Sebastian Vettel believes ironing out Ferrari’s car performance problems over the next couple of weeks will be essential for it to sustain a Formula 1 world title challenge against Mercedes after three disappointing races so far this year.

The four-time F1 world champion secured his first podium of the season with third place at the Chinese Grand Prix – finishing behind a third consecutive Mercedes 1-2 – leaving him 31 points off Lewis Hamilton in the early points standings.

After struggling for a comfortable and competitive feeling with his Ferrari 2019 F1 car at the start of this season, Vettel feels the turnaround period before the next race in Azerbaijan will be vital to rediscover its ominous pre-season testing pace demonstrated at Circuit de Catalunya.

“I think these couple of weeks and the next weeks will be very important for us to understand where we need to go in the next months,” Vettel said. “Clearly we were not as fast as Mercedes. Bit of a shame we couldn’t get third and fourth but overall I think we optimised.

“There were stages in the race where we were strong, and stages of the race where we were weaker compared to where we wanted to be.

“We have a very strong car, there’s nothing wrong with it but I think we’re not able to yet put it in the window. Especially for myself, here and there. I’m not entirely happy yet compared to where we started off.”

After being hampered by setup problems in both Australia and Bahrain, before finding some breakthroughs in China despite being off the pace of Mercedes, Vettel also accepts the varying circuits characteristics and weather conditions at the opening three rounds have made Ferrari’s task tougher.

But with F1 returning to Europe at the next race Vettel remains hopeful the situation will stabilise to allow Ferrari to “really unlock this car”.

“Obviously the three tracks we’ve been to now are quite different,” he said. “The conditions we had are different – but I think we start to see a sort of pattern and understand what – especially throughout a grand prix distance – understand what we need, what I need, to really unlock this car.”

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