Sebastian Vettel looks set to return to the exhaust set-up he shunned at last weekend's Chinese Grand Prix, as Red bull Racing gears up for what the world champion believes will be a 'crucial' time for their combined title hopes.
After struggling through the first three race weekends of 2012, Vettel currently sits fifth in the drivers' standings, 17 points off leader Lewis Hamilton, while Red Bull - which has seen Mark Webber gain its best results so far this season - is second to McLaren, but already 22 points adrift of the Woking outfit.
The German chose to revert to the first exhaust layout used by RBR in pre-season when the circus arrived in Shanghai last weekend, while Webber preferred to remain with the revised set-up, and it was the Australian who again finished higher, although both drivers appeared more closely matched before Vettel admitted that he may have gone the wrong way after missing the top ten in qualifying and then struggling to fifth place as conditions changed during the Chinese race.
While the team insists that it put the original spec exhaust on Vettel's car to facilitate back-to-back testing in Shanghai, the German has since revealed that, despite initially claiming to prefer the older system, he would bring his car more 'up-to-date' for this weekend's Bahrain round.
"It was a good test in China, as it gave us some good answers and highlighted the weaknesses in the package," the world champion told journalists in the Sakhir paddock, "I wasn't happy with the feeling, the car was pretty nervous - and I think it's been the same for both of us. It's not fair to say I was all over the place and Mark was perfectly happy. We sit there talking about what was going on, [and] both of us weren't happy, especially myself in qualifying, I looked less confident and comfortable than last year. That's one of the main things we need to work on and then we - and I - should be in a better place."
With the Bahrain Grand Prix marking the end of the 'flyaway' opening to the 2012 season, and the return of in-season testing to follow at Mugello before the teams embark on the initial European races, Vettel acknowledges that Red Bull needs to get on top of its inconsistencies as quickly as possible.
"We are quite a bit away [from being competitive], but I believe the potential is there," he admitted, "The car is quick and, once we start putting everything together, we will feel a little more comfortable and will be in a better position in qualifying and the race.
"We'll see where we are this weekend and then I think we know a little bit more. We've got a bit of time after that again, we've got a test in Mugello where we can try different stuff, so I think the next weeks will be crucial for us to determine which way we're going."
Neither Vettel, who won eleven times in 2011, or Webber, who triumphed at the finale in Brazil, has stood on the top step of the podium this season, but Vettel remains hopeful that just a few tweaks of the existing package - rather than a major overhaul - will see them return to winning ways.
"We seem to be more competitive in the race than in qualifying, so it's not as if we need to find the right qualifying set-up and happy days," he noted, "I think we just need to improve the car as a whole and there's more of a weakness in qualifying than in the race. It's not as if we have the best race car and because of our qualifying position we are not able to win.
"I think we are quite a bit away but, as I've said many times, I believe the potential is there - the car is quick and, once we start putting everything together, I think we'll feel a little bit more comfortable and we should be in a much better position in qualifying and