Webber holds key to Red Bull title ambitions
24 April, 2011
Apr.24 (Daniel Chalmers) Mark Webber’s form over the next few races will decide what role he will play in this championship, which could have a significant impact on the shape of the title battle.
If he can start challenging Sebastian Vettel they could have another season long battle as they did last season, and end up taking points off each other again.
On the other hand if the young German can stay ahead and the points gap between them grows, then Webber could sink to just being a strong number two driver.
Which one of these statements turns out to be true is also likely to affect the chances of a McLaren or Ferrari driver lifting the championship trophy.
The Pirelli tyres have made the battle within the McLaren camp closer than it was last year. Over the last two races we have seen the shift of balance change from one side of the garage to the other.
Sepang qualifying and the first half of the race belonged to Hamilton, before Button came on strong in the second half. China followed a similar pattern with the exception that the roles were reversed.
Hamilton is still clearly the quicker of the two drivers, but has to tame his immense natural talent so that he doesn’t trash the tyres.
Which McLaren driver is stronger will probably change from track to track. You would perhaps fancy Button to come out stronger on the higher degradation circuits such as Istanbul and Catalunya, and Lewis to fare better where tyre wear isn’t meant to be such a major issue.
The big danger is the situation we saw in China where the pair were racing each other. As it was Lewis Hamilton pulled off an incredible move on his team mate. However it could so easily have turned out like Red Bull’s driver battle in Istanbul last season. Instead of 37 points, it could have been a big fat zero.
The McLaren drivers taking points off each other is fine if the Red Bull drivers are doing the same thing. However if Webber isn’t taking points off Vettel, meaning the young German is scoring the majority of the team’s points, then the inter-team battle could cost McLaren dearly.
If Fernando Alonso is going to compete for the title this season he is going to have to do it the same way he did last year, which is to come back from a long way behind when Ferrari improves mid-season.
The fact that Vettel and Webber took points off each other allowed Alonso to stay within reach of the title leader, in turn making the title a possibility when he hit form. Staying in touch followed by fighting back will be much more difficult if Sebastian is the clear number one and scoring consistently.
Of course the key question is can Webber start putting a spanner in the works by challenging Vettel for the title?
Most will say that he doesn’t have a chance. There is no doubt that it is harder this year as the 2010 champion looks to have gained two or three tenths following his title triumph. However Webber is a very determined, gritty and experienced driver. Only a fool would rule him out after just three races out of 19.
Webber has been hit by a number of problems so far this season, which has prevented us from seeing how close he really is to the current world champion.
However his performances in Malaysia and China were right up there with his best drives. In Sepang he came back to fourth after dropping down to 10th at the start and having no KERS.
A strategy error in qualifying left him 18th on the grid in China. Nevertheless he stormed through the field, and was at times more than two seconds faster than anybody. He finished just a few seconds shy of pole sitter Vettel, and stood on the podium.
It’s clear from those two great comeback drives that Webber still very much has the pace and ability. He was also in contention for pole position in Sepang. Yes, Webber wasn’t on it in Melbourne but he never has enjoyed a great result at his home race.
It’s also very feasible that the drive in Shanghai will have given Webber a huge morale boast, which he will carry over into the next few races. We have seen him pull a rabbit out of the hat many times in the face of adversity.
Despite a rocky first three races this has actually been Mark’s best ever start to a F1 season. The Aussie has never really been a fast starter when it comes to the championship. In the first three races of 2010 he scored just 24 points. After the first three races of the new campaign he is on 37 points.
For the last couple of years it’s been the European leg of the season, when he has really come on strongly. All four of Webber’s race victories last season came during the European section of the season.
Let’s not forget that under the current points system the whole situation can change very quickly. After the first set of flyaways in 2010 he was 32 points adrift of the championship leader (he is 31 behind at the moment). Just a couple of races later he was the leader following a couple of race victories.
The next three races are likely to establish whether Webber can challenge Vettel for the title resulting in another inter-team battle.
Turkey, Spain, and Monaco are all races where Webber was very strong last year. In Turkey Webber got pole position, and was leading the race until the infamous Red Bull collision. Webber dominated both the Spain and Monaco GP weekends reaching a very high level of performance.
If Webber is comfortably behind Vettel in those races then chances are he isn’t going to be a title contender in 2011. However if he can replicate his form from last year on these tracks then it will be game on again.
Red Bull’s opposition will be hoping for a repeat of the intense inter-team rivalry from 2010. We saw how the team struggled to handle the rivalry between the two drivers.
What makes it much more difficult is that Vettel is the marketing focus in the team, and he was part of the Red Bull young driver’s programme.
If it wasn’t for Ferrari’s critical tactical error in Abu Dhabi this rivalry would have cost Red Bull the driver’s title. The rivalry cost the team and each driver individually a bucket load of points.
If Vettel turns into the clear number one within the team then that is going to make life very difficult for McLaren and Ferrari.
It would be very different from the situation at Ferrari last year. Although Alonso had number one status in the team he was lacking help from Felipe Massa. The Brazilian never got himself into the position where he could take points of Fernando’s title rivals.
Webber is a strong enough driver, that he would be able to take points off the McLaren and Ferrari drivers, which would help Sebastian significantly in his title quest.
In conclusion Vettel will significantly help his title chances, by making sure he doesn’t let Webber into the title fight, on what are strong tracks for the Aussie coming up over the next couple of months.
You sense that Red Bull will also be much happier if their two drivers aren’t locked in a tight championship. It would make retaining their titles so much easier, and they wouldn’t have to play one of their weakest cards.
They may have to though, as the gritty Aussie should never be ruled out.