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.

Saturday at Mid-Ohio: Roll out the MRTI, PWC races

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Jamin dominated Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Because it’s 7:30 p.m. ET and change, here’s some quick recaps of the rest of the day’s activity from the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course..

FULL RECAPS

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY 

  • Santiago Urrutia cleaned up and dominated the first of two Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races. My colleague Luke Smith wrote that report and it’s linked above.
  • There were a double dip of Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races, and neither winner came from Team Pelfrey. Instead, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing’s Nico Jamin swept both races. The first was less than scintillating with Jamin beating points leader Aaron Telitz (Pelfrey) and Will Owen (Juncos Racing). But the second was fascinating with rain interspersed and a heck of a lot of passes – Owen and Telitz proving aggressive when they needed to be, primarily. But up front Jamin held on for the second win of the day. Telitz holds a 14-point lead over O’Ward (345-331) heading to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Sept. 9-11, for the tripleheader season finale weekend.
  • The second of three Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda races also took place today and for the second time in as many days, it was Australian Anthony Martin who won it for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, thus making it Cape’s first Pro Mazda/USF2000 double win day of the season. Martin took the win over teammate Parker Thompson and ArmsUp Motorsports’ Victor Franzoni, and extended his points lead in the process.

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE

  • The pair of K-PAX Racing McLaren 650S GT3s took a 1-2 finish in World Challenge GT with Alvaro Parente winning his fifth race of the year (Long Beach, Barber race one, both Lime Rock Park races). Parente got around teammate and polesitter Austin Cindric, the 17-year-old, early and won by 1.009 seconds. Parente drives the yellow and black No. 9 car with Cindric in the blue and black No. 6 car. Bryan Heitkotter (No. 05 Always Evolving Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3) finished third for his first podium since Circuit of The Americas back in March; he also finished third overall as a GTA class competitor at Mid-Ohio, race two, last year. Jon Fogarty (GAINSCO McLaren) and Ryan Eversley (RealTime Racing Acura TLX-GT) had a great, clean scrap for fourth, Fogarty taking it. There was contact affecting a number of others; Patrick Long (No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R) received a drive-through penalty for hitting the third K-PAX McLaren of Colin Thompson. Meanwhile others who failed to finish included James Davison (Nissan), Spencer Pumpelly (RealTime Racing Acura TLX-GT), Kyle Marcelli (CRP Racing Audi R8 LMS ultra) and Adderly Fong (Bentley Team Absolute Bentley Continental GT3). Fong failed to start, Davison got hit on the opening lap, Pumpelly also got hit and it broke the right rear, and Marcelli later had contact. Michael Schein (GTA) and Alec Udell (GT Cup) won their classes.
  • Lawson Aschenbach won again at Mid-Ohio in his Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS, beating Nate Stacy (Ford Mustang Boss 302) and Brett Sandberg (KTM X-BOW GT4).

On tap for Sunday: USF2000 race three, Indy Lights race two and PWC GT/GTA/GT Cup race two.

Urrutia takes dominant victory in Mid-Ohio Indy Lights opener

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© Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Santiago Urrutia picked up his third victory of the 2016 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season with a dominant display on Saturday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Urrutia entered the Mid-Ohio weekend trailing championship leader Ed Jones by 24 points, but managed to cut the gap back down to single figures with a peerless display.

Urrutia started the race second alongside pole-sitter Felix Serralles, but a cleaner getaway from the rolling start allowed the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver to pull into the lead at the first corner.

It proved to be a lead that Urrutia would never relinquish as he worked the gap open across the rest of the race, going unchallenged en route to his third win of the season. His final advantage was 6.4 seconds.

“I’m very happy. The guys did a great job on the car,” Urrutia told IndyCar Radio after the race.

“The car was awesome, put the car on pole position for both races. It’s pretty good for the championship for me, so I’m pretty happy.”

Serralles duked for position with Andre Negrao and Dean Stoneman on the first lap, slipping behind both into fourth through Thunder Valley. Zach Veach also managed to dip past the Puerto Rican for P4 on the first lap, leaving Serralles with a mountain to climb.

Veach soaked up the pressure from Serralles before ultimately dropping back into fifth place on lap nine, his rival easing clear as he chased down Stoneman ahead.

For the final 15 laps of the race, the gap between Stoneman and Serralles rarely exceeded a second. However, the British Andretti Autosport driver managed to keep cool and retain the final podium position behind Negrao, who endured a lonely race to second to complete a one-two finish for SPM.

