Webber dives ahead

Mark Webber’s twin poles and victories in Spain and Monaco have turned the World Championship battle on its head, and even if Red Bull continues to provide the Australian and his team-mate Sebastian Vettel with a dominant car, the duel between the two of them should keep us entertained.

Despite scoring two wins last season Webber had slipped into the shadow of Vettel, the man widely regarded as the true heir to Michael Schumacher, and a protégé of Red Bull and its racing guru Helmut Marko. This year also got off to something of a disappointing start. Webber was a lowly eighth after a difficult weekend in Bahrain (below right), had a clumsy tangle with Felipe Massa in Australia, and was again a frustrated eighth in the rain in China.

He had, however, signalled his intent with an opportunistic pole in Malaysia, when he gambled on slick tyres. Webber lost out to Vettel at the start, but still set fastest lap in the dry race – something he also did in Australia.

Nevertheless his charge up the title table with two near-perfect weekends – leaving Vettel trailing in his wake – came as a surprise. Inevitably in an era packed with young superstars, years in mediocre cars have pigeonholed Webber as a solid supporting act, and it’s hard for people to accept that he is the real deal.

Michael Schumacher’s reaction after Webber took pole in Monaco was an example, as he struggled to explain the Aussie’s achievement. It was as if Vettel being so comprehensively beaten just didn’t compute.

“I think Mark got a perfect lap in, and this counts for an extra few tenths,” said the Mercedes driver. “You know Sebastian is usually a sort of a benchmark… Mark is a fantastic driver, and he proved that as well in Barcelona, but it’s one of those moments where everything is in harmony and then you do this sort of extra job. Congratulations to him, because he managed it.”

Webber is clearly at the top of his game now, benefiting from a great relationship with his race engineer Ciaron Pilbeam, the son of legendary designer Mike.

“Mark’s just had the best week of his life,” said team principal Christian Horner in Monaco. “I don’t know what he’s eating for breakfast at the moment, but it’s a combination of confidence and the fact that he’s really in the zone.”

Monaco pushed him to the top of the table, leaving him equal on 78 points with Vettel, but ahead on race wins. With Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and others still close behind, Red Bull cannot afford to slip up, and yet the team will let its two drivers race and take points off each other.

And race they certainly have this year, at least to Turn One. They swapped places at the start in both Malaysia and China, and things got very tight in Spain, where Mark just stayed ahead.

Webber’s current contract runs out at the end of this year, at which point he will be 34. Sources confirm that the plan at the start of the season was for him to retire, leaving the door open for Kimi Räikkönen – should the Finn decide to return from his world rally sabbatical. It was no surprise in Monaco to hear talk of RBR enticing Webber to stay on.

And a final historical twist. Aussies won the World Championship in 1960 and 1980. Will 2010 continue that pattern? Adam Cooper