It is not every day that a four-time defending Formula One world champion is asked to move out of the way to allow his new teammate—zero career podiums—through.
But that is exactly what happened between Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo at last Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix.
To make matters worse for the champ, after he found himself back in front of the young Australian following a late safety car, Ricciardo passed him again on track, no team orders necessary.
At this point, even though it is only three races into the new season, it may be time for Vettel to forget about adding to his championship trophy collection. Instead, he should just worry about beating his teammate.
After all, Vettel is already 38 points behind Nico Rosberg in the drivers' standings. Red Bull is mired in fourth place in the Constructors' Championship, 76 points adrift of the seemingly unbeatable Mercedes team.
Following the Bahrain race, Vettel admitted, per the official F1 website, that, "Daniel proved that there was a little bit more to get from the car today, I couldn’t really get to that bit, so I’m not so happy with my day."
Here is a mind-blowing statistic: The first three races of the 2014 season represent Vettel's worst three-race stretch (in terms of points scored) since the middle of 2009, his first season at Red Bull.
Last season, Vettel beat his teammate, Mark Webber, in every race they both finished.
In contrast, here are Vettel's results relative to Ricciardo so far this season:
|2014 Race Results|
True, the German champion leads his young teammate 23-12 in the Drivers' Championship, but those numbers are not necessarily indicative of their respective performances. Ricciardo has already outqualified Vettel twice, but circumstances beyond his control have affected his races.
The season-opening Australian Grand Prix was a write-off for both Red Bull drivers. Vettel retired after only three laps with engine problems. Ricciardo took a brilliant second place in his debut for the Milton Keynes-based team but was later disqualified.
Red Bull's appeal of the disqualification will be heard on April 14, the results of which could instantly swing the drivers' standings in favour of Ricciardo.
In Malaysia, Vettel and Ricciardo were running third and fourth with about four seconds between them before Ricciardo switched to the harder tyre. Later, a mistake by the team during a pit stop ruined his race.
Finally, in Bahrain, both cars managed to complete the entire grand prix, and Ricciardo, despite starting three places behind Vettel, finished over five seconds ahead of the champion.
Ricciardo's career-best finish was seventh place before this season. He did not have experience fighting with the F1 front-runners, and no one knew how he would cope with the increased attention and pressure.
In only three races, he has laid any doubts to rest and demonstrated that he is not just Webber 2.0, after Vettel dominated the older Australian for the last three years of their partnership.
After seeing Vettel win four championships in what was usually the best car, critics wanted to see him tested with both an inferior car and a strong teammate. Now we are getting both.
Although a fifth straight championship is out of Vettel's reach without a quantum leap forward by Red Bull and Renault, he can start to silence his critics by convincingly beating Ricciardo.
Judging by Ricciardo's performances so far, though, that is far from guaranteed.
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