Veach finished fifth ahead of Jones, whose championship lead was reduced to just seven points as Urrutia also recorded the fastest lap and led the most laps, chalking up two bonus points in the process.

Zachary Claman de Melo managed to emerge victorious from a thrilling battle with Shelby Blackstock for P7, both surviving contact in the closing stages. Kyle Kaiser followed in P9 ahead of Garett Grist and Dalton Kellett, with Neil Alberico propping up the running order in P13.

Dixon to start 11th at Mid-Ohio after miscommunication (VIDEO)

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – After dominating most of this weekend at the Honda Indy 200, Scott Dixon will only start Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, CNBC) from 11th place on the grid following an odd and abnormal strategic mistake, and a miscommunication.

The driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, who led both first and third practice, was told his time from earlier in Q2 would be enough to transfer into the Firestone Fast Six.

But that’s not quite what happened. Dixon’s generally luckless season rolled on and he will start 11th; the only upside, perhaps, is he started double that – 22nd and last – and won this race two years ago courtesy of a strategic masterstroke from Ganassi managing director Mike Hull.

“We made it on track on the new set of tires, but we waved it off,” Dixon told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee. “The team felt we’d be safe. I think it’d get faster, the rain was lightening, and they didn’t hear me. Times picked up drastically.

“The Target car has been fast all weekend. Bit of a miscommunication there. Kind of like how our season has been going.

“We’ve been hoping for (luck) for three or four races. It is what it is. We’ve put ourselves in quite a big hole, there.”

Dixon enters the weekend 83 points behind points leader Simon Pagenaud, who scored the pole position on Saturday to add insult to injury for Dixon and gain another point.

Red Bull GRC: Speed dominates in Washington, D.C.

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Photo: Red Bull Content Pool
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Scott Speed has his second consecutive win in Red Bull Global Rallycross, Saturday at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., after also winning the most recent race at MCAS New River.

The defending series champion has also closed on his Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammate, Tanner Foust, who finished third in Saturday’s race.

Speed, in the No. 41 entry, got the strong launch off the line and proceeded to lead away from Bryan Herta Rallysport driver Patrik Sandell, who debuted a new Cuttwood livery on his No. 18 Ford Fiesta ST this weekend.

Meanwhile Chip Ganassi Rallycross driver Brian Deegan was third in his No. 38 NOS Energy Drink Ford Fiesta ST, ahead of Speed’s teammate Foust in the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Beetle.

Foust would later get around Deegan for third but neither of them had anything for the top two drivers.

While Speed dominated, Sandell’s Washington D.C. hot streak continued and he had his third podium of the season (second at Phoenix Round 1, won Dallas Round 3).

Meanwhile a flat right rear demoted Honda Red Bull Olbsergs MSE driver Sebastian Eriksson down to P10.

The finishing order? Speed, Sandell, Foust, Deegan and the second OMSE driver, Joni Wiman.

Steve Arpin (Ganassi) was sixth – a tied season worst result – ahead of SH Rallycross/DRR returning driver Nelson Piquet Jr.

In GRC Lites, Cabot Bigham withstood a heavy challenge from defending series champion Oliver Eriksson to take his first career Lites victory. Bigham, who raced in front of numerous friends and family members that live in the DC area, also extended his championship lead in the process with only four races remaining.

Full Supercar results from Red Bull Global Rallycross Washington DC are as follows:

  1. Scott Speed, #41 Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Beetle
  2. Patrik Sandell, #18 Bryan Herta Rallysport Ford Fiesta ST
  3. Tanner Foust, #34 Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Beetle
  4. Brian Deegan, #38 Loenbro Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Fiesta ST
  5. Joni Wiman, #31 Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Civic Coupe
  6. Steve Arpin, #00 Loenbro Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Fiesta ST
  7. Nelson Piquet Jr., #07 SH Rallycross/DRR Ford Fiesta ST
  8. Austin Dyne, #14 AD Racing Ford Fiesta ST
  9. Bucky Lasek, #81 Subaru Rally Team USA WRX STI
  10. Sebastian Eriksson, #93 Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Civic Coupe
  11. Sverre Isachsen, #11 Subaru Rally Team USA WRX STI

The Red Bull Global Rallycross season will resume on August 27-28 at Bader Field in Atlantic City with Round 9 of the 2016 championship. Tickets remain on sale at redbullglobalrallycross.com/tickets. The race will be shown on Sunday, August 28 at 3PM ET on NBC and 3:30PM ET on Red Bull TV.