Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pressure mounts on Webber most of all

Mark Webber, typically, cut to the chase when weighing up what could be the weekend of his life with a colleague.

"It's simple, mate," he said. "Put it on pole, then disappear!"

As long as Fernando Alonso, the championship leader, finishes third or worse behind the Australian in Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it would be that simple.

Webber would be champion, with no need for a last-lap shuffle from team-mate Sebastian Vettel, and Red Bull would have completed a deserved double entirely in keeping with chief technical officer Adrian Newey's magnificent RB6 design.

But little in this switchback season has been straightforward - particularly at Red Bull, where Vettel could have wrapped up the title some races ago had he had greater reliability.

Instead, he and his older team-mate find themselves chasing Alonso who, remember, was 47 points off the lead following the British Grand Prix in July.

"All the pressure is on Red Bull this weekend," according to one team manager with recent championship success. "And the biggest load is on Webber.

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"He's not a young driver and you don't get many chances like this. Vettel will have many more days to challenge for the title. The team clearly back him."

"As for Fernando, he's been there already - twice."

Webber's outburst about his team's lack of driver equality before the last race in Brazil was interpreted by many as evidence that he's feeling the heat.

And those same observers viewed his quiet, reserved performance here in front of the world's media alongside his three rivals as another display of nerves.

Contrast his demeanour with Vettel's front row smiles, they were saying last night.

Consider Alonso's matter-of-fact handling of any barbed team orders related probing and Hamilton's back row cheeriness: "The guys in front of me have everything to lose, so for me I'm going to be flat out as always."

Hamilton's role could be a significant curve-ball if he can repeat his pole-winning lap of last year. But let's stay with Webber for the moment.

A one-time Jaguar official who worked with the Australian at the team and still works within Formula 1 gave me an interesting slant on his comments in Brazil.

"Mark seems to need to rev himself up, needs to feel he's got to fight something," my source said.

"He's a strong character and a good driver but for some reason he doesn't always show it unless he's gets himself wound up."

Red Bull's Mark Webber

Will Webber keep his nerve in Abu Dhabi? Photo: Getty Images

His race-winning performance at Silverstone was a case in point. Vettel got the only new, surviving front wing off Webber's car before qualifying.

The Aussie got the hump. But he also got the victory - fast and furious to the end.
That was in the middle of his purple patch which continued until the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of August, when he was second to Hamilton.

Webber has not been on pole since then, and has not won a race since Hungary, the grand prix before Spa. He has been out-qualified by his team-mate at the last five events.

He lost valuable points by crashing in Korea, where he also lost the lead in the championship - which he had held for the longest period of anyone this season - to the driver he rates the strongest on the grid, Alonso.

So it is easy to see why so many in the F1 paddock believe Webber faces the greatest challenge of all the contenders this weekend to fulfil an ambition that's been losing momentum at the wrong time.

Essentially, it's now or never.

Even Webber admitted on Thursday that age is against him to enjoy more opportunities like this.

Indeed, one leading driver manager even suggested to me that, whatever happened this weekend, Webber's position at Red Bull was untenable.

"If he's champion, he should get out at the top. If he doesn't win the title, then why would he want to be in a team where he feels his team-mate is being treated differently?" he said.

By contrast, the Alonso Fan Club nodded sagely at the Spaniard's cool fatalism yesterday.

"I will not have anything to be disappointed about in 2010," Alonso said.

"This first year of the relationship we are fighting for the world championship in the last race against two Red Bulls who are dominating by far in terms of speed so overall I don't think it matters on Sunday."

Um, really?

Make no mistake, Alonso and Ferrari will be going all out to win the title on Sunday, however much they make out it would be an unexpected bonus.

But this chance has been as much to do with Red Bull's fallibility as Ferrari's remarkable recovery from a desperate mid-season slump which was threatening to turn the screw on team principal Stefano Domenicali.

If anybody can drive to a title-winning script on Sunday to join a select club including previous three time winners like Ayrton Senna, Niki Lauda and Sir Jackie Stewart, it is Alonso.

He is the man in front, with the experience of his 2005 and 2006 triumphs, seemingly able to work out the points as effortlessly as the strategy.

Above all, he knows that his rivals all have to beat him on the track to have a chance of the 2010 championship, whereas he could do the job even if he failed to finish through a mistake or a breakdown.

Vettel, who must have nightmares about that engine failure when leading in Korea, has appeared like a man who will be driving more in hope than expectation of coming first or second to have any chance of becoming F1's youngest champion.

The prospect of waving through Webber has not fazed him because both of them know their first priority is getting ahead, and staying ahead of Alonso before any switch comes into the equation.

And that is where Lewis Hamilton fits in.

He accepts that he is clearly the outsider of the four contenders; 24 points off the lead, he's all but written off his chances

But if the McLaren performs like last year - extra straight-line speed from the F-duct instead of last year's Kers power boost - on Abu Dhabi's two big straights, the 2008 champion could be the joker in the championship pack.

Hamilton gave a hint of what might be in the offing with his pace in second practice, especially in the final sector where he was supreme.

Another McLaren pole position backed up by race reliability, and those carefully prepared championship permutations at Red Bull and Ferrari will be crucial props in a juggling act which could keep us guessing until the final lap of the final race of this momentous season.


Toranosuke Takagi Noritake Takahara Kunimitsu Takahashi Patrick Tambay Luigi Taramazzo Gabriele Tarquini Piero Taruffi

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