After out-qualifying Sebastian Vettel for the third time this season and leaving his team-mate second best in consecutive races for first time since 2012, Daniel Ricciardo has had an impressive start to his career at Red Bull.
In Bahrain his pace led to the four-time World Champion moving aside, under orders from the team, as the Australian was on the faster tyre at the time.
Fast forward to Sunday afternoon and just after one third distance in the 56 lap race once again Red Bull management edict comes over the radio to Vettel: “Seb, let Ricciardo through he is faster than you.” This time the pair were on the same tyres, although Ricciardo’s were four laps fresher.
This time, Vettel was not so willing to give up his fourth place. Having asked what tyre Ricciardo was using, and learning the Australian was on the same tyres as himself, Vettel replied, “Tough luck”. The German decided initially to hold his ground and not succumb to the demands of senior management.
Two laps later Ricciardo was able to make the move, and although Vettel and the team said after the race that he had accepted the order to let the faster car through, Ricciardo was not certain that was the case at the time, “I am not sure if he ran deep or gave me a bit of room, but I managed to get by,” said the Australian.
But the story here is how Vettel was prepared to disobey Red Bull team orders for the second time (after Malaysia 2013), even though he did later relent.
Then there is also the ongoing question of how he will deal with being consistently outperformed by a team-mate; one who has full backing from Red Bull senior figures like Helmut Marko (something Mark Webber never enjoyed).
Many fans worldwide believe that Vettel has been handled with cotton wool and regarded as the Golden Boy at Red Bull, with the backing of Marko and gestures such as the front-wing swap from Mark Webber’s to Vettel’s car at the British Grand Prix in 2010, have served to strengthen those claims.
But now Vettel is up against it; with a car which is not the fastest and up against a team-mate who has made an immediate connection with the RB10 and who has important backers in the team.
The German’s gesture to move aside in Bahrain earned him plaudits. However, today he chose to not show faith in the decisions of the pit-wall, instead trying to race Ricciardo.
The Red Bull management was proved correct as Ricciardo romped away to eventually finish the Grand Prix twenty-two seconds ahead, whilst Vettel said that he let the fourth place finisher through.
“I think there was no point in holding him up any longer,” said Vettel. “He was quite a lot quicker and once I was told we were on different strategies I decided to let him go and also realised more towards the end that I couldn’t hold him back.
“At that point in time I was still on a three-stop, which we changed later on, also to a two-stop strategy. Towards the end of the race I also realized that I did not have the pace, which was not really clear to me at that earlier stage.”
Vettel was using up the tyres more quickly than Ricciardo and was struggling particularly with the medium compound tyre, having been competitive on the softs in the opening stint.
Team Principal Christian Horner said that Vettel’s problem is that he doesn’t have the feel from the current generation of cars that he enjoyed with the previous years’ cars.
Part of the reason is believed to be the lack of downforce and especially rear-end stability of these cars compared to the blown diffuser cars. Ricciardo is used to cars with less downforce and stability.
Horner confirmed that Vettel did let his team-mate past, which in-turn gave them the chance of a podium as Ricciardo closed in on Alonso, who might possibly have been beaten had Vettel yielded when first asked.
Horner’s version slightly contradicts Vettel’s; Vettel says he was on a three stop strategy (which normally involves running a faster pace and pushing the tyres harder; normally a three stopper is allowed to pass a two stopper) but was switched to a two-stop. Horner’s version was that Vettel was on a two stop, but Red Bull was thinking of putting Vettel onto a three stopper, “What he (Vettel) didn’t realise was that we were looking at a different strategy because Seb was going through the tyre phases quicker, to convert Sebastian onto a three-stop.
“As soon as he understood that he immediately let him through and he could
see he simply didn’t have the pace to hold him back.”
Vettel pitted on lap 13, which was consistent with a two-stop plan and Ricciardo on lap 17, a clear two stop plan. What hurts a driver is to switch from one to another mid race as what has gone before is not optimum for the new strategy.
“Seb’s done the right thing for the team today and as he said very honestly, he has let his team-mate through, he (Ricciardo) was quicker today,” said Horner. “That enabled us to get closer to Alonso in the final laps, with Daniel finishing twenty seconds ahead of Seb. More important for us is to understand what Seb is struggling with at the moment, because he’s obviously not getting as much out of the car as Daniel.”