REGGIO EMILIA, Italy — Sebastian Vettel is no longer the main man at Ferrari but the German, a four-times world champion, does not accept that his stock has waned.
Beaten on points, wins, poles and podiums last year by his 22-year-old Monegasque teammate Charles Leclerc, Vettel will starts the new season in Australia next month with the pairing on equal terms.
He sounded riled at the launch of the Italian team's new car in Reggio Emilia on Tuesday night when it was put to him by Reuters that he had lost ground while Leclerc had gained stature.
"I don't see it that way," he said.
"I think we were up and up last year, it's not like I had a different car. We both have the same car, and the same chance to race well. I never doubted that last year, I don't think Charles did," added the 32-year-old.
"I disagree with you. I don't see it that way, down and up. It doesn't change anything. We were on equal terms all throughout last year. We are this year as well."
The difference is that last year team principal Mattia Binotto made clear at pre-season testing that Vettel, as the team's experienced driver, would be favored as the main championship contender.
That is no longer the case, with Binotto stating that they would start on equal terms from the opening race in Melbourne.
"We said (last year) that Seb would have been first driver and Charles second. I think after a year, and that both have proved they can both fight for the best result, they will be on the same level," he said on Tuesday.
Leclerc has a new contract that ties him to Ferrari until the end of 2024, and is the face of the future, whereas Vettel is out of contract at the end of the year.
Media speculation continues to suggest Ferrari are interested in Mercedes' six-times world champion Lewis Hamilton as a possible replacement.
Even if Ferrari says Vettel remains their number one choice to partner Leclerc in 2021, with a strong logic to continuity in the light of the coming rules revolution, he cannot afford another year like 2019.
The German made some glaring mistakes and appeared ill at ease in the car and with its handling.
He denied on Tuesday, however, that he felt more stress going into the new campaign — or that Ferrari's apparent vote of confidence had eased matters.
"At some point you have to sort out what's going on in the future, but I think we will have enough time to do so. So I'm not taking any extra stress or pressure," he said.
"I feel good, confident. Last year has been good for me in the sense of learning a lot of things and understanding things. Certainly there are things I can do better and I'm sure that I will do better this year.
"I'm not stressed, but certainly ambitious to prove it to myself."