We have become accustomed to seeing little of Sebastian Vettel over the last four years.
He’d turn up, take pole position, storm into the distance, win the race and go home.
All the action took place behind the dominant Red Bull driver, with a large group of drivers squabbling to fill the two remaining places on the podium.
His advantage over his peers was so significant that he enjoyed the kind of blissful anonymity that only the most successful athletes and sports teams can achieve: to be so invincible that you actually become invisible.
Once the initial excitement at the start of a grand prix died down, we wouldn’t see Vettel again until he eased across the line and began that index-finger-waving ritual.
At the Spanish Grand Prix, however, the German tasted the other side of anonymity.
Vettel had been tipped as the likeliest contender to spoil Mercedes’ party this weekend.
The three-week gap which separated last month’s Chinese Grand Prix and the Spanish Grand Prix represented a chance for Red Bull and Renault, their power-unit partner, to solve the problems that had plagued the RB10 car since it was unveiled at Jerez in January.
With the race at the Circuit de Catalunya being the first European event of the season, and thus the grand prix which sees teams bring a raft of aerodynamic updates, there was a real opportunity for Red Bull and Vettel to change from damage-limitation mode to a more attacking strategy.
The German even had a change of chassis in his bid to return to the top, reverting to a model he had previously used in pre-season—but this only seemed to prompt a return of the niggling reliability issues which defined those dark, difficult winter months.
Vettel’s Friday running in Barcelona ended after only four laps due to an electrical problem in the morning session which sidelined the reigning world champion for the remainder of the day.
And despite making up for lost time by completing more laps than any other driver in Saturday’s third free-practice session before looking comfortable at the beginning of qualifying, it all went downhill once again when he suffered a gearbox problem in Q3 which prevented him from completing a single lap.
The way Vettel slowed (albeit temporarily) to a halt in the pit lane with a gearbox issue as he ventured out to begin his out lap carried eerie similarities to the penultimate day of pre-season testing in Bahrain, where he suffered the humiliation of wheeling his own Red Bull back to the garage.
Unlike in pre-season, however—where any embarrassment could be shrugged off with a decent day of uninterrupted running—this mechanical failure came at a cost, with the subsequent gearbox change relegating him to 15th on the grid and writing off his weekend.
Despite only scoring a single podium finish in 2014 prior to this weekend, Vettel has had a canny knack for still being the centre of attention on every race day.
As with his invisible invincibility, Vettel—like Manchester United, who still managed to create more headlines than their rivals despite finishing a distant seventh in the Premier League this season—has in that sense benefited from the sheer weight and longevity of his recent success.
His charmingly boyish and occasionally petulant persona, after all, implies that he thrives on being the main focus, the star attraction, while the sheer regularity of his finger-waving antics means he needs no invitation to rub his rivals’ noses in it and to remind us just how good he really is.
In Australia, his fortunes were a major talking point despite retiring after only five laps, while his third place in Malaysia heralded talk of an imminent Red Bull recovery.
Red Bull’s request to Vettel to allow teammate Daniel Ricciardo through in Bahrain, a little over 12 months since the infamous Multi-21 fiasco, ensured the German remained in the news, while the German’s radio message of “tough luck” in a similar situation in China only augmented the predicament.
But in Spain?
His largely quiet fight back from the mediocrity of the midfield was a mere sideshow to the compelling, race-long battle at the front between race winner Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, the Mercedes pair Vettel was hoping to finally topple prior to the weekend.
Vettel’s aggressive, opportunistic, out-of-nowhere overtaking moves on Felipe Massa and Kevin Magnussen on Lap 38 seemed like so much more than your average passes—they were almost desperate reminders to the world that he was still in the race.
Having delivered an understated performance until that point, Vettel—on a three-stop strategy—suddenly came alive, picked up the pace and began lunging down the inside of other cars as though his wavering patience had finally snapped, as though he was beyond caring.
So what if I crash? I have nothing to lose anyway.
Those passes on Massa and Magnussen turned out not to be random wild lunges, however, but the foundations for an impressive recovery to fourth position by the chequered flag.
Yet even the fashion of his comeback, creeping up on his competitors before plucking them one-by-one, was not what you would expect from a four-time world champion, someone who had blown the opposition away in recent years.
Although Vettel declared himself “quite happy” with his fight back to fourth, according to Andrew van Leeuwen of AUTOSPORT, his 76.7-second gap to Hamilton, on a day when Ricciardo, who finished only one place ahead of Vettel, was 49 seconds adrift of first place, is a major cause for concern.
Red Bull would have targeted the Spanish Grand Prix as the time to begin making serious inroads into Mercedes’ pace advantage, especially with the circuit being less power-dependent than previous venues, but the weekend became a tale of missed opportunities.
And even if the team did reinforce their position as the best of the rest, it comes as little consolation for an institution that has been the class of the field for such an extended period of time.
With Vettel trailing new championship leader Hamilton by 55 points after only five rounds, it’s not even a case of damage limitation anymore—it’s a simple case of being beaten.