The all-too-familiar sight of Sebastian Vettel streaking away from the field on the first lap and winning by half a minute is history.
His record of nine consecutive race wins is done.
Forget the turbo engines, the new driver pairings and the echidna noses — in 2014, the most bizarre aspect for Formula 1 fans will be Vettel struggling mid-field.
The writing was on the Red Bull garage wall at the first pre-season testing weekend and it only became bolder at the second and third test weekends. At Jerez in January, the team packed up early, frustrated with engine cooling issues and their position at the bottom of the time sheet.
Weeks of dyno testing and tuning did little to solve reliability issues before the team travelled to Bahrain. Two weekends of track testing saw improvements but still produced results inconceivable six months ago.
In the most recent test a fortnight ago, Red Bull’s new number-two Daniel Ricciardo managed more than 100 laps over the first two days. One stint of 20 timed laps included the third-fastest lap of the day, encouraging Red Bull’s engineers. The optimism filling the Red Bull garage was soon flushed out the next day as Sebastian Vettel’s two appearances for the day ended before a lap was completed. The second showing was quite brief — ending at the pit-lane exit. While Vettel saw more of the Bahrain track on the final test day, his 77 laps were remarkably slow and lacked the long stints Ferrari and Williams managed. All of Vettel’s brief outings were concluded with a cautious pit-stop to ensure no damage was present.
Unfortunately for Red Bull’s chief technical director, Adrian Newey, the RB10‘s major issues relate to the Renault engine rather than his ever-superior chassis designs. Ricciardo believes the Newey design is, as in previous years, lightning quick. But speed will mean nothing if the car fails before the chequered flag on Sunday. When other garages tinker with tuning at Albert Park, Red Bull will make frantic modifications interspersed with regular head-scratching.
47 wins, 104 podium and four constructors’ titles in the space of eight years have brought respect and honour to the Milton Keynes outfit.
Whether the champions of seasons past can rise from the canvas remains to be seen.
Whether Red Bull can defend that honour will begin to be answered this weekend.
The Formula 1 season begins this weekend at Albert Park, Melbourne. Sunday’s race starts at 5pm (6am GMT)