Sebastian Vettel is gunning for a home win this weekend at Formula One's German grand prix. Vettel's Red Bull car has been the class of the 2010 field. But for a number of reasons, the team isn't bringing home the bacon.
Vettel's not number one just now, but he really should be
If seven-time champion Michael Schumacher's comparatively unsuccessful Formula One comeback has disappointed his legions of fans, German petrol heads have a potential, or even probable winner to cheer for at Hockenheim this weekend.
Sebastian Vettel has further cemented his reputation as a future German world champion this season, driving probably the best car on the grid, and notching up two race wins, so far.
But Vettel's performance has been deceptively disappointing; mechanical problems, driver errors, and the occasional display of immaturity have all combined to put the German in a mysterious fourth position in the title race, when he could have amassed a commanding lead in a more trouble-free campaign. It's probably fair to say the 23-year-old should have done better in the opening ten rounds of the season.
What might have been
Generally speaking, the fastest car on the track will win races. But this rule is not quite as set in stone as you might think, and Vettel and his Red Bull team have done a stellar job of disproving it in 2010.
In qualifying, the Red Bull cars reign supreme, having secured pole position nine times out of ten so far. Vettel himself has started from the front in half of this season's races, but he's only finished there twice in ten attempts. So, what's going wrong?
Car, team, and driver have all hampered Vettel's success
Rather than being beaten on the track, Vettel and Red Bull are conspiring, in a number of ways, to beat themselves.
In Bahrain, Spain, and Australia the car let Vettel down, with mechanical problems robbing the young German of a shot at victory. In China, Red Bull's poor pit lane strategy when responding to changeable weather was to blame. And in Canada it was a similar story, with Vettel's team choosing the wrong tire strategy in a complicated race.
The youngster's frustrated radio transmissions with the team in that race, however, pointed to perhaps his greatest weakness. After repeatedly querying why he was so far adrift of the leaders, and while nursing a slight gearbox problem late in the race, Vettel radioed in specifically to ask "what's the fastest lap?"
His chief mechanic sounded like an exasperated parent or schoolteacher as he blurted out the response: "Don't even think about it!"
Drivers love setting the fastest lap of a race - especially if they can't win or finish on the podium - but it's an ultimately meaningless award, carrying no championship points. From Vettel's perspective, he could salvage some honor by setting a fast lap, but you'd never catch a successful veteran like Schumacher thinking that way with championship points on the line.
This youthful exuberance and ambition (or short-sighted immaturity, depending on your perspective) helps explain the other major threat to Vettel's title charge - his strained relationship with his veteran team mate, Mark Webber.
Don't let the smiles fool you...
Three races ago in Turkey, Vettel and Webber committed motorsport's cardinal sin, crashing into each other while running first and second.
Vettel tried an ambitious overtaking maneuver on his Australian team mate, looking to take the lead. Webber left Vettel very little space, then Vettel tried to squeeze Webber wide; neither driver gave way and so the innevitable happened. Webber limped home in third, while the young German retired in the collision.
Vettel walked away from his stricken car demonstratively rotating his index finger around his temple, apparently suggesting he thought Webber had acted crazily. Most pundits, however, either deemed the crash a racing incident or laid the greater portion of blame at Vettel's door.
At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, they were at it again. Amid a dispute over the allocation of parts by the team in qualifying, in which Webber felt he was getting the short straw, the drivers again started side by side on the grid.
Webber got away well from second and pulled alongside Vettel, who tried to push his team mate into the wall. The disgruntled Aussie was in no mood to yield and held his ground. Out of position after this tussle, Vettel was hit from behind, sustained a puncture, and could only salvage seventh place. Webber romped off to victory.
Once again, Vettel paid a heavy price for fighting tooth and nail with his team mate - the one car a driver is expected to treat gingerly.
Know your enemy
Vettel and Red Bull must focus on Hamilton and McLaren
It would be unfair to criticize Vettel for having a selfish streak, that's one of the defining characteristics of any top driver. But Vettel seems determined to fight every battle, whether he can win it or not.
Webber may be a stubborn driver in his own right, but it's probably not coincidence that the veteran Australian suffered considerably less on the two occasions his young team mate tried to forcefully assert his authority. The wily old fox may not be quite as quick as Vettel, but his experience is showing.
Vettel, Webber, and Red Bull would do well to put the infighting behind them and focus on their real adversaries, the Mclaren duo of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
This all-British pairing is currently running first and second in the championship - and considering the obvious superiority of the Red Bull car, no one can fathom how.
Vettel, Webber, and Red Bull are still well placed to mount a successful title charge, but they need to convert their speed advantage into points before it's too late. Preferably starting this weekend at Germany's Hockenheim circuit.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Rob Turner