“This season is definitely the toughest that my team and I have been through so far,” Sebastian Vettel told Al Jazeera candidly, as he ponders over his current standing in the Formula One drivers championship.

Vettel lies fourth, 127 points off leader Lewis Hamilton going into the weekend’s Russian Grand Prix.

Twelve months ago, having won five races in a row, he left Japan needing a mere top-five finish in his next race to clinch the title. Such was his dominance in 2013 that the second half of the season was reduced to an extended victory parade for Red Bull.

Vettel's performance 
  2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Wins 5 11 5 13 0
Podiums 10 17 10 16 3
Pole positions 10 15 6 9 0
Leading laps 382 739 368 684 1
Points 256 392 281 397 124

This spell of dominance has been matched only by a handful of other drivers in the annals of F1 folklore.

Now, he invariably finds himself far off the pace and the points, an ignominious fall from grace for a driver who became used to dictated proceedings in such imperious fashion for the past four years.

Mercedes' rise

So how have things gone so wrong?

“I think we expected different things,” admitted Vettel.

“But if you have a look around, you can see only one true and close competitor: Mercedes. Even if we had a perfect car right now, it’d still be very difficult to overtake them. Over the winter, they simply worked harder and put together a package that’s superior to everyone else.

“I’m not saying we didn’t work, but we definitely didn’t work as effectively they did in the off-season.

“But Red Bull have a lot of potential and can only get better. The progress won't happen overnight because of the rules and regulations. It will only happen over the winter. But the hunger to win is still there.”

New challenges

However, if and when the revival comes, Vettel will not be part of it. He announced his decision to switch teams ahead of the 2015 season. It’s no secret that the four-time champion has long coveted an opportunity to race with Ferrari, describing the idea of winning the title with their car as a ‘beautiful experience.’

One can’t help but wonder if his decision was helped along by the pressure inflicted by new teammate, the brash 25-year old Daniel Ricciardo.

The Australian has outperformed Vettel time and time again in 2014, his three wins highlighting Vettel’s struggles inside a drastically altered car. But the reigning champion insists statistics don’t tell the full story.

“He’s made my life difficult this year but I expected that.

“It’s always difficult to judge from the outside. I really believe I could have won a race by now with a little bit of luck. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t even start on the grid.

F1 is a fast-paced sport and big business. People tend to overlook how hard we had to work for our victories.

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull driver

“In some races, I had severe technical problems. In others, my preparation was hindered by problems in practice. And I admit I’ve made mistakes but the most important thing is that you learn from these and gain experience.”

Media pressure

Vettel has less time for the often voracious German media who have grown impatient with his struggles in 2014.

“Have you forgotten how to drive?” the tabloid Bild recently taunted. Vettel’s reply barely masked his disdain.

“I can accept criticism as long as it’s constructive and this isn’t always the case which is a shame. It just shows how quickly people can forget. F1 is a fast-paced sport and big business. People tend to overlook how hard we had to work for our victories.

“It was an amazing four years but you can’t be at the top indefinitely. It’s normal that you will have a bit of a lull.” 

It’s the relentless introspection which has seen Vettel become such a master of his art but it also hints at a certain vulnerability, a streak rarely seen in the driver whose technical brilliance made him almost untouchable for so long.

Belief is fuelled by success and an encouraging drive in Singapore last month saw him clinch second place for the first time in 2014, suggesting things are starting to click into gear.

It’s too late for 2014 but Vettel firmly believes the testing times of the past six months will only make him stronger for next season.

“Hopefully at the end of the year I can look myself in the mirror and say that I’m a better driver than I was before. And then I will attack again in 2015. My hunger for victory has not been sapped.”