Formula One

The Inside Line: Tough road ahead for Vettel, Red Bull

By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

Melbourne, Australia ( - Heading into this weekend's season- opening Australian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull are not feeling too optimistic about winning their fifth straight Formula One championships this year.

It's been a frustrating past few months for Red Bull in pre-season testing, as the team has endured numerous technical issues with its 2014 car, the RB10. F1's new regulations for this season have been more challenging for some teams, particularly Red Bull, compared to others, such as Mercedes, Williams and Force India.

This season will feature one of the biggest set of rule changes in the 65-year history of F1. The most significant of them are technical regulations. The new cars are completely different from last year's vehicles, especially with the aerodynamics, engine capacity and exterior design.

It's a whole new ballgame in F1 this year, and Red Bull isn't the one who's ahead of everybody else.

Right now, Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are considered the favorites to win this year's F1 world championship, based on the team's results in winter testing.

Vettel, who concluded his fourth successive championship season by winning the last nine races, could be facing a long, tough season, beginning with Sunday's Australian GP. But the 26-year-old German isn't giving up on his hopes of winning another title this year, even though his critics are already doubting his chances.

"I don't think that's fair to say," Vettel said. "It's a long year. Our pre- season testing, our preparation, hasn't been ideal, and we're probably not in the best position for this race. But I think it's a different story when we think about the championship.

"There's a long way to go. Two years back, Fernando [Alonso] was on the grid with 1.5 seconds to pole position, but he was very close to beating us to the title at the very last race. Anything can happen. That's why this race is important, just as any other one. But there are a lot of races this year."

The 22 cars on this year's F1 grid are equipped with a new 1.6-liter, V6 turbocharged power unit (engine), which relies heavily on hybrid technology. The 2.4-liter, V8 engine is now in the past. The cars will run races on 35 percent less fuel than last season.

Also new for this year, teams will be allowed just five power units per season rather than eight in previous years. And the cars will have eight-speed transmission instead of seven.

The most significant aerodynamic change is to the exhaust. A single exhaust pipe is now mandated with fixed dimensions and angle of protrusion. Teams will no longer be able to generate downforce by directing exhaust gases to the rear diffuser.

During 12 days of winter testing -- four in Jerez, Spain (January) and eight in Sakhir, Bahrain (February and March) -- drivers and teams have been challenged with the reduced downforce in the new cars.

Based on their tests in Spain and Bahrain, it appears that Red Bull's dominance in recent years could be coming to an end for the time being.

"It's obviously a tough step for all the teams, all the drivers, a lot of new things to get used to," Vettel said. "We know that we're not in the best shape yet. There are a lot of things we need to solve. Unfortunately, you can't solve them overnight. We would love to, but we can't."

Red Bull had significantly less time on the track than its rivals in pre- season testing. During the last four-day test in Bahrain (Feb. 27-March 2), Red Bull logged just a total of 182 laps. Williams, with drivers Felipe Massa, who is new to the team this year, and Valtteri Bottas, had the most laps with 438, followed by Force India (402), Sauber (373), Mercedes (351) and Ferrari (337).

Massa had the quickest overall lap in 1 minute, 33.258 seconds. Vettel was 18th overall in 1:37.468. Daniel Ricciardo, who takes over Mark Webber's seat at Red Bull following Webber's retirement, was 10th on the charts (1:35.743).

Ricciardo, who is from Perth, Australia, is set to make his debut with Red Bull in his home country.

"I think we had one stand-out day," Ricciardo said. "There weren't many, but at least one for me was pretty good. I think we're all a bit unsure how good our cars are.

"Speaking for all the drivers, I think we're just curious and hanging out to get on the track this weekend and see where everyone stands and get a clearer picture. I've had a busy week leading up to the race, and I'm probably more excited than anyone else right now to get in the car."

The 12-day total test distance for Red Bull in Spain and Bahrain was just 1,705.764 kilometers (1,060.53 miles). Mercedes topped all constructors in total distance with 4,972.644 km (3,040.64 miles).

Renault, the power unit supplier for Red Bull as well as Lotus, Toro Rosso and Caterham, had far less total distance in testing than the other two engine providers -- Ferrari and Mercedes. Renault experienced numerous engine woes, particularly in Jerez.

Starting with Friday's practice sessions, Vettel is hopeful the team will have better results with its RB10 in Melbourne.

"I think it will be a very different car," he said. "We had a lot of problems during the test, so we didn't get to test a lot of stuff. We hope we do some more running here and put the parts to the car that we think are better for overall performance. It will be a bit different, but I think it's the same for all [teams]."

Vettel has an opportunity to set another record in his already illustrious F1 career. If he wins the Australian GP, Vettel would surpass Alberto Ascari for most consecutive grand prix victories with 10. Ascari won nine in a row from the tail end of the 1952 season through the early part of 1953.

Hamilton, the 2008 F1 world champion, is very optimistic about this season, his second one with Mercedes. He topped the time charts on the final day of testing in Bahrain two weeks ago. Though Hamilton has emerged as a title favorite by many, he's not quite sure what to expect this season due to the new rule changes.

"It's very technical this year, and we're all in the same boat," Hamilton said. "The goal is to be ahead all the time."

Last year, Hamilton finished fourth in the world championship standings, and Mercedes placed second in the constructors' title battle.

"I probably speak for all of us that last year's car felt better, because it was perhaps a little bit nicer to drive when we had a lot more downforce," Hamilton said. "But that was a car in the fourth year of its evolution. Now we're in a new phase, and it's just something that takes some time to get used to. The sound, for example, is not as impressive as what we had in the past, but once you get all the cars on the track, on the grid, I'm pretty sure it will be impressive for the fans still."

There's a lot of uncertainty for teams entering the season-opener in Melbourne, and it's anyone's guess as to who will do well and who won't in Sunday's race.

The new rules could make this an exciting year in F1, something the sport definitely needs after a lackluster ending to this past season.

03/13 19:29:39 ET

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