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Flat Spot On: Could This Be Webber’s Year?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 28 2012

Mark Webber at Monaco. In a groove?

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

MONTE CARLO, Monaco – So now it’s three victories in a row for Red Bull Racing at Monaco and six races with six different winning faces during the current Formula 1 season.

The latest victor is Mark Webber, the former journeyman driver who has found his calling at Red Bull. Might he now be regarded as the equal of Sebastian Vettel, his considerably younger two-time championship-winning teammate?

Monaco, as former driver turned TV commentator Martin Brundle said this weekend, “is about man and machine versus the barriers.” In many respects, it’s the ultimate test in road racing, because qualifying means so much – the pure flying lap – and there’s no room for error in what is a two-hour long race.

No wonder Webber was upbeat in his post-race media conference. “I’m feeling incredible, mate,” he said.

Inheriting the pole due to Michael Schumacher’s grid penalty, Webber out-qualified Vettel for the fifth time in six races. He advanced to second in the championship behind Fernando Alonso after his victory — his second in three years in the principality.

“I think we got the maximum; we absolutely got the maximum out of this weekend,” said Webber. “We were very, very fortunate to get pole. I was very happy with my lap. Then we knew that he race was ours not to lose. It was a very, very special victory for us today. So, more to come hopefully.”

The Aussie’s career has been one of comebacks and his charge through the cozy confines of Monte Carlo symbolized yet another. A year ago, Vettel won here, albeit with some help from a red flag just as his Pirelli tires were about to give up. For his part, Webber was in a funk for the first five months of the 2011 season when he couldn’t come to grips with Pirelli’s tires.

“Yeah, last year was a little bit of a mystery to be honest,” he said. “The gap (to Vettel) sometimes was really, really extreme and it was hard for me to understand why it was like that sometimes. I think there was also a factor of me getting on top of the tyres but it wasn’t all of it. I didn’t feel that I had lost that much form but as the season went on, obviously things got a bit closer and a little bit better.”

Webber’s entire career has been a comeback. The victory by Williams Grand Prix Engineering a fortnight ago in Barcelona was a reminder that it was during Webber’s first season with the storied team that its eight-year losing streak began.

Having bravely started his F1 career at lowly Minardi in 2002 in Melbourne, where he scored a fifth place at his home race in his debut in the world championship, Webber then migrated to Jaguar for two dismal seasons, where he managed four sixth-place finishes with the team that never really got out of the gate. The wrong place, wrong time scenario then continued at Williams.

Webber worked at Williams in 2006 as a teammate to Nico Rosberg, the driver he kept in second place at Monaco on Sunday for the bulk of the 78 laps — except for an interim bid by Vettel for a pit/tire strategy gambit by Red Bull. That strategy was felled by the slug-like Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen, who held up the rest of the mid-fielders and prevented Vettel from gaining the ground he needed before his pit stop.

When Webber first moved into Red Bull in 2007, it was just in time for the arrival of designer extraordinaire Adrian Newey. By the end of 2008, Webber had left teammate David Coulthard in arrears on the all-jaw team. With a new RB5 from Newey on the way, it appeared Webber was on his way until he got hit by a car while bicycling on a highway in Australia during his own charity event in November of 2008, which broke his lower right leg in two places. From the beginning of that downturn in luck, Webber, who could anticipate the potential of Newey’s newest car, said he would be back in the cockpit despite the injury – and was.

Webber scored his first two career wins in 2009 after an arduous rehabilitation program and guess what? His young German teammate won four and finished runner-up in the points and then went on to two straight championships.

Nothing can be taken for granted in an F1 season, particularly this one. The ebb and flow of advantage resembles the coming and going of yachts in the Monaco harbor (some of which more resemble floating discos during the race weekend). Red Bull, for example, was taken to task for the holes in the floor at the back of its car by Ferrari and McLaren in the post-race discussion.

Given that Webber’s rear grip off the corners looked to be the difference in his speed over Rosberg and championship points leader Alonso, it’s unlikely this little “holy grail” will remain in the possession of Red Bull alone by time the teams arrive in Montreal in mid-June. Either the other teams will adopt it or the FIA will remove it from Red Bull’s arsenal.

Given the Year of Equality in F1, perhaps this could be the year Webber — the hard-working, long-suffering lad from Australia – emerges with a world championship at last.

Understandably, Webber is taking nothing for granted. “In Shanghai, Nico was untouchable,” he said. “In Barcelona the Williams was quick. So we need to be scoring all the time and then when days like this come along you just cannot let them go at all. You have to grab them with both hands and feet and hang on to them like hell. That was the plan today. Consistency is nice, but wins are what wins championships – well, DNFs can shag championships as well, but you need to win and then keep consistent.”

On this Sunday, as Webber led a crocodile of five cars through the final stages, dark gray rain clouds gathered on the chalky cliffs above Europe’s most exclusive address, the temperatures dropped, the seas went dull gray and all the front runners except for leader Webber started praying for rain as the drops began to fall.

But Webber took the checkers before a drenching rain arrived, perhaps an omen, maybe a mere benediction.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 28 2012
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