SHANGHAI (AP) — Given how he finished last season, Sebastian Vettel's start to the 2014 F1 campaign has been humbling, to say the least.
Last year, the German reeled off nine straight victories, matching the record set by Alberto Ascari in 1952 and '53, to capture his fourth consecutive world championship with ease.
The switch to six-cylinder turbo engines and the introduction of new fuel-saving regulations in the offseason, however, have brought a sudden halt to Vettel's stunning dominance of the sport. In the first three races of this season, he's managed a single podium finish — third place in Malaysia.
He's also been relegated to second-best driver on his own team at times, finishing behind Red Bull debutante Daniel Ricciardo three times in four qualifying races, including Saturday's session at the Chinese Grand Prix, in which the Australian was second and the German third.
His recent struggles have perhaps been so surprising that Vettel was asked how it felt to be back in the post-race news conference in Shanghai, reserved for the top three finishers in qualifying.
"I missed probably one race, so it's not a disaster," he said.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, a two-time winner this season and the pole-sitter for Sunday's race, jokingly came to his rival's defense: "He's been in quite a few times over the years, so..."