SHANGHAI -- Although it is too early to rule any of the top drivers in or out of the title fight this year, the pressure is already growing on Sebastian Vettel.
The last time he missed the podium at the opening two races of the season was in 2010 and, with what appears to be the fastest car on the grid at his disposal, it is important that he secure a top-three finish this weekend.
He has been off the pace at both races this year, and in Bahrain he was comprehensively outperformed by teammate Charles Leclerc. A day of testing on the Wednesday after the Bahrain Grand Prix helped him get his head around the problems he has faced in the cockpit of his Ferrari this year, and he is hopeful those lessons will help provide some of the answers he needs this weekend in China.
"On that side, I think the test was very helpful and useful to get some laps in the car," he said on Thursday. "So, I think we learned some things about the car behaviour that maybe we didn't or couldn't in Barcelona [testing] because we were looking at other things and to be fair the behaviour in Barcelona was very strong. So, I think hopefully I have a better feeling in the car this weekend."
Fundamentally, Vettel lacked confidence in the car in Bahrain. The latest generation of Pirelli tyres have a narrower operating window than before, and Vettel couldn't find the sweet spot he was looking for. He was outqualified by Leclerc over a single lap and, despite taking the lead at the start, quickly lost the lead to his teammate on lap six before a spin while fighting Lewis Hamilton for second position left him fifth at the finish.
"In Bahrain I was still not very happy," he added. "I think Australia was a one-off, and the track is also a one-off track so you can't really compare. But I think Bahrain was already a lot better. But as I said, the test after Bahrain gave me and gave us the chance to try some things and I think with those findings we come here now and see where they take us."
But why weren't the issues affecting his new teammate? If the Ferrari has some inherent vices, surely they are likely to trouble the new boy in just his second race for the team rather than the old hand in his fifth season with the team. The difference appears to have its roots in two very different driving styles.
"I think overall in Bahrain, he had some balance issues and I was a lot more happy with the balance," Leclerc said. "I don't know, but I believe it comes more from a confidence point of view. I was more confident with the balance I had in Bahrain than he was.
"I think Seb and I, from Barcelona, we have two very different driving styles. We require some changes on the car and a slightly different balance. I won't go into too much detail on this, but we don't require exactly the same car."
Vettel's driving style has always been dependent on a planted rear end. It was clear from the outside that the rear of the Ferrari was fairly active in Bahrain and it seems Leclerc was able to live with that in a way Vettel simply could not. But Vettel insists the car will come to him as he develops a better understanding of what it can do, and played down suggestions that he would have to adapt his style to the car.
"You always try to learn," he said. "I have been to Bahrain many times, so I think I know my way around. I have won many times there as well, so I don't think there is something fundamental to be learned or understood. Nevertheless, every year the challenges are different, and I think we had a little extra time to understand the car a little bit more to work and play with the setup.
"So I think that proved very useful, at least that's the feeling we have now, so let's see how it turns out overall. I think the normal approach is not changing the way you drive or fundamental things overnight. I don't think there is a reason for that."
After the Bahrain Grand Prix, there were also suggestions that Leclerc is gaining the upper hand behind the scenes at Ferrari. The team made clear at the launch of its car in February that Vettel, as the more experienced driver, would be the No.1 in 50/50 situations, but Leclerc's performance in Bahrain has cast doubt over that logic.
And the fact Leclerc overtook Vettel just a few corners after receiving a radio message to remain behind his teammate on lap six in Bahrain has led to questions over whether Ferrari can really maintain a hierarchy between its drivers.
"It was quite clear that he was quite a lot faster at that point," Vettel said. "I could have passed him back on the next straight, but the way I judged it at that point I was going to lose more time and he was going to lose more time, so the race was very long from that point onwards.
"Some things didn't go exactly my way on that Sunday, so at that point it wasn't part of destroying or trying to hold Charles' Sunday back."
As for the mounting pressure on Vettel's shoulders, he threw a word of caution to those criticising from the outside.
"You never know what is going on with people in their teams unless you are racing within the same team, and then you know a bit more. Sometimes things might not go your way, but if you don't understand exactly, you don't know and I think it is very difficult to say too much about certain things. But I also know and understand that people's judgment don't go further than a week, forwards or backwards, so it [the criticism] is a part of life."