Mark Webber is a driver whose name has not featured as often as it should in this column. But that’s likely to change as his victory in the British Grand Prix underlined his credentials as a genuine championship contender in 2012.
Webber bounces back
Webber has bounced back after being soundly beaten by team mate Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull last year. He didn’t get a look-in for victory all year long until the final race, when a gearbox problem for Vettel handed Webber his sole win of the season. By that point Vettel had already amassed 11 wins of his own, as well as a record-breaking 15 pole positions to Webber’s three.
Few might have expected Webber to bounce back from a defeat of this magnitude. And so even when scored his first win of 2012, at Monaco, it was still possible to dismiss this as a one-off. Monaco is usually a question of whichever driver starts from pole position keeping his rivals behind, which is exactly what Webber achieved. And pole position had come his way partly thanks to Michael Schumacher’s penalty.
But his Silverstone win underlined he is back at the peak of his powers this year. He was perhaps unfortunate not to start from pole position, losing out to Fernando Alonso by less than five-hundredths of a second after a late rain shower spoiled his final lap.
On race day, however, he kept the Ferrari within range all the way. In the final phase of the race Alonso began to struggle with his tyres – as has happened in the last three consecutive races – and Webber was well-placed to launch an attack. The result is Webber now lies second in the drivers’ championship, 13 points adrift of Alonso. That’s not much of a gap with more than half of the season left to run and 275 points still up for grabs.
As things stand Webber has 116 points to Vettel’s 100, but his odds on winning the title are shorter at 5.0 versus 3.0.
The car’s the key
What’s behind Webber’s turnaround this season? Asked about it before the race, team principal Christian Horner talked about the hard work and training Webber had put in over the winter. This is no doubt part of the explanation but it’s doubtful that any of the super-fit athletes that pilot today’s F1 cars are gaining a major advantage over their rivals on sheer fitness alone.
Instead we should perhaps look to one of the most significant changes to the cars over the winter: the increased restrictions on exhaust-blown diffusers.
It was Red Bull who led the way in the introduction of this technology late in 2010. At the time, Webber and Vettel were both in contention for the title. But after the EBD upgrade the pendulum swung decisively in Vettel’s favour in the final six races – a trend that continued into 2011.
Either Vettel’s driving style exploited the EBD very well, or Webber did not adapt ideally to the set-up, or a combination of both. But the reduction in the effectiveness of EBDs under the new rules appears to have restored the balance of power at Red Bull to what we saw in mid-2010.
The pair are neck-and-neck so far this season, each finishing in front of the other four times. Vettel was running in front of Webber before retiring in Valencia, but Webber has a slight edge in qualifying, 5-4 up on his team mate.
Webber’s resurgence will present his team with problems as opportunities. In 2010 the pair fell out at Silverstone after an upgraded part was moved from Webber’s car to Vettel’s. In Turkey the pair collided while running first and second.
But Horner is clearly satisfied with his line-up. Yesterday the team confirmed Webber will remain with them for at least another year in 2013. By then, the number one sticker may have transferred from one of Red Bull’s cars to the other.