"If we had known at the start of 2009 what we know now," says Christian Horner, "I think we'd have won the world championship with the RB5. It was the best chassis in Formula 1."
These are strong words from the Red Bull Racing boss, and they illustrate the extent to which he thinks the team matured over the course of last year. At the start of '09 they had just three podiums to their name; by season's end they'd won a further 22 trophies and claimed the runner-up spots in the constructors' and drivers' world championships.
Sebastian Vettel's chances of beating Jenson Button ended in Brazil at the penultimate race of the season, but he'd been playing catch-up ever since the RB5 had been forced into battle without a double diffuser for the opening three months of the year. But Vettel's failure to win the title can't be blamed exclusively on a grey area in the regulations. He made mistakes too.
Eight points went begging in Melbourne when he made an ill-fated lunge down the inside of Robert Kubica; he spun off in Malaysia and Monaco and he ran wide on the opening lap in Turkey, handing the win to Button and second place to team-mate Mark Webber. The points lost through these errors amounted to significantly more than the 11-point deficit separating Sebastian and Jenson at the season's end.
Frustrating though they were, these errors were the making of Vettel. He took disappointment on the chin and didn't make the same mistake twice. He dominated the second half of the season, scoring 55 points to Jenson's 34 in the final 10 races. But by then it was too late; Jenson had an unassailable lead. All Vettel could do was use his domination at circuits like Silverstone and Suzuka to act as a message of intent for 2010.
Vettel crashed out at Monaco in 2009 © LAT
"Sebastian has learnt from his mistakes," says Horner, "and he'll be stronger this year. All he lacks is experience, and there's no shortcut to that. But he improved so much last year that I'm convinced he's now ready. He's the complete racing driver."
His jeans aren't quite falling down, but they're low enough to be a bit too revealing. He's wearing a Red Bull T-shirt and a beanie, and he's unshaven - two days' growth, maybe three. He looks totally relaxed in the cosseting environment of the Red Bull Racing motorhome. The catering staff joke with him; engineers drop by to ask him questions and guests queue politely to get his autograph. He's the centre of attention and he seems quite comfortable with it.
The magnetic effect that Vettel has on the people around him helps explain his importance to Red Bull. He might only be 22 years old, but he's already a vital cog within the team's machinery. It's part of his nature that he likes to know everything that's going on; hence the constant flow of information, even in an informal setting such as this.
Red Bull have pinned their long-term hopes on Vettel. Last summer they extended his contract until the end of 2012 and there's a desire to keep him at the team for the rest of his career not only because he is super quick, but because he oozes all of the off-track attributes that Red Bull want in their drivers. He's amusing, with a very infectious laugh; he's cool, if that's how you define someone whose jeans are perilously close to falling off; and he's multi-lingual. Sebastian doesn't need to nick his team-mate's number in order to assert himself and he doesn't need to pump himself up through the media; he has this team at his feet, and he knows it.
"I'm very happy here," he says. "We have a great atmosphere in the team and I'm very happy with the support I get from everyone. If the car's competitive this year, I have everything I need to win the world championship."
If you're wondering where Mark Webber fits into Team Vettel, it's as an extremely able wingman. Webber is very quick and technically strong, but he'll never have the same hold over his paymasters as Vettel because he's not a product of Red Bull's driver development programme. But any favouritism towards Vettel shouldn't manifest itself in a technical advantage over Webber (at least it didn't in '09) because Horner and chief technical officer Adrian Newey just want to win. Period.
Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber © LAT
"The drivers will get an equal chance to perform and the only team orders will be not to take each other off," says Horner. "I think we have the strongest driver pairing in F1; Mark and Sebastian communicate well and they drive with similar set-ups, which helps with car development."
As was the case last year, Newey prolonged the new car's development for as long as possible, which forced the team to miss the first test session of the winter. It wouldn't have mattered if they'd had a clean run when they hit the track in the middle of February, but heavy rain at both of the Jerez tests left them slightly behind schedule going into the season-opener in Bahrain, even though Vettel is adamant that the team is in good shape for the year ahead.
"We won't get a clear idea of the pecking order until we get to the third or fourth race," he says. "Our objective is to be up there at every race and I think the RB6 is enough of a step forward to allow us to do that. Going into 2009, we knew that we had a good car - but we didn't expect to fight for the world championship. This year we expect to fight for the championship, so our expectations are very different."
