MELBOURNE, Australia - Sebastian Vettel has a warning for those already writing off his chances of a fifth-consecutive Formula One title — the season is long and the team's current engine problems won't last.
The Red Bull driver has experienced a troubled off-season, with the team severely restricted in its testing because engine supplier Renault suffered a myriad of problems trying to make the sport's new six-cylinder turbo hybrid powertrain function in anything approaching a reliable fashion.
While Vettel acknowledged that Mercedes will be the team to beat in this weekend's season-opening race in Australia — and Red Bull will likely be off the pace in early races — he was adamant another title was within his reach, even if it was not in the imperious style of 2013 when he won the last nine races.
"We are not in the best position for this race, but it's a different story when you talk about the championship," Vettel said Thursday.
Vettel did not have far to look for inspiration about how to overcome early-season difficulties as he was speaking while sitting beside Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso, who found himself in a similar predicament in 2012.
"Two years back Fernando was on the grid with 1.5 seconds to pole, and very close to beating us for the title at the very last race, so anything can happen," Vettel said.
"We are a strong team. We have a lot of good people on board with a lot of strong resources. We should progress as the season goes on."
Red Bull was not alone in suffering severe problems in the off-season. While the ongoing troubles are expected to particularly afflict the Renault-powered cars in the early races, all teams will be anxious heading into this Friday's practice sessions.
The new computer-controlled engines must balance the power supply between the combustion engine, turbo charger, and the battery-stored electric power — the role of which is vastly greater than in previous years. Added to that is the need to reduce fuel use by about a third on last year to meet new rules, understand the altered aerodynamics and get used to new tires.
Little wonder that F1 officials have relaxed the curfew restricting how many hours engineers and crew can spend in pit lane working on the cars.
Some bleak forecasters are even predicting there will not be enough finishers on Sunday to fill the ten points positions, and race director Charlie Whiting on Thursday was asked questions about the contingency plans if no cars are running. Simple answer - the race will be stopped.
While such doomsday scenarios are very unlikely, there was a strong possibility of several cars not getting within seven per cent of the pole sitter's qualifying time and therefore being excluded from the race. Stewards have always had some discretion to exempt teams from that rule and Whiting said that Melbourne's stewards will look upon such scenarios in Melbourne "very sympathetically."
The men considered most likely to vie for that that pole-sitting yardstick are the Mercedes pair Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg who, in contrast to most drivers, had enjoyed smooth and impressive testing sessions.
The Mercedes drivers are old colleagues from their childhood days, and Hamilton said their friendship will not be tarnished if they end up fighting each other for race wins and perhaps even the championship as many expect.
"It (the relationship) will be the same at the start as at the end," Hamilton said. "We have been racing together since we were 13. This is a stronger championship but I don't see any issues."