Mark Hughes on why Daniel Ricciardo is showing Sebastian Vettel the way at Red Bull
Sky F1's Mark Hughes studies the World Champion's 2014 form and asks whether Sebastian will find a new "technique of advantage"?
By Mark Hughes. Last Updated: 24/04/14 8:26am
Sebastian Vettel: Not cutting edge at the moment
Daniel Ricciardo has now out-qualified his four-time champion team-mate Sebastian Vettel three times to one. Only in Malaysia has Vettel held the upper hand on race day.
At the remaining three events Ricciardo, and not Vettel, has been the cutting edge of Red Bull's challenge and in China the champion was asked for the second time this season to move aside for his junior team-mate. This had happened in Bahrain too, but on that occasion they were on different tyre strategies. In Shanghai there was no difference in the strategies and once Ricciardo had been allowed through he proceeded to pull out 20 seconds in 30 laps over Vettel.
It has prompted Vettel's critics to voice the opinion that he's been flattered by his machinery advantage all along and only now are we seeing a true picture. Which is a theory that can be supported by the superficial evidence, but the reality is likely to be deeper-routed than that. There's no question that Ricciardo is doing a fabulous job at the moment, but he is not currently competing against a peak form Vettel. There is something missing in his current performance.
"Seb's having a tough time at the moment because he hasn't got that feeling in the car that he's looking for," says Christian Horner. "He is tremendously sensitive to certain aspects of the set up and at the moment he's not getting the feedback that he wants from the car. The compound effect is he's damaging the tyre more - which is very unusual for Seb, as we've seen since Pirelli were introduced that it's highly unusual for him to be going through tyre life quicker than the average. As soon as we've worked those issues out he'll be back with a bang."
Vettel's preferred driving style is quite acrobatic. His way of using a sliding rear end to get faster direction change into slow corners has long been a spectacular hallmark of his. Doing this without the slide's momentum then slowing the car through the corner is an exceptionally difficult balancing act to pull off and he was aided immensely by the exhaust-blowing technology Red Bull mastered from late 2010 onwards. With the central single exhaust outlets (and the lower energy from a turbo engine's exhaust) of 2014, exhaust blowing has been definitively outlawed.
There was a period in 2012, before Red Bull had found a way around the restrictions of the time that allowed exhaust blowing only on-throttle, that the team's cars were set up to have a measure of artificially-induced oversteer upon turn in. In this way Vettel could still have his oversteer-enhanced turn in and then have the exhaust blowing on the rear stabilise the slide. But until that little set-up trick had been discovered Vettel's usual advantage over then-team mate Mark Webber was much reduced. In 2010, before the exhaust-blowing feature was introduced to the car, Webber was quite evenly matched with Vettel and was a serious title contender.
But it's too simplistic to say Vettel was only able to show superiority thanks to exhaust blowing. This was where there was an advantage to be found - and he found it. Now that the technology has been banned, any area of advantage will have moved and it's down to the drivers to find it.
Ricciardo's style is typically smoother, less dramatic, than Vettel's. It's bringing him a tyre wear advantage in the slower corners and sometimes a speed advantage in the faster ones. He's simply using a very conventional style to devastating effect. But let's wait to see what, if anything, emerges as a technique of advantage - perhaps something similar to what Lewis Hamilton sometimes has in his fuel usage over Nico Rosberg. If not, then expect Seb to simply adapt his style and set up to something more like Ricciardo's. The reading is far too early to be definitive.