For the first time all season, the defending champion Sebastian Vettel enters a grand prix with sole possession of first place in the championship. And after three consecutive wins from the Red Bull Racing driver, it's easy to conclude that the team has everything figured out. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton said as much this week upon arriving at the Indian Grand Prix, outside New Delhi.
"They did it in 2010, they did it in 2011, and they've done it this year. When they do it next year, it's not going to be a surprise," Hamilton told Autosport, when asked about his rivals' championship form.
"The way the rules are, the cars are just evolving every year," he said. "They've been on the same design of car for the last few years, and it works, so they just stick with it and it gets better and better."
Vettel, who topped the timesheets in Friday's second practice session, also confirmed that the team's recent success can be attributed more to incremental adjustments than a single 'A-ha!' moment.
"This year it was a bit difficult to make big improvements of the car in general," said the two-time champion Thursday. "We have tried many things, and I think other teams have tried too. Then we have gone back, tried it again and went back again."
He added that "for us it is important to focus on ourselves and be able to improve small things, and to hope that the combination of all the parts will make it possible to stay ahead of the others."
Heading into the Indian Grand Prix at Buddh International Circuit, Vettel has the added advantage of having won there in 2011, the circuit's first year on the Formula One calendar.
“I loved the track layout last year, but not just because I won the race," Vettel said recently, calling Buddh one of the most challenging circuits on the calendar. "With an average speed of 146 mph, the course is the second quickest of the year after Monza. There is a lot of elevation change around the lap which adds to the fun, from as much as 8 percent downhill and up to 10 percent uphill."
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso sits second in the championship, and while he's only six points adrift of Vettel, his Ferrari has rarely seemed as fast as the Red Bull Racing RB8. Judging by the team's statements in India, their fortunes are not expected to change there.
“[I]n the last few races, our progress has not matched our expectations and various components which we expected would make our car more competitive did not do so," said Nick Tombazis, Ferrari's chief designer. "As a result, we are lagging behind our competitors. This doesn’t mean we did not move forward on development, but we had been expecting something more.”
Vettel, however, isn't taking anything for granted, and he is expecting competition from all corners, and not just Alonso, who has the proven ability to make any car fast.
"Every racing weekend of this season it is very hard to predict who is the main competitor to beat," said Vettel. "Of course Ferrari have been extremely competitive this year, and also McLaren. McLaren probably did not get the result that they deserved in Korea. These two are the ones that we have to watch out for. Not to forget that Lotus are around as well -- and also Mercedes have sprung some surprises this year."