Mark Webber’s decision to sign up for another year with Red Bull Racing was the first step towards a shakeout in the driver market over the coming weeks.
Until Webber extended his deal there were question marks over one seat at all of the top teams, with Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher yet to commit to McLaren and Mercedes respectively, and Felipe Massa working hard to hold on to his Ferrari seat.
Red Bull’s act of faith in the Australian also emphasised the remarkable way he has engineered a turnaround in his fortunes since the end of last season. When he failed at the last hurdle in his attempt to win the 2010 championship the consensus was that Webber would never have another shot at the title. Eventual winner Sebastian Vettel had lost a lot of points through bad luck early in the season, and it seemed unlikely that Mark would find himself in such an advantageous position again.
That was underlined in 2011 when Vettel proved absolutely dominant, and yet Webber rarely even managed to finish second to his team-mate. His only win came when Vettel let him by at the inal race in Brazil. And yet in the complicated and close-fought season that is 2012 Webber has bounced back. Along with his teammate, he is a genuine contender for the title once more. He won the Monaco and British GPs, and put in an impressive drive from 19th to fourth in Valencia.
Most importantly he’s been a consistent scorer, which is clearly going to be a key to winning the title when the margins are so tight. There are sound reasons for Webber’s revival of fortunes. He is much more at home with the 2012 Pirelli tyres than he was in the Italian company’s first season, but more importantly he never felt comfortable with the extreme version of the blown diffuser Red Bull ran last year. He’s also found renewed confidence.
“I think he was pretty destroyed at the end of 2010 having come so close,” Adrian Newey told Motor Sport. “And he probably carried that into 2011 a little bit. On top of that it took him a while to get used to the tyres. Probably more significantly, as we developed the exhaust technology, it didn’t suit his style. Now we’ve lost that, and it’s brought him back much more to 2009-2010.
“On top of that Mark reminds me very much of Damon [Hill]. He had a great first year at Williams in 1993, then ’94 and ’95 were difficult years. I think in ’95 in particular he had a very quick car, but got demoralised with a silly war of words with Schumacher. He went away over the winter and came back incredibly strong in ’96. And I think Mark has done exactly the same.”
With Fernando Alonso on great form, and Hamilton capable of bouncing back, the title is still a long shot. And Vettel, who scored a great win in Bahrain and was dominant in Valencia until his Renault engine’s alternator failed, is still likely to provide Webber with his strongest challenge. Vettel may not have the sort of momentum that carried him to the title last season, but Newey says there’s nothing to be concerned about: “I think it’s the inevitable variations that happen race to race – things just conspire against you.”