The relative pace of the front-runners was hard to judge during testing, due to the wide range of fuel loads being tried. Ferrari's F10 seemed fast and consistent, but so did the RB6. McLaren's MP4-25 showed good endurance, while the Mercedes W01 seemed more competitive on short runs because it was quite hard on its rear tyres on heavy fuel.
But Vettel will only need the RB6 to be in the right ballpark for him to be able to fight for the world title. He proved during the second half of last year that he's ironed out the impetuousness that blighted the start of his '09 campaign, and his natural speed has never been in doubt.
"What stood out about Sebastian was his ability under braking," says Toro Rosso technical director Giorgio Ascanelli. "He does something special that I've only seen in a couple of other drivers - and we're talking about the real masters. Sebastian's not bothered by wheel locking, front or rear, and that means he's able to brake for a shorter time than anyone else. It's fantastic to see."
Ascanelli was Ayrton Senna's race engineer at McLaren and although he's unwilling to make the inevitable comparison, he admits that there are similarities between Senna and Vettel.
"I can't compare them fairly because Ayrton was already a three-time world champion when I started working with him, whereas Sebastian was in his first season of F1. But let me tell you this: Vettel has the same capacity as Ayrton to keep a very high level of concentration. He has a very good memory and the same attention to detail. The only driver better than Sebastian on the 2010 grid is Alonso, and the difference between them can be put down to experience."
Vettel after winning for Toro Rosso at Monza in 2008 © LAT
Vettel's ability to drive a car like this helps to explain his brilliance in the wet, when wheels are constantly locking. His first grand prix win, in the rain at Monza in '08, was achieved with a dry set-up; he was punching above his weight in the wet at Fuji in '07, until he crashed into Webber while behind the safety car, and he was brilliant through the deluge in China last year to give Red Bull Racing its first grand prix win.
There is no obvious weakness in Vettel's game. He has the speed to get the job done in qualifying; he has the consistency to win races in the dry; and he has something verging on a supernatural feel for grip in the wet. But he's not counting his chickens.
"It's going to be extremely close this year," he says, "and the world champion will be the person who does the best job over 19 races, not over half of the races. The new points system gives you more reward for winning, but the drivers always want to win so I don't think it changes anything. I'll do the best possible job and if that's not good enough to win, I'll score as many points as possible."
In keeping with the confidence that comes from being a title favourite, Vettel isn't afraid to air his feelings about the new regulations, particularly with regard to the 2cm reduction in front-tyre width and the ban on refuelling.
"The new regulations have given us plenty to think about," says Sebastian, "because they've made Formula 1 quite different for the drivers. We like to be able to drive flat-out the whole time and this year we will have to start the races with a lot of fuel and on scrubbed tyres, so we won't be able to do that. I don't think it's going to be more exciting to go slower, do you?
"And I also don't think the racing's going to be any better than it was before just because we've reduced the contact patch at the front. You need mechanical grip when you're following another car, but we have less now than we did last year."
We'll have to hope that the ban on refuelling will spice things up sufficiently to negate the loss of the contact patch that Sebastian points out. But there's another reason why Vettel is frustrated by the rule changes and that's down to his incredible superhuman levels of fitness. But while he has impressive cardiovascular strength, it may not be such an advantage to be one of the fittest drivers on the grid when the drivers will actually have fewer opportunities to drive on the limit.
Vettel leading in Bahrain, 2010 © Sutton
"I've made a massive step forward physically," he says. "You learn from experience what matters in F1, and I've improved in all the right areas. Fitness in F1 isn't only about cardio and it isn't only about strength; you need your whole body to be in good shape and I'm very happy with the progress I've made."
He's made changes to other areas of his life as well, which he thinks will add up to make him a better driver. For example, he's reduced the number of media commitments that he participates in away from the racetrack to enable him to maintain a consistent training programme, and he's moved house. He's now living in a farmhouse about half an hour from Zurich airport, from which he's able to do the vast majority of his training outside.
"I like to be in the middle of nowhere," he says. "You guys should know that I like the outdoors because I climbed up Mount Fuji with you for an F1 Racing feature last year!"
At the Bahrain Grand Prix he started his climb towards the Formula 1 world championship. He didn't make it to the summit last year, but Bernie Ecclestone - among others - thinks he's the favourite to do so this year. There is some formidable opposition out there, but you'd be a brave man to bet against him.
"I don't underestimate any of my rivals," says Sebastian, "but I'm not afraid of anyone either. I'm here to win."
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