyway, Sean Rayhall can add a Radical SR3 sports prototype to his diverse year of driving. Just off the top of my head, he’s driven a partial season in Indy Lights, where he won twice, he drove a few races in IMSA in the Prototype Challenge class, he tested an IndyCar with Chip Ganassi Racing at Sonoma, he tested the radical DeltaWing prototype last month at Daytona, and he’s had other GT and stock car machinery he’s been in.

In other words, give the 20-year-old Georgian four wheels and he’ll find a way to wheel it… quickly.

Rayhall joins John Falb, Todd Slusher and Jeff Shafer in the No. 67 ONE Motorsports Radical for this weekend’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill at the 2.86-mile, 15-turn road course. Rayhall finished on the podium in this race last year.

“I am delighted to take on the challenge of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill again this year with ONE Motorsports!” he said. “I think they will provide one of the best cars on the grid as usual, and I’m sure my teammates and I will keep it flat the entire time! Hopefully, we follow up last year’s podium with a win! That is always the target.

“This close to Thanksgiving, you have to count your blessings. Silver Arrow Technologies and Bass Egg are right towards the top of my list. They have, literally, kept the wheels on our programs this year. I’m looking forward to going out to Thunderhill and closing out the year on the best note we can for both of them.”

Rayhall is one of a number of ace sports car and open-wheel drivers set to tackle Thunderhill this weekend.

As for Rayhall’s 2016 plans, they remain a work in progress, with nothing confirmed as yet. Rayhall is targeting to do as many Indy Lights and sports car races as possible, with several team options in play.

Wehrlein, Ghiotto, Rosenqvist, Carlin trio headline new entries for GP2 testing

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Testing rolls on this week at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. However, following today’s one-day Pirelli tire test for the Formula 1 teams and drivers, action will shift to the GP2 Series for the next three days.

Mercedes reserve driver and past DTM champion Pascal Wehrlein (PREMA Racing), FIA Formula 3 European champion Felix Rosenqvist (Status Grand Prix, then PREMA), GP3 runner-up Luca Ghiotto (Trident) and Carlin’s trio of Dean Stoneman, Richie Stanaway and Antonio Giovinazzi are among the notable drivers added to the testing list this week.

Carlin team boss Trevor Carlin noted the desire for his team to improve following a mostly tough 2015:

“We’re keen to get strong preparations for 2016 underway after a somewhat disappointing season,” he said. “We know we have three very talented drivers with us this week and the aim is to work on the progress we’ve made in the last few races with Dean and continue that with the experienced feedback of Richie.

“We’re delighted to give Antonio this opportunity; he has been a great asset to the team over the last two seasons and we’re excited to see him in a GP2 car for the first time this week.”

The full list of drivers and teams testing for the first day can be found here, via the GP2 official website.

On #GivingTuesday, James Hinchcliffe asks to check out Trauma Pit Crew story

James Hinchcliffe
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The unsung heroes of this and any Verizon IndyCar Series season are, without question, the safety crews.

It’s rare to find anything within the INDYCAR paddock that enjoys near universal approval and a positive rating, but in the Holmatro Safety Team, the appreciation cannot be ignore.

The Holmatro Safety Team’s efforts on-site at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to help save James Hinchcliffe’s life after his accident in practice for this year’s Indianapolis 500 were miraculous.

Hinchcliffe posted a video message on Instagram today (linked below) that asks viewers/readers to check out the story of the Trauma Pit Crew – the staff who took care of him after the Holmatro Safety Team’s efforts.

Hinchcliffe arrived at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, where IU Health Trauma Surgeon Tim Pohlman, MD and his team set to work – the Trauma Pit Crew site.

He didn’t remember the details of the accident (recorded at a staggering 126 G’s), which they consider a blessing.

The blog from the IU Methodist website quotes Hinchcliffe as saying, “I received world class care. But more important than that, every single person from nurses to surgeons to all other staff could not have been nicer. After my care, I considered faking an illness so I could go back to see them!”

The Trauma Pit Crew website itself, however, reveals even more details about the team.

We’d share elements of the Trauma Pit Crew page, but it’s probably going to be more powerful – and more meaningful – to read the story in full directly on that website. It’s well worth your time.

Report: Harvey seeking to get IndyCar program sorted by Christmas

Photo: Indy Lights
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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As noted on Monday, there hasn’t been much movement in the Verizon IndyCar Series driver market for 2016, and the available seats left out there are exactly the same ones (in theory, anyway) as they were this time 12 months ago.

And if Jack Harvey can get his program sorted, arguably the most intriguing of those remaining seats – the second seat alongside James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – could go away itself.

Harvey, who has been working to gather the necessary budget since the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September to graduate into IndyCar, has said he’s close for the better part of a month.

In early November, Harvey told The Linc in the U.K. there was an 80 percent chance he’d be in IndyCar next season.

He’s now expanded on those hopes in an interview with Autosport’s Marcus Simmons, renowned in U.K. circles as one of the leading journalists in discovering young open-wheel talent.

“The sooner the better,” Harvey told Simmons. “If we could be in before Christmas it would be better for me and the team, so we’re trying to work towards that.

“But we want to make the best deal, not just rush one – our foot’s in the door and it’s time to push the whole body through.”

He “graduates” from the Racing Steps Foundation this year; the RSF has been an instrumental part of Harvey’s upbringing.

Realistically, SPM makes the most sense for Harvey to graduate with. He’s been with SPM’s Indy Lights program the last two years, where he bagged seven wins, finished on the podium in 60 percent of his starts and finished second each of the last two years.

And frankly, he’s due for the opportunity. You can say “oh, he didn’t win a title” – but consider the list of Indy Lights non-champions in the current IndyCar field, a list that includes race winners Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti, Charlie Kimball and Carlos Munoz among others – and he’d be more than fine to fit in.

Plus, with Spencer Pigot already confirmed for at least a three-race program with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, with hopes of more, it would be nice to see the two protagonists from this year’s Indy Lights battle continue their rivalry at the next level.