Wednesday, 30 May 2012

All good for revitalised Webber

"All good, mate," is probably Mark Webber's favourite phrase. It's a fair bit more loaded with meaning than it sounds, and it sums up the way he will be feeling after the Monaco Grand Prix.

The Australian's second win in three years in Formula 1's most prestigious race, and his first of the season, had been coming for a while and it confirms Webber's return to form after a difficult 2011.

It will have been particularly sweet as it came at another race in which he has had an edge on team-mate Sebastian Vettel, whose romp to the world title last year was probably harder on Webber than anyone.

When a driver takes 11 wins and 15 pole positions in 19 races, as Vettel did last year, most of his rivals can console themselves with the thought that he has a better car than they do. Not so his team-mate, who suffered through 2011 with dignity and largely in silence.

Mark Webber

Mark Webber (right) is congratulated by Prince Albert II (left) of Monaco after winning the Monaco Grand Prix. Photo: Getty 

This season, though, has seen a Webber more like the one who led the championship for much of 2010 before falling at the final hurdle.

There was virtually nothing to choose between the two Red Bull drivers for most of that season - and this year Webber is back to that position.

Although it has taken until Monaco for Webber to draw level with Vettel on points, the qualifying score is four-two in Webber's favour.

It would almost certainly have been five-one had Red Bull not erroneously decided not to send him out for a second run in the second session of qualifying in Spain two weeks ago, thinking he had done enough to make it through to the top-10 shoot-out.

Out-qualifying Vettel so comprehensively again in Monaco, on a track where all the drivers admit the man in the cockpit can make that bit more of a difference than on more mundane tracks, will have been particularly sweet.

The two Red Bull drivers have been more evenly matched in races this year, but while it took until his Monaco victory for Webber to draw level with Vettel in the championship, that is not necessarily an accurate reflection of their relative pace.

Webber scored four consecutive fourth places in the first four races as Vettel took a win, a second and a fifth. But only in Bahrain was Vettel demonstrably faster - and Webber would almost certainly have taken the second place his team-mate did in Australia had it not been for a pit-stop delay.

A win in Monaco, to become the sixth different driver to win in the first six races of the year confirms - as if confirmation were needed - that Webber is a major contender for the championship again this year.

He admitted after the race in Monaco that "last year was a little bit of a mystery; the gap was sometimes really, really extreme". One imagines Vettel feels very much the same about this season.

Monaco was another example. There was Webber on the front row while Vettel was back in 10th having used up all his 'super-soft' tyres just getting into the top-10 shoot-out - exactly as had happened in Spain.

Red Bull have been struggling comparatively in qualifying all year, but their race pace has been strong almost everywhere. So it was again in Monaco, where Vettel, on a different strategy, suddenly became a factor for victory mid-way through the race.

"That wasn't in the plan," Webber joked afterwards, admitting he had been a little nervous about his team-mate's progress. Eventually, though, the tyres on Vettel's car cried enough - and he had to settle for fourth.

Team boss Christian Horner could not explain after the race how Vettel was so competitive in the race in the same car in which he had struggled in qualifying. But the answer will almost certainly lie somewhere in the behaviour of the Pirelli tyres, the secrets of which are proving elusive to the teams so far this season.

It says something for Red Bull's professionalism and competence as a team that although aspects of their car's performance are flummoxing even a man as brilliant as their designer Adrian Newey, they find both drivers tied on points just three off the championship lead.

Equally, it speaks volumes for the quality of Fernando Alonso's driving so far this year that he is the man they are chasing, despite being in a car that has not yet been fast enough to set a pole position.

The Spaniard was in impressive form again in Monaco. From fifth on the grid, he made another great start and ran fourth to the first pit stops, when he jumped Lewis Hamilton's McLaren thanks to a stunning in-lap, on which he set the fastest times of the race until that point on both the first sectors.

Alonso and Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali both admitted afterwards that he could potentially even have got ahead of second-placed Nico Rosberg and perhaps Webber, too, had he stayed out a little longer. But, as they said, you only know this in hindsight.

Still, third place was enough to vault him past Vettel into a clear championship lead. No wonder Horner said after the race: "Fernando has driven very well. He's going to be a key factor all the way through this championship for sure."

He wisely added that it would be wrong to rule out McLaren, despite another lacklustre performance in Monaco, and the same should also be said of Mercedes.

Mercedes bounced back with a bang in Monaco after a dip in form in Bahrain and Spain following Rosberg's dominant win in China last month.

And after a difficult start to the season, it was Michael Schumacher who stuck the car on pole, which he lost as a result of the five-place grid penalty he earned for running into the back of Williams's Bruno Senna in Spain.

Schumacher was unlucky in the race, tagged by Lotus's Romain Grosjean at the start, and then retiring with a fuel pressure problem after running seventh for a while.

It will take a few more performances like that to convince everyone that the veteran German can be a consistent force at the front, and he is almost certainly too far behind to be a factor in the championship battle.

But his presence at the front, should it continue, will add an intriguing dimension to an already fascinating season.

"All good," as Webber would doubtless say.


Philippe Adams Walt Ader Kurt Adolff Fred Agabashian Kurt Ahrens Jr Christijan Albers

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