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Ricciardo's form improving as Vettel struggles

Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia laughs in tyne pit during the second free practice at the Monaco racetrack, in Monaco, Thursday, May 22, 2013. The Monaco Formula One Grand Prix will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

MONACO (AP) -- As Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel struggles to get into gear, Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo's is gliding through the curves.

Ricciardo is in fifth place overall, six points behind fourth-place Vettel, and secured his first career podium two weeks ago when he finished third at the Spanish Grand Prix.

The Australian driver has beaten Vettel in qualifying in three of the five races, and has twice featured on the front row -- qualifying second in Australia and in China.

Vettel was so dominant last year, winning the last nine races and 13 overall, that it seemed highly improbable Ricciardo would challenge him in his first season since moving from Toro Rosso.

"Some people didn't expect this from me, but I knew deep down that I could do well," Ricciardo said at the Monaco GP on Friday. "If I am able to push a four-time world champion then I know that I am doing something right."

Rule changes to engine size and lowered fuel loads have blighted Red Bull, which is unable to generate the same speed, and is lagging way behind Mercedes, as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg run away with the championship.

"Seb had a car at the end of last year he was very comfortable with, so it might have taken him a little by surprise to have a more complex car this year," Ricciardo said. "Maybe I have adapted to the new conditions a bit quicker."

Vettel had a frosty relationship with former teammate Mark Webber, who retired after last year's championship. Although there are no signs of tension between him and Ricciardo, it appears Vettel's team role has somewhat lessened this season.

"Particularly in preseason, Seb was doing a lot of the talking within the team and a lot of the feedback, because he knew everyone and they trusted him," Ricciardo said. "But now that I have some results and I've got to know the team a lot better, they are now leaning on both of us for feedback."

Ricciardo would be ahead of Vettel had he not been disqualified in front of his home fans at the season-opening Australian GP, where he was stripped of his second-place finish, and the 18 points that go with it, for breaching F1's new rules on fuel usage.

"It did so much for my confidence seeing all those people cheering and shouting my name," Ricciardo said. "It actually made me even hungrier with how it went because it got taken away from me."

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