It's a big year for...Sebastian Vettel
The World Champion has more to lose than most in 2014
By James Galloway. Last Updated: 12/03/14 10:12am
Sebastian Vettel: Just what will his latest title defence bring?
It might seem a rather peculiar notion to suggest that 2014 represents an especially 'big year' for Sebastian Vettel, the man who over the last four years has pretty much done - and won - it all.
Yes, any season is an important one for a reigning World Champion, but with his four consecutive titles, 39 career victories, and status as the youngest man to do just about everything of note in the sport, what could possibly make this year any more important for Vettel than, say, 2013 or 2012?
Well, there are reasons, heightened by Red Bull's chronic testing struggles with the new RB10, which should they play out could come to define just where Vettel, whose achievements already place him among the greats of the sport, ultimately ranks in that pantheon.
Firstly, there are those lingering accusations - however tenuous some might say - that the German hasn't yet been tested in a car that isn't consistently the class of the field. We won't get a definitive answer as to the RB10's competitiveness until after the first few races, but even Red Bull themselves have acknowledged that they trail the leading Mercedes runners by quite some distance heading into the Melbourne season opener.
That means, for the first few races at least, F1's all-conquering driver will likely have to face up to a new reality.
As Michael Schumacher and Ferrari, F1's previous winning juggernaut, found out in depressing fashion in 2005, relentless winning runs do end sometime - and when it happens it is often in sudden and emphatic fashion. Should a similar fate befell Red Bull then Vettel, who heads to Australia chasing a record tenth successive victory remember, might suddenly find that fourths, fifths and sixths - or worse - could be his new pre-weekend targets. In such a scenario it would be fascinating to see, from both a driving and mind-set point of view, how he rose to that challenge.
Then there is the new battle from within: Daniel Ricciardo. While Mark Webber didn't exactly end his F1 career with a whimper, the glaring statistic from the intra-team Red Bull duel in 2013 was that the 37-year-old failed to win a single race whereas Vettel snared 13.
Ricciardo, 13 years his predecessor's junior and with it all to prove in regards his ability as a front-line F1 star, is undoubtedly handy over a single lap and it is not inconceivable that he could prove a thorn in his illustrious team-mate's side from time to time - at least on Saturdays.
Red Bull, having access to all of Toro Rosso's driver performance data, will already have a pretty good idea about how they expect their new recruit to match up to their star pupil - and some cynics argue this is exactly why they signed Ricciardo and not Kimi Raikkonen. But there is always that element of uncertainty over just how quick a new arrival will be once ensconced in his new car and out on the circuit. You can be sure that Vettel, as much as anyone, will be intrigued to see that answer.
Even if none of these potential pitfalls come to pass and Red Bull recover by mid-season to resume life as the sport's standard bearer then Vettel has plenty to play for: emulating Schumacher's five straight championships and surpassing Ayrton Senna's total of 41 wins among them.
In a sport that is constantly evolving and placing new hurdles in front of its exponents, the man who has more to lose than most will know himself that a fresh set of tests await in 2014.