Niki Lauda contends that carrying the coveted number one on his car in F1 2011 will give defending world champion Sebastian Vettel a crucial psychological edge over Red Bull Racing team-mate Mark Webber – even if the German himself reckons he'll need to continue improving over the coming months in order to keep hold of it.
In an extraordinary, nail-biting Abu Dhabi finale back in November, Vettel wrote his way spectacularly and wholly unexpectedly into the F1 record books by clinching the drivers' crown at the age of just 23 years and 134 days – the youngest since the official inception of the world championship some six decades earlier.
That means he will race this season with the number one adorning his Adrian Newey-designed Red Bull RB7, which is already looking very much the car to beat – and Lauda suggests that mentally at least, Vettel could not possibly be in a stronger position.
“There's no better way to start a season,” the Austrian told the Red Bulletin
magazine in a joint interview between the pair. “You arrive as number one and everyone thinks, 'here comes the best' – so they have to chase you if they want it for themselves.
“I regard the number one as a positive. Subconsciously, I think this number one gives you an advantage over your team-mate. I reckon it's going to be very difficult for Mark Webber to start all over again from scratch and to make a charge from number two. Somehow, you end up perceiving this number as a symbol.”
Webber felt like 'a number two' driver often enough even before
Vettel became world champion last year, it must be said, but the latter is quick to play down the pre-season 'favourite' tag – and in the same interview, he also offered his own interpretation of Ferrari rival Fernando Alonso's surprising selection of Michael Schumacher as his greatest threat this year.
“I just don't want to have the feeling, 'if it worked last year, then it'll work again this year',” he underlined. “That shouldn't be what the number represents. If I just do what I did last season then it'll surely go wrong. Last year was just that – last year. Tick it off. At the first race, we all start from zero, regardless of whether I have number one on the car or 24 or 25 – we all start with the same points tally.
“I think that Michael's wealth of experience and his confidence obviously plays a role in what people think of him. People can say what they want, but when Michael pulls up on the grid he doesn't have to prove a thing to anyone. He has fun doing it and has the confidence to be up the front and not let himself be bullied by anyone. Even when the air is thin, he's one of the few who has the demeanour of a winner.
“The year is very long and it's going to be very tough again. There are too many wild cards, from KERS to the new Pirelli tyres, and how good the Ferrari team could be. I have to improve to make sure I retain number one – but I'm feeling confident.