Webber wins but Vettel is still the man to beat
If Mark Webber did not sound as if he was jumping for joy after winning the Brazilian Grand Prix - his first win of 2012 in the final race of what has been a tough season for the Australian - it should be no surprise.
There is no artifice about Webber and he knows as well as anyone that, statistically, this has been a disappointing year for him. One win in a race in which his team-mate had one arm tied behind his back does not on its own signify that his fortunes will change next season.
Nor, though, does the manner of victory necessarily mean that they won't.
Eleven wins and a new all-time record 15 pole positions for Sebastian Vettel as against one win and three poles for Webber are numbers that do not make comfortable reading for the older man.
But it should be remembered that the two men were evenly matched in 2010 as they both battled for the title with Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
Webber is determined to recapture that form and there have been signs in the second half of the season that he is heading in the right direction.
Undoubtedly he struggled in the first half of this year. He was hit hard by reliability problems - if there was a problem with Red Bull's troublesome Kers power-boost system at the start of the year, it seemed Webber's car would have it - but also he took much longer than Vettel to adapt to the different demands of the new Pirelli tyres.
By the time he had, Vettel was long gone in the championship. It has, though, been much closer between the two in the second half of the season.
Vettel has still had the upper hand - and his electrifying qualifying pace and consistency has put him in a position to control many of the races.
But Webber has been getting on top of one of his biggest problems this year - higher tyre wear than Vettel, sometimes influenced by problems outside his control - and on race pace the two have been pretty evenly matched, even if it has not always been obvious because of their different positions in the race.
Webber could have won in Korea had not a mystifying pit-wall decision prevented him from passing Hamilton and exploiting a strategy that should have beaten Vettel, too.
In the end, the much-needed win came in Brazil in a race in which Vettel's gearbox problem prevented him having a straight fight with his team-mate.
But as Webber pointed out, these things happen and you take wins however they come. Not only has he himself been on the receiving end of that sort of fortune many a time, it was probably also about time Vettel had some bad luck.
"Even if the win didn't come today there were some positive signs for me in recent races," he said.
"There has been some good pace from me considering some of the things that have been going on. Today was a good grand prix.
"It's not a bad thing to finish the year like this, one of the most important things is I started to feel the car a bit better, to get a bit more of an understanding."
"It's great Mark has won a race," team principal Christian Horner said.
"It would have been very, very tough for him to have not won a race if Seb had won 11.
"Hopefully this win will give him a big confidence boost. He's third in the championship. Hopefully he'll go into the winter, have a bit of time off, recharge his batteries and I'm sure he'll come back stronger in 2012.
"Let's not take anything away from Sebastian, though. He has been operating at such a high level this year. That's what's compounded the issue for Mark. He's been up against a team-mate in the most phenomenal form and operating at the most phenomenally high level."
Webber is under no illusions that Vettel will be formidably tough to beat again next season.
The German's drive on Sunday was yet another from the top drawer in a season that has been full of them.
He drove the first few laps as he has in so many races this year - building a 2.2-second lead in two laps. But after that Webber managed to keep him within three seconds or so - striking distance, in other words - until Red Bull came on the radio at the end of the first stint to warn Vettel of a gearbox problem.
This is not the first time this has happened to him and at first you wondered how he and the team he might react.
Back in Canada in 2010, Vettel also had a gearbox problem while running in fourth place ahead of Webber, who was ordered not to attack him as the team feared what might happen if he did.
But there was to be no repeat of that, as Vettel's engineer Guillaume Rocquelin came repeatedly on to the radio to warn him of the worsening problem. Eventually he had to accept that this was a race he was not going to win, and he let Webber past.
From then on, it was a case of managing the problem, which he did magnificently.
"Despite running a gear taller in each corner and trying to reduce the amount of shifts as much as possible, his pace was still very strong," Horner said. "There must be zero oil left in that gearbox because it went off the scale - a very mature and measured drive."
Inevitably, there were conspiracy theorists who suggested Red Bull were making the whole thing up to provide a convenient excuse to provide Webber with a win he needed and which also lifted him into third in the championship ahead of Alonso by one point. These can be dismissed, however.
For Vettel to still finish second in those conditions was impressive. One doubts, though, whether his performance merits the comparison Vettel himself made with Ayrton Senna's victory here in 1991, when the great Brazilian battled a failing gearbox in the rain to hold off the faster Williams of Riccardo Patrese despite driving the last two laps with only sixth gear.
Red Bull's advantage in Brazil was bigger than it has been in recent races, which is a worrying sign for their rivals.
Jenson Button drove a brilliant season this year to take second in the championship, the first time Hamilton has been beaten by a team-mate, and put in another strong performance on Sunday.
Alonso, too, has been mighty, battling the odds in an uncompetitive car. And Hamilton himself will surely find some equilibrium over the winter and come back stronger in 2012.
All of them, though, can do nothing if Red Bull produce a car next year with the sort of advantage seen from this year's RB7.
"What makes retaining the title so special," Horner said on Sunday, "is the calibre of opponents we are up against is so high.
"We are a stronger team in all areas than in 2010. I'm convinced with continuity we can still improve. We don't know what the other teams are doing. We will keep our heads down and hopefully turn up with a competitive car in Melbourne next year."
The gauntlet has been thrown down and it is up to McLaren and Ferrari to pick it up.
This blog is about the Brazilian Grand Prix and 2011 F1 season. If you wish to read about - and comment on - the BBC's plans for 2012, please do so here