Webber stays, says Horner

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Red Bull’s announcement that Mark Webber will stay on for another season in 2012 was another question answered in what is going to be a very quiet Formula 1 driver market.

In 2010 Webber re-signed shortly after winning the Spanish and Monaco GPs and emerging as a serious title contender. Given that he was having a much tougher season in 2011, it might not have been a surprise if he had announced his retirement — or if Red Bull had simply said that it was not re-signing him.

However, team boss Christian Homer insists that negotiations were very straightforward.

“We agreed last year that we would wait until the latter part of the summer before sitting down and talking about the following season,” Homer told Motor Sport. “And that’s exactly what we did. It was important for Mark to know that he had fire in his belly still, to get up in the morning and put in what you have to put in to compete at this level. That was clear from him, and there was a desire from the team for him to remain a part of it. At the end of the day the conversation about 2012 was a very brief one.

“Mark is 35 years of age, so ultimately at some point there will be an end to his career. Who knows whether that’s at the end of next year or the year after? That depends on him, his competitiveness and his desire.” Nevertheless many in the paddock believe that Red Bull’s decision to fast-track Daniel Ricciardo into HRT at Silverstone was the first step in preparing him for an RBR seat as early as 2012, should the team’s plans move in that direction. However, Horner denies that there was a chance that the younger Aussie would be promoted so soon.

“We will continue to develop young drivers, and Daniel and Jean-Eric Vergne are obviously two of those promising youngsters. There’s no master plan. We’ve given them an opportunity and it’s down to them to make the most of it.”

Although some interesting seats remain open — the situation at Lotus Renault GP is unclear, given the uncertainty about Robert Kubica’s fitness — the focus has now moved to the end of next season, when several big teams will potentially have vacancies.

We are in a fascinating period, because Fernando Alonso and Vettel are both confirmed at their teams for many years into the future. Clearly there are limitations on who might be suitable partners when seats potentially open up at Ferrari and Red Bull for 2013, should Felipe Massa be dropped and Webber finally walk away from F1. Michael Schumacher’s current Mercedes deal will also end.

Lewis Hamilton is believed to be a free agent at the end of next year, but it seems clear that he would not fit the bill at either RBR or Ferrari — whereas Jenson Button probably would. At the time of writing Button had yet to be confirmed at McLaren for next season, as driver and team debated details such as the length of a possibly extended contract, but Martin Whitmarsh insisted that the option on the Brit for 2012 would be taken up.

Meanwhile a test in a 2009 F60 at Fiorano in September was clearly the first step in preparing Sauber’s Sergio Perez as a possible replacement for Felipe Massa in 2013.