An aspect of Grand Prix racing which has never failed to fascinate me is the ‘instant’ appraisal of a driver’s worth. There really is some truth in the old cliché that, ‘You’re only as good as your last race…’
Psychology, as we know, plays a very considerable role in motor racing, and sometimes a driver can find himself in the happy position of flying off to a race somewhere and positively expecting to win it. Ye Gods, in the course of his Ferrari career, Michael Schumacher had entire seasons of feeling like that.
In these circumstances, however, it’s as well to exercise a little caution, because it’s all too easy to become complacently over-confident, make a silly mistake, and take yourself back to square one.
Very easy, then, to do the old ‘hero to zero’ thing, but rather more difficult to do it the other way round. Some drivers find themselves in a recalcitrant car, or get a run of bad luck, and you see ‘the head go down’ and know you can write them off this weekend, and probably next. Others, though, have a mental toughness that enables them to shrug off disappointment, and one such – indubitably – is Mark Webber, pole man and winner at the last two races in Barcelona and Monaco.
There was a time when Webber seemed prey to the ‘head down’ syndrome – there were those at Williams who thought that about him, but there he rarely had a truly competitive car, and his luck was indeed terrible. People began to compare Mark with the legendarily unlucky Chris Amon. No one doubted his fundamental quality as a driver, nor his outright pace, but he was into his thirties and hadn’t won a Grand Prix yet, and time was marching on…
Sometimes there were signs that Webber was putting himself under too much pressure – and making mistakes as a consequence. We saw it as recently as this year in Melbourne – surely the race he would like most to win – but in Malaysia, the following weekend, he beat Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel to pole position, and assuredly that wasn’t in Vettel’s copy of the script. Had he beaten Sebastian to the first corner, Mark would almost certainly have won, but at the last second – misled by the stupid ‘outrigger’ mirrors then used by some teams – he moved left to give himself the ideal line into the turn, and Vettel, hardly believing his luck, nipped by.
Everyone predicts an extraordinary future for Vettel, and with good reason. Despite a run of poor reliability in 2009, he finished second in the World Championship, and the races he won he dominated. This year he should have won in Bahrain, should have won in Australia, and so on – should have got to the start of the European season with a considerable lead in the World Championship. Sebastian’s talent is from the top drawer, no doubt at all, but he is by no means unbeatable, as his team-mate showed last year at, of all races, the German Grand Prix.
There, at the Nürburgring, Webber had Vettel handled all weekend – and it has been the same this May, where Mark was dominant in the Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix: two wins in seven days. Most impressive of all was the way he handled the pressure of several restarts in Monaco: each time he simply left everyone behind again. There wasn’t the trace of a mistake – he looked as though he could have gone on for days, and it was as conclusive a win as ever I have seen at Monaco.
Webber’s Red Bull contract is up at the end of this season, and for quite a while there have been rumours that it would not be renewed, that a returning Kimi Räikkönen would partner Vettel in 2011. Personally, I think Red Bull would be mad to follow that course, but in any event it pleased me that Mark declared, post-Monaco, that while he was very happy at Red Bull, and might well be inclined to stay, it wasn’t by any means certain – that one or two others (notably Ferrari) might come calling. “Good to see good things happen to a good guy, isn’t it?” someone said as Webber came into the Monaco press room for the post-race conference. It is indeed.