Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Webber form puts Vettel under pressure

Red Bull have never had it so good in Formula 1. They are leading both the drivers' and the constructors' championships for the first time.

Certainly Mark Webber, the championship leader, has never enjoyed such success in motorsport's pinnacle category.

And if you've read my colleague Andrew Benson's blog this week, you'll appreciate the reasons why the 33-year-old is in the form of his F1 life, winning from pole in both Spain and Monaco, two markedly different circuits with hugely contrasting demands.

But the manner of those victories - particularly in Monaco, where Webber never looked like being threatened by his pursuers - has set plenty of curious minds racing about the most recent performances of his Red Bull team-mate, Sebastian Vettel.

In their 18 months together at the team, Vettel had never previously suffered consecutive defeats at the hands of the experienced Australian.

On the two occasions last season when the 22-year-old German found himself dominated by his team-mate, he immediately struck back at the next event, either outqualifying him or winning the race, or in the case of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, doing both.

abvettel595.jpgRed Bull's Sebastian Vettel takes a break in practice for the Turkish GP. Photograph: Reuters

Over the first six races of 2010, Webber has performed better in qualifying against his team-mate than the whole of last year, when he was quicker on Saturdays just twice.

None of this is to call into question Vettel's sublime talent.

How could you after his lightning start to the season, which would have earned him the outright championship lead by some margin if only he had been blessed by better reliability in the first two races in Bahrain and Australia?

Publicly, team officials express delight at the championship standings and the see-saw battle between their drivers.

Privately, however, they readily admit that this is the first major test of character for their young charger, tipped by F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, no less, to succeed Jenson Button as world champion.

As one source put it: "It's going to be interesting to see how Seb responds. It's an important weekend for him."

Another just said simply: "It's going to be lively between our two drivers!"

In other words, is Webber merely enjoying a purple patch or has he made a significant leap in performance which will provide a sustained challenge to Vettel's aura of youthful impregnability?

Coming off second best to Webber in Spain was palatable because of the brake problem which almost wrecked the younger man's race completely.

Bringing the car to the finish so coolly when the team advised him to stop demonstrated impressive expertise.

But eyebrows were definitely raised when he found himself struggling to keep clear of Robert Kubica's Renault in Monaco while the other Red Bull was able to disappear into the distance at will, despite the intervention of the safety car no less than four times.

Vettel was not the only team member who could not believe he was suddenly 0.4secs slower than his team-mate where previously the gap had been hundredths of a second, usually in his favour.

Vettel claimed the RB6 had felt wrong all weekend, and a subsequent investigation found a crack on the monocoque and other assorted damage.

He has a different chassis this weekend - racily named "Randy Mandy" - yet in practice, albeit never a definitive guide to potential, he was again behind Webber - this time by 0.212secs.

Interestingly, I'm told that Webber's chassis has also suffered damage but there have been no calls from his side of the garage for a replacement. And why would there be when he's turned in such command performances?

As ever, it's a matter of confidence. Currently, Webber probably feels he could win on the moon.

Vettel, though, may feel the need to try a previous testing chassis as a personal vote of confidence that he is just the same, that it is the machinery that has not been up to scratch.

If he strikes gold in Turkey this weekend, that switch may prove crucial to his season, and his title ambitions.

If, however, Webber beats him again, making it three wins in a row, despite the chassis change, how much damage will that inflict on Vettel's mindset?

Remember, he is in good company over chassis issues.

Michael Schumacher has reverted to a previous Mercedes chassis after he believed he was losing crucial time with a damaged car in China. He was rewarded with a season's best showing at Barcelona first time out.

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There's another striking similarity with Vettel's F1 inspiration which might also offer another insight into Webber's improved form.

Both drivers have told a German colleague of mine that they lack grip, and by extension confidence, with the tyres, particularly at the front. Webber, meanwhile, has found the 2010 Red Bull far more to his liking, able to turn in to corners with maximum attack and traction.

It means that the in-house rivalry at Red Bull has become far more intense than many of us bargained for at the start of the season. And that can only make for a more exciting, more watchable championship shoot-out.

Rightly or wrongly, Vettel has been perceived as the unofficial number one driver at Red Bull: ruthless and clinical, belying the choirboy looks, where Webber is matey and approachable but, some believe, lacking a champion's killer instinct.

Very much a prot�g� of Helmut Marko who oversees Red Bull young drivers, Vettel has appeared to have the ability and the results to go with the team owner Dietrich Mateschitz's backing.

His strong finish as runner-up in the 2009 championship served to confirm the view that he would be the team's leading contender in 2010.

But just as Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg have confounded pre-season predictions that they would be forced to play second fiddle to their respective team-mates, Lewis Hamilton and Schumacher, so Webber looks to have found another gear to take the fight more closely to his team-mate.

Nobody is tougher on his own performances than Vettel himself. His self-analytical approach is recognised by the team as one of his great strengths.

The new points system means any one of the top eight could leave Istanbul Park on Sunday as championship leader.

And after throwing away his pole position advantage here last year, and losing out so comprehensively over the last two races, few on the grid have more reason to get it right than Sebastian Vettel.


Georges Grignard Bobby Grim Romain Grosjean Olivier Grouillard Brian Gubby Andre Guelfi Miguel Ángel Guerra

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