Mark Webber's 2010 - the journeyman journeys on 24 Nov 2010
Nine seasons, four teams, six wins and 159 Grands Prix into his Formula One career, 2010 saw Mark Webber very nearly achieve what many critics said he simply didnt have in him - winning the Formula One world drivers championship. A few of those critics may still be saying told you so after he ultimately lost out to team mate Sebastian Vettel, but the majority must surely acknowledge that this was the year Webber finally proved his true potential.
Nobody seeing those slumped shoulders, as his fellow Red Bull driver celebrated in parc ferme in Abu Dhabi, could have doubted that the Australian was wounded. But as his regret gradually sunk in, and he journeyed first to Red Bulls Austrian heartland and then to the teams factory in Milton Keynes, Webber looked for the positives of his season - and he found many.
Yes, he often had the fastest car on the grid. But then so too did his younger, lighter and more hotly-tipped team mate Vettel. And it was Webber who was leading Red Bulls charge to the drivers title as they arrived in Abu Dhabi, leading the German by seven points. He also took the title fight to the doors of three former champions, including the man widely hailed as the greatest driver of his generation.
McLarens Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, and Ferraris Fernando Alonso are far from easy pickings and Webbers almost cliched combination of Aussie grit and determination - a combination that when coupled with his underrated talent behind the wheel - has been truly fearsome. Vettel, the darling of Red Bulls Austrian owners, was the man expected to lead the teams 2010 title charge, especially having overshadowed Webber during their first campaign as team mates in 2009. From the outset, however, Webber had other ideas, even if his season didnt exactly get off to a flying start.
A modest eighth place the Bahrain opener was followed by a clumsy collision with Hamilton in Australia. Only at round three in Malaysia did things start to come together, with pole and a podium, albeit behind the faster starting and victorious Vettel. But then the weather intervened in China, highlighting Red Bulls shortcomings on strategy and wet-weather pace, and Webber came away from Shanghai with just four points.
Back in Europe he hit the ground running, taking pole position and a dominant win in Barcelona, followed a week later by triumph at Formula Ones most prestigious venue, Monaco. The resurgent Webber was on a roll and he left the Principality level with Vettel at the top of the standings.
But it wasnt just in the championship table that the team mates were too close for comfort. Turkey brought their now infamous collision, as Vettel tried and failed to pass Webber for the lead on lap 40. Although Webber was able to continue and finish third (Vettel retired), it marked the start of what would become an increasingly tense rivalry with his most immediate opponent.
He had to give best to the German in Canada, though more importantly both had to give best to McLaren and Ferrari, as Red Bulls RB6 found itself outpaced around the low-downforce Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve. Webbers fifth place meant he dropped from first to third in the standings. And worse was to come in Valencia, where Webbers Red Bull quite literally developed wings after he ran into the rear of Heikki Kovalainens Lotus, sending it somersaulting spectacularly through the air. To make matters worse, Vettel won the race.
Undeterred, Webber fought back at Silverstone, his determination made only stronger by Red Bulls controversial decision to take new parts off his car and pass them to Vettel (on grounds of the latters superior championship position). He was never headed after beating Vettel off the line - in his own telling words, not bad for a number-two driver.
Another poor start and engine problems meant only sixth place in Germany, but in Hungary he finally regained the championship lead after a strategic masterstroke - combined with Vettel falling asleep behind the safety car - brought his fourth win of the season. He backed it up with a heroic second place at Spa, fighting back from seventh after clutch problems at the start.
Monza was not expected to suit the Red Bull and it didnt. Sixth place was enough to overhaul Hamilton once more at the top of the standings, but Webber left Italy angry at what he saw as some poor strategy calls by the team, a feeling compounded by the fact that Vettel had managed fourth place, despite a brake binding problem that had initially dropped him behind his team mate.
Ironically, at the following Singapore round it was excellent Red Bull strategy that propelled Webber to third behind a resurgent Alonso and Vettel, a result that saw him extend his championship lead to 11 points. That grew to 14 in Japan, where the RB6 was untouchable. Again, though, it was Vettel who had the edge.
Korea brought Webber his second DNF of the year, thanks once more to driver error. A wheel on a kerb at a drenched Yeongam was enough to send him spinning into retirement, taking an innocent Nico Rosberg with him. Also gone was his championship lead, to Alonso. The only consolation was Vettels zero score, his due to a Renault engine failure.
Red Bull turned things around with another one-two in Brazil, but again it was Vettel leading the way, which meant Webbers deficit to Alonso, who finished third, was not cut as much as it might have been, setting up the tense, four-way title decider in Abu Dhabi. In the build-up all anyone could talk about was whether Vettel would help his team mate, for if Vettel won the race and Webber finished second, Alonso would take the title.
A hideous qualifying saw Webber line up only fifth on the grid, behind all his key rivals, whilst a distinct lack of grip at the start of the race prompted him to pit early, a decision that would prove to be his undoing. As Vettel charged to victory and the title, Webber, stuck in traffic, finished the race eighth behind Alonso, putting him third behind the Spaniard in the championship contest.
When you come so close to the top and just miss out, it's a shame, but I tried my absolute hardest, he said. Im reminded of that great adage. What doesnt kill you makes you stronger. Well, Im still alive and Im sure Ill bounce back from this season a better driver. There are still lots of positives. Ive taken five pole positions, four victories and Im even proud of some of my second places because they were well-executed race weekends. In due course, Ill probably look back and think this season wasnt a bad effort.
In the days following the season finale, Webber acknowledged that the strained relations with Vettel and the team may, with hindsight, have actually provided additional motivation for all those involved. And with any talk of retirement casually brushed aside, 2011 will be a fresh start. It could be his final shot, but there is still time for Webber to become Australias third F1 champion.
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