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.

Hunter-Reay, Rahal complete Acura NSX GT3 lineup at Rolex 24

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Verizon IndyCar Series stars Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal will complete the eight-driver lineup for the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona in the pair of Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3s.

These two drivers join the previously announced six-pack of Andy Lally, Ozz Negri, Jeff Segal, Katherine Legge, Mark Wilkins and Tom Dyer. The first four are the full-season drivers while Wilkins and Dyer are the third drivers for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup slate of races. Daytona, as a 24-hour race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship schedule, makes up the longest round where four drivers are expected for most entries.

Exact lineups are yet to be determined. Both Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) and Rahal (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda) run Hondas in IndyCar, and switch from their previous teams in IMSA. Hunter-Reay was third driver in the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP last year, Rahal the fourth driver in one of the BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLMs.

Both Hunter-Reay and Rahal will test the car at Daytona next week.

“We’re thrilled to have Graham and Ryan join the Michael Shank Racing effort at Daytona,” said Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development (HPD), the racing arm for Acura in North America. “The debut of the NSX GT3 at the prestigious Rolex 24 will mark the return of the Acura brand to IMSA sports car competition. The addition of Graham and Ryan to an already excellent driver lineup, coupled with the experience provided by Michael Shank and his team, will make the NSX GT3 a serious contender for the GTD class victory at Daytona.”

Jenson Button receives honorary degree from University of Bath (VIDEO)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 25:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda in the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 25, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Jenson Button became ‘Dr. Jenson Button’ earlier this week when he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bath in England.

Button, 36, made what looks set to be his final Formula 1 appearance at the end of last month in Abu Dhabi, drawing the curtain on a 16-year stint at the pinnacle of motorsport.

The Briton won the F1 drivers’ championship in 2009 and was runner-up in 2011, as well as winning 15 grands prix.

Button added to his list of achievements by picking up an honorary degree in engineering from the University of Bath earlier this week.

“I didn’t go to university and work hard in my early years, but I would say that a lot of my achievements in motorsport are down to my engineering understanding of a racing car,” Button said when addressing the audience at the ceremony.

Button does have a contract to race for McLaren in 2018 should both he and the driver be keen, but looks unlikely to return.

Button does remain keen to race occasionally through 2017, expressing an interest in racing in Super GT and rallycross.

Williams expecting Stroll to make mistakes through debut F1 season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 24:  Lance Stroll of Canada and Williams talks in the Paddock  during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 24, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams Formula 1 chief technical officer Pat Symonds says he expects 18-year-old Lance Stroll to make mistakes during his rookie season in 2017.

Williams announced last month that Stroll would be stepping up from Formula 3 to a full-time F1 seat for 2017, replacing the retiring Felipe Massa.

Stroll has an impressive track record through his junior racing career, becoming the youngest ever FIA F3 champion in 2016.

However, his on-track actions have caught attention for the wrong reasons at times, with the Canadian receiving a race ban in June 2015 for causing an accident.

Speaking to Reuters, Symonds said that Williams is braced for Stroll to make mistakes during his rookie campaign as he gets to grips with life in F1.

“Of course he’ll make mistakes and we’ll be repairing cars. These things happen as part of the process,” Symonds said.

“If you look at his Formula 3 career, in 2015 he was having quite a few accidents in that. The Monza one is just staggering.”

However, Symonds has no doubt in Stroll’s talent, believing the youngster to have proven himself during his two-year stint in F3.

“He hasn’t won that championship with anything other than a lot of skill and maturity,” Symonds said.

“For a guy that young, he’s driven really well in pretty well every condition. He’s raced well, he’s led at the front. He’s come through the field a bit, he’s driven well in the wet.

“He is the real deal.”

Besides his F3 commitments, Stroll has also completed an extensive F1 testing program through 2016 that saw him conduct running in a 2014-spec Williams in order to prepare him for his race debut in Australia next March.

Ecclestone: Rosberg not among F1 greats, ‘a world champion and nothing else’

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates finishing second on the podium and winning the World Drivers Championship during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone does not believe that the recently-retired Nico Rosberg will be remembered as one of the sport’s all-time greats, saying that the German is “a world champion and nothing else”.

Rosberg won his maiden F1 drivers’ championship two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi before sensationally announcing his immediate retirement from racing just five days later.

The news came as a shock to the F1 community, including Ecclestone, and has raised questions about the legacy that Rosberg will leave.

Speaking to Press Trust of India, Ecclestone said that he would not place Rosberg in the same realm as many of his peers who have won multiple titles, including Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.

“Let’s just say he is a world champion. The other names that you mentioned have obviously won more than a few times and have achieved more,” Ecclestone said.

“So I would just call Nico a world champion and nothing else.”

Ecclestone did concede that not having the defending World Champion on the F1 grid in 2017 would not help the sport, a situation that has not arisen since 1994 following Alain Prost’s final title win.

“[He’s] not as popular as Lewis but Nico was a very popular driver,” Ecclestone said.

“So his absence is certainly not good for Formula 1.”

Rosberg became the fourth driver to retire after winning the World Championship, following in the footsteps of Prost (1993), Jackie Stewart (1973) and Mike Hawthorn (1958).