Not bad for the number two driver
There was a moment of levity in the news conference after the British Grand Prix when race-winner Mark Webber was asked if he would continue to fight for the championship or back off and support Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel.
The journalist in question clearly does not know Webber very well. But the men on either side of him - Vettel and the world championship leader Fernando Alonso - certainly do. The two of them broke out into broad, knowing grins at the sheer unlikeliness of the suggestion.
Webber, as befits a man with class out of the cockpit to match his ability in it, treated his inquisitor with a delicacy that some of his rivals might have found more difficult to summon. But, before expanding on his answer, even he couldn’t resist drawing the humour out of the situation.
“Yeah,” he drawled, smothering a smile. “At Hockenheim (the next race), we will let Seb through.” Cue even bigger smiles from Alonso and Vettel, who are well aware he will be doing no such thing.
Mark Webber (left) celebrates winning the British GP with team-mate Sebastian Vettel. Photo: Getty
There is no Formula 1 driver more rooted in the concept of fair but hard competition than Webber – as his battles for equal treatment at Red Bull, which boiled over at Silverstone in the previous two races, attest.
There was no repeat this year of the squabbles that took place in 2010 and 2011, when Red Bull’s apparent preference for Vettel – and the Australian’s absolute refusal to play a supporting role - were laid bare in different ways.
The internal dynamic at Red Bull is very different this year. The team and drivers seem more at peace with their respective positions, and the drivers are fighting it out on the track without the tensions of previous seasons. And Webber is proving every bit a match for the double champion.
Webber out-qualified Vettel in the wet on Saturday, lining up alongside pole position man Alonso on the front row, and then won a straight battle with the Ferrari driver in the sunshine of race day to move within 13 points of the world championship lead.
The internal qualifying score at Red Bull is now five-four in Webber’s favour, and the 35-year-old has two wins to the German’s one. After a difficult season watching Vettel romp to the title in 2011, Webber has bounced back in style this season. A serious title contender he certainly is.
For a long time, the British Grand Prix looked to be Alonso’s to lose. He converted pole position into a lead at the first corner, with the help of a take-no-prisoners sweep across the track to deter the faster-starting Webber, and he led through both rounds of pit stops.
But in the last 14 laps before the chequered flag, Alonso found his Ferrari a much less competitive proposition on the ‘soft’ tyres he had saved to the end of the race because he had not liked them when he tried them in the one dry practice session on Saturday morning.
Webber remorselessly closed him down and, with Alonso defenceless, swept by into the lead with four laps to go.
It would be easy to blame Ferrari for choosing a strategy that in hindsight turned out to lose them the race. Easy but wrong.
It made perfect sense to save the more fragile ‘soft’ tyres to the end of the race, when the track would have more rubber on it and the cars would be carrying less fuel. It just turned out, in hindsight, to be the incorrect choice.
Alonso, Webber and their respective teams have reason to leave Silverstone satisfied.
Ferrari confirmed their recent progress, and theirs is now clearly a seriously fast race car – as evidenced by the fact that Alonso has contended for victory in each of the last five races, as well as team-mate Felipe Massa’s upturn in form. It is a remarkable turnaround after starting the season 1.5 seconds off the pace.
But, as both Alonso and Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali admitted after the race, the car is not quite a match for the Red Bull, which is now clearly the fastest in the field.
Although Red Bull team boss Christian Horner denied it after the race, the championship seems to be distilling down to a straight fight between Alonso and the Red Bull drivers – Vettel is only 16 points behind Webber.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton is being left behind in fourth place. He is 37 points behind Alonso in the standings after finishing eighth at Silverstone, but more worryingly McLaren have slipped from the pace.
Quite apart from the problems this will cause for them in the championship, it is particularly bad timing for a team whose driver is out of contract at the end of the season.
Hamilton is known to have had conversations with Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes. It is not clear how much interest there is in him by any of them but this is not the sort of performance that will encourage him to sign a new contract at McLaren.
The fact that even Bernie Ecclestone – who has never needed an excuse to kick Silverstone – refused to blame them for the horrendous traffic jams of Friday that led to them asking 20,000 fans with tickets not to come on Saturday underlines the reality that the organisers can hardly be blamed for the wettest June on record.
Nevertheless, there were clear examples of organisational problems as well as bad luck, and the track’s contingency plans clearly did not work on Friday, even if Silverstone did subsequently manage to dig themselves out of the hole they found themselves in with some effectiveness. They also showed laudable honesty in admitting there were serious problems.
The situation is more complex than it seems. The size of the fees charