|It feels like 2010 all over again. Mark Webber has won the Monaco and British GPs, and is right in the thick of the championship hunt. Except that, in many ways, this season is not like two years ago at all. And, at the risk of putting the Murray Walker on the racer from Queanbeyan, and ensuring that he gets caught up in a first corner collision at Hockenheim, here are some reasons why this season may be turning out to be Webber's best chance at the title yet.
Bear in mind that in 2010 Silverstone was round 10 of 19, whereas this year it's round 9 of 20, so the comparison is not directly accurate. But in 2010, on qualifying head-to-head Webber and Sebastian Vettel were 5-5 after Britain; this year it's 5-4 in Webber's favour. However, in 2010 Vettel had lost this chance at pole in Turkey due to mechanical issues, and the times that Webber had out-qualified him, one felt as though Mark had had to deliver an other-worldly effort to beat his team-mate by the skin of his teeth.
It always seemed as though Vettel was the faster man, and so it ultimately proved. After Monza, when they were still level at 7-7, Vettel kicked away in the last five races to end up 12-7 in front. Webber simply could not keep up the raw pace. This year, when Mark has out-qualified Seb he has done so authoritatively. He's the one who suffered the bad luck in qualifying at Barcelona and Valencia. Vettel has gone so far as to sit out Q3 twice. In other words, Sebastian simply does not appear to enjoy a clear edge on speed.
In 2010, by Silverstone Webber was also ahead of his team-mate on points, but Vettel had not been able maximise his potential. Unreliability had cost him wins in Bahrain and Australia, and lost him further points in Barcelona. His own rashness had accounted for him in Turkey and Britain. That is, he had the edge on race pace as well. This year, he has had his alternator failure in Valencia and the collision with Narain Karthikeyan in Malaysia, but on the whole Vettel's racing has been, in my view, as good as ever.
That is, arguably Webber is genuinely matching and beating Vettel on points this year whereas in 2010 he was capitalising on Vettel's misfortune and mistakes. And that is a function of Mark's consistency this season. In truth, Webber's 2010 results were too up-and-down, full of very high highs but very low lows. In the opening four flyaways he had a 2nd, two 8ths and a 9th, and there was also his frightening Valencia shunt. This year he took four 4ths in the flyaways, and his only poor result has been 11th in Barcelona.
In a topsy-turvy year such as this, such consistency is what a championship challenge is made of. It also helps that Mark appears to be gelling much better with this year's technical package. Unlike last season, he is not demonstrably wearing out the Pirellis faster than Sebastian. He seems to have as good a handle on how to get the best out of them as anyone else. It puts him in a very strong position if indeed the Red Bull is becoming the fastest car in the field.
|In addition, in the second half of 2010 and throughout the whole of 2011, Webber was hobbled by not being able to master the technique required to extract the most out of the blown diffuser. Vettel, on the other hand, can't seem to find an edge without it, and Webber is back on a level playing field. We all know James Hunt's infamous retort to Rene Arnoux's claim that he couldn't adjust his style between turbo and non-turbo cars, but there is no doubt in my mind that it is a factor this season.
The ambience within Red Bull can also only be better this year than it was two years ago. There has been nothing like the eruptions of Istanbul or Silverstone. Golden boy Vettel has his championship - two of them, indeed - and whilst he is undoubtedly still very hungry, he is more likely to be magnanimous in defeat, especially in a year such as this one when it's easier to blame the lottery effect for not winning. Internally, Mark may well have better moral support for a title tilt than he did in 2010.
Finally, going back through the history of Formula 1, not many other drivers who are not perceived as being amongst the leading drivers of their era have had a real shot at championship victory and just fallen short. There was Tony Brooks in 1959, Clay Regazzoni in 1974, John Watson in 1982, Michele Alboreto in 1985, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Eddie Irvine in 1999, and Felipe Massa in 2008. None of them ever got to have a second chance.
It is a rare thing that Webber looks like he could mount a second genuine campaign, when there are six other World Champions in the field. Whilst that in itself is a sign of his mental strength, in my view it must give him something of an advantage. He has the confidence of knowing he can take it to the wire. Having already once tasted the pain of gut-wrenching defeat, on one hand he will be keen to avoid it, but on the other hand he also has the psychological freedom of not having to fear what it feels like.
Of course, this season has not even reached the halfway mark yet. All of this could come to naught. Vettel may yet gap him after all. McLaren could surge back. And the interloper amongst the Red Bull drivers is the same man as in 2010 - Fernando Alonso. The same Alonso who was increasingly imperious as 2010 wore on and who is in even better form this year, in an ever-improving Ferrari. But Webber's fans ought to take heart. On paper, I dare say that Mark's in better shape than he was two years ago.
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