Sebastian Vettel has enjoyed something of an easy ride over recent seasons as far as being pushed by a teammate is concerned.
Aside from the 2010 season, when Mark Webber took the title fight down to the final race of the season, Vettel’s biggest challenger has come from outside of his own team.
But Webber, who endured a turbulent relationship with Vettel during his time at Red Bull, believes that all could be about to change.
The Australian told Motor Sport magazine (h/t to ESPNF1) that he thinks his young compatriot will surprise many in his opening season and even match Vettel in terms of qualifying.
He'll go well. I think he'll give Seb a real hard time in qualifying - it'll be 50:50 in the first year, I reckon. I took a few off Seb last year - and the blown floor is gone now. I think Daniel will be fine, and it certainly won't hurt him that he's come through the Red Bull system. I just hope he gets better starts than I did!
Webber then goes on to somewhat contradict himself by ranking Vettel as the best over one lap, so whether or not it’s just a bit of Aussie comradeship is a moot point.
Aside from qualifying, however, there are reasons for Ricciardo fans and the anti-Vettel brigade to be optimistic that the Australian can take the fight to the four-time world champion in 2014.
A level playing field
The biggest elements on Ricciardo’s side are, of course, the radical new engine and aerodynamic regulations that puts every driver in the same boat as far as learning how to get to grips with the new cars.
Although Vettel and Ricciardo managed a paltry 21 laps between them over four days of testing at Jerez, several other drivers got caught out by the extra torque supplied by the new ERS and turbo unit and there was no shortage of spinners as a result.
Then there’s the reliability conundrum. Even if Vettel does manage to outqualify or outdrive his teammate, there is a greater onus on simply making the finish line over the opening rounds and driving more conservatively.
It wouldn’t be a massive surprise to see Ricciardo playing it safe and if misfortune befalls Vettel, we could see a different Red Bull collect the majority of points early on.
The element of surprise
After his very public fallings out with Webber over the past three seasons, Vettel may be breathing a sigh of relief that he has a new teammate this season.
There is a danger that Vettel could underestimate Ricciardo as he keeps a closer eye on the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Indeed, Vettel was recently quoted on crash.net as saying that he thinks it will take Ricciardo time to adapt to his new environment.
Surely it's a new step for him, a new environment; not that much of a step because he knows some of the people already. He's been to the simulator quite a few times over the last couple of years and he knows the staff.
But still it's a different environment to work in. To work with these people is different to just knowing them, so he will obviously have to get to know everybody and – speaking from my experience – it takes some time to speak the same language when you're talking to the engineers etc.
And if Vettel does take his eye off his teammate, the Australian acknowledged on Autosport that he is in a better position than ever to pounce.
“At least with this change now it could make the playing field a bit more even. Hopefully he's not as dominant with this new package as he has been. It definitely brings some things more into my favour."
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