Thursday, June 16, 2011

Webber battling rivals and critics

Go on, admit it. How many of you were tipping Mark Webber for the 2010 world championship at the start of the year?

Hugely popular, massively likeable, a sports nut who's as happy to shoot the breeze about Didier Drogba, Lance Armstrong or Ricky Ponting as he is to talk about Fernando Alonso, Adrian Newey or Bernie Ecclestone.

But Jenson Button's successor as the next Formula 1 champion? Alonso, Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel maybe, but not the 34-year-old Australian who had only won his first grand prix in 2009.

With three races remaining, however, which driver has led the most laps this season, led the championship for the most races and currently enjoys the biggest points advantage over his four rivals he has had all season?

F1 has learned this year how much this one-time Minardi backmarker has been under-estimated.

Webber himself would never tell you that because it's not his style to blow his own trumpet. Action not words is how he chooses to operate.

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But he's well aware that this could be his one and only chance of emulating fellow countrymen Sir Jack Brabham - his father Alan's motor-racing idol - and Alan Jones in achieving motorsport's highest honour.

And he knows there are plenty of people waiting to see if he really is made of the right stuff to withstand the pressure from the more recognised contenders - his team-mate Vettel, Ferrari's Alonso and McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button - and make it a hat-trick of Australian champions.

To the doubters, the last two races showed that Webber had lost the mid-season momentum that had propelled him so forcefully to the front of the grid.

They believe they detect that the balance of power within Red Bull has shifted significantly towards Vettel.

Singapore and Japan were both labelled as Red Bull-friendly tracks but Vettel came out on top of the in-house battle.

The German out-qualified Webber at both circuits, and then out-scored him in both races.

The nightmare for Webber is that if Vettel beats him into second place here in Korea and again in Brazil, the pair would be tied on points heading into the final event in Abu Dhabi but Vettel would lead the title race for the first time this season because he would have won five races to Webber's four.

And, say the Webber doubters with a note of triumph, remember that Vettel won at Yas Marina last year.

So, they say, it's the dream ticket for Red Bull, then - the team's star young driver will graduate to become F1 champion.

None of this is new to Webber, nor will it cut any ice with him. He needs no reminding of his challenge.

This is a man whose website records his greatest achievement in motorsport so far as "getting into Formula 1 because the odds were stacked against us".

To emphasise the point, he's taken inspiration this week from a book, Don't Die With The Music On.

Written by one of Australia's most successful rugby league coaches, Wayne Bennett, it's all about making the most of your potential.

While preparing back home in Australia last week, he also spent time with two Aussie sporting greats, Ponting and Pat Rafter.

If Webber had heard Michael Schumacher talking about him on Thursday, he would probably have nodded in agreement.

"He has improved massively," said the seven-time champion in a BBC interview.

"Looking at his results, the way he drives and his consistency, I'm very much impressed with him."

"You'd rather be ahead than be behind."

Webber's team-mate at Williams during the 2005 season, Nick Heidfeld, is another who has noticed how his performances have stepped up this year.

The five championship contenders pose in Korea ahead of this weekend's grand prix. Photo: Getty

"He's made a good improvement in his racing because he was already strong in qualifying," said Heidfeld.

"If you look at the guys in the championship, he's done the least amount of mistakes. He seems to cope well with the pressure. He's doing a really good job and I'd still back him (for the title)."

Ah yes, pressure.

The charge that Webber cannot handle it was levelled at him after his ragged performance in Australia, where he ended up crashing into Lewis Hamilton.

His mistake off pole position in the next race in Malaysia to let Vettel through on the inside of the first corner - the move that decided the race in Vettel's favour - was picked on as another example of his fragility when the heat was on.

But Webber will tell you himself that he needed no public dressing down. He knew he'd got things wrong, and his results since then have proved the point.

Apart from that terrifying high-flying accident in Valencia when he misjudged his distance to Heikki Kovalainen - his only retirement this year - he's made none of the errors that have afflicted Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton.

Webber's team boss, Christian Horner, has been quick to reject criticism that Webber's been feeling the pressure of the run-in like Jenson Button did last year.

"You never saw Jenson on the podium in the second half of the season," Horner said.
"Mark, though, has been consistently running at the front. He has the character, like Sebastian, to deal with the situation."

Much might be read into Webber's spin in second practice in Korea. But he explained it calmly as a balance issue on the softer tyre and then proceeded to set the fastest time.

"We're in the hunt, mate," was his succinct summary of his track debut in Korea.

But he appreciates that he must check Vettel's resurgence, and the sooner the better.

"I win the next two races, it's all over. I'm doing my best then hopefully the rest will take care of itself," he said on Thursday, well aware of what his 14-point advantage means.

Vettel has admitted he's felt much more comfortable in the car since new software was installed to enable smoother power delivery through the double diffuser to accelerate out of corners.

It means that Webber has lost the little edge over his team-mate that he'd previously enjoyed when it was more driver-reliant.

Now he has to dig deeper again to repeat the sort of qualifying fliers that earned him pole in Spain, Monaco and Spa, thereby putting pressure on his team-mate to do the chasing and the overtaking which doesn't always seem to come naturally to him.

Red Bull insist both drivers will receive equal backing as they home in on the constructors' championship which they could clinch for the first time this weekend if they take another one-two finish and McLaren fail to score.

As far as the drivers' title goes, Webber will take nothing for granted after so much misfortune in previous years.

Always learning, always improving is another of his mottos.


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