Can Mark Webber bring home Australia's first Formula 1 championship since 1980?
Photo: Getty Images
Three years ago, Mark Webber was engaged in battle on two fronts – a tit-for-tat war with Fernando Alonso for the Formula One championship, and an internal tussle with Sebastian Vettel for the right to be Red Bull's No.1 driver.
The conflict went down to the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where Webber lost big time on both counts. He lost the race, lost perhaps his best chance at the title and was given a comprehensive reality check by Vettel, who is now unquestionably the big dog at Milton Keynes.
Fast-forward to 2013, and Webber's time is almost up. The Australian turns 37 next year and has a one-year deal with Red Bull that – particularly if rumours of a Vettel switch to Ferrari prove false – may not be renewed in 2014.
Assuming the worst, Webber is staring down either his final season in F1 or his final season with Red Bull. Either way, it's probably his last chance to bring home Australia's first championship since Alan Jones. But will the stars finally align?
In his favour is that he remains with Red Bull, the upstart stable powered by genius engineer Adrian Newey. Red Bull has rattled the establishment with three consecutive constructers' titles and, given regulations will remain relatively stable this season, should again field the benchmark car in 2013.
The key for Webber will be consistency. In 2012, he had to push through teething issues with the RB8 and struggled to grind out results on the tracks less suited to Red Bull. By his own admission, he became impatient for race wins and let his frustrations cloud his driving. A lean run from Europe into the Asian leg - a best placing of sixth and a worst of 20th in six races from Germany to Japan – doomed him.
A look back at the bookends of that run, at the Hockenheimring and Suzuka Circuit, reveals the twin fates that condemned Webber's season – technical difficulties and rotten luck. In Germany, he was slapped with a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change after qualifying third. In the race itself he was mystified by a lack of pace from the car, the same one he had won at Silverstone with two weeks earlier. He finished eighth.
In Japan, Webber qualified second-fastest behind Vettel but was wiped out on the first lap by Romain Grosjean, whom the Australian later memorably dubbed a "first-lap nutcase". He finished ninth. In that space of time, the gap between Webber and the championship lead ballooned out from 13 points to 60.
Given the stability in regulations this season, and the continued presence of Newey in his corner, it's not hard to foresee that Webber will have a better car under his command in 2013. The KERS issues, the lack of straight-line speed – these niggles should be addressed in the RB9, even if it is currently behind schedule.
That leaves luck (and the other drivers, who we'll get to) standing in Webber's way. Formula One has a way of crushing fairy tale finishes, and the championship hasn't been won by anyone as old as Webber in two decades (Alain Prost was 38 in 1993).
One other titbit bears mentioning. Tactically, Red Bull may be forced into a philosophical change that could work in Webber's favour. Last year, Red Bull's strategy was to lock out the front row in qualifying and control the race. But their technical issues – combined with the surprising straight-line speed of the McLaren – meant that Vettel and Webber were often being hounded.
If Newey opts for greater overtaking ability at the sacrifice of downforce, it may lessen Red Bull's dominance in qualifying. It could also be a boon for Webber. The Australian isn't all that reliable off the grid anyway. A boost in straight-line speed would work in his favour if he were being forced to move up through the field mid-race, which is where he seems to do his best racing more often than not.
Having said that, it still remains likelier than not that Webber will not win the championship in 2013, mostly due to whom he shares a garage with. Vettel, and the rest of Webber's main rivals to the championship, are listed below.
Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
With three straight titles to his name, Vettel is the undisputed king of F1 driving right now. He will have the best of Newey's nous and innovation at his disposal and the Red Bull team backing him for a fourth crown. Webber will again have to contend with 'number two' status.
Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)
The stability in regulations means Ferrari should mount an even stronger challenge to Red Bull's dominance in 2013. A mere three points separated Vettel and Alonso at season's end, the Spaniard having squeezed every drop from the Italian team's inferior car.
Jenson Button (McLaren)
With Lewis Hamilton off to Mercedes, the focus shifts squarely to Button to fly the flag for the English team. Button mostly had a hideous year in 2012 as the McLaren car, despite all its promise, was brought undone by unreliability. If the MP4-28 boasts the fastest straight-line speed again this season it could be the Englishman who ends up taking the most points off Webber.
Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus)
Raikkonen finished a surprise third in his comeback season, but we think Lotus will slide down the pecking order in 2013.
Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
This season's wildcard. Mercedes finished fifth in the constructers' standings in 2012 with just one race win to their name. Hamilton is an excellent driver but surely the Mercedes car makes him less of a threat.
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