For the second time running, at last month’s Chinese Grand Prix (GP), Red Bull asked their No.1 driver, Sebastian Vettel of Germany, to move aside for their new recruit Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo and let him overtake during the race.

This was the second time Vettel, winner of four world titles, received such an order. The first one came in the Bahrain GP (4-6 April) to which he agreed.

While in Shanghai (18-20 April), he initially refused to accede. In a reply to the team order, Vettel inquired what tyres his teammate was on at that point in the race. In every race, two sets of tyres are used—hard and soft, the latter is quicker. Different drivers are on different tyres at different times which adds to the spectacle of the race.

When Vettel was told they were on the same tyres with Ricciardo possessing a fresher set after the first round of pit stops, he replied, “Tough luck!"

Eventually, Vettel did let him pass. But the delay perhaps cost Ricciardo a third-place finish behind Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. Later on, Ricciardo could only play down the incident. “I was not aware of what he was saying during the race. I wasn’t sure what strategy we were both on but I got past. I don’t want to start any conflicts," he said, when asked post-race about Vettel’s response.

It is an alarming situation for Red Bull in two ways. First, this is the third time in four races that Ricciardo has outdriven his more illustrious teammate. Vettel didn’t finish in Australia in March (where Ricciardo was disqualified after finishing second), and barring the podium in Malaysia (28-30 March), he thoroughly lacked pace in the next two races in Bahrain and Shanghai.

Photo: Andrew Hone/Getty Images
Photo: Andrew Hone/Getty Images

The Lewis Hamilton-Alonso pairing went up in smoke at McLaren in 2007, a ready example of how a rookie—Hamilton in this case—can upset a multiple-champion. Will it be Vettel’s turn next?

Second, and this is the major concern, Vettel has so far not been able to come to grips with the new rules and the cars born out of them this season. Four races have sped past and it is clear that one of the two Mercedes drivers—Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg—will be crowned drivers’ champion, ending his reign.

The Spanish GP this weekend at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya will herald the onset of the European season. Every driver and team knows this circuit like the back of their hands since they test here in the pre-season. Will Vettel find his feet?

Of course, Red Bull have offered a simple explanation for his failures so far. “Sebastian is having a tough time at the moment because he hasn’t got that feeling from the car that he is looking for. He’s tremendously sensitive to certain aspects of the set-up and he’s not getting the feedback from the car that he wants. As a result he is eating up his tyres more and that is very unusual for him," said team principal Christian Horner after the Chinese GP, confirming that Vettel’s lack of pace that weekend was all his own doing.

A reduction in the levels of downforce on Formula One cars, a key component in making cars go quicker while staying rooted to the circuit, after the new rules is one of the reasons Vettel is facing difficulties with tyres. He is used to driving with high downforce, but with reduced downforce this season, his tyres are wearing out quickly and he is losing pace.

It is in sharp contrast to the way he dominated last year when Pirelli changed its 2013-specification tyres to the 2012-specification mid-season. Vettel went on to win nine consecutive races thereafter, winning 13 out of a total 19 races.

Already, the German driver has complained about the rule changes. In early April, he described the new V6 engines as “shit". His latest outburst came in the three-week gap between China and Spain, where he again lamented the lack of familiarity with his car.

“I would prefer a V10 or V12 with lots of power. I would like to drive cars that are as fast as they can be, as though I am taming a dragon or a beast. The car does not know what I want, under braking and in the corners, I have an absolute lack of confidence," he said.

McLaren’s executive chairman Ron Dennis admonished him for his comments, asking for a “dignified approach" from the current world champion.

The Formula One circus is a fickle world, but at the same time it is also one of the most result-oriented sports. Not everyone outside the pit lane perhaps understand this and it finds resonance in the boos and jeers directed at Vettel after his 2013 Singapore GP victory, a near flawless drive from him, drawing parallels with the dominance of Nigel Mansell in 1992 and Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari years, especially from 2002-04.

Not many will remember how he outdrove a problematic Red Bull in the wet during this season’s Malaysian GP qualifying and showed it isn’t only about the car when he matched Mercedes’ pace by qualifying second for the race—splitting Hamilton and Rosberg when their dry pace was equalized by rain.

If his outbursts continue, and the trend of poor results doesn’t change, it won’t take long for popular sentiment to completely turn against him. If this happens, he risks his legacy as a four-time champion.

Though it may be a little too early to question Vettel’s capability, the standard for Red Bull has been set this season by their “rookie" driver. The champion needs to find a quick answer, starting this weekend.

Chetan Narula is the author ofHistory of Formula One: The Circus Comes To India.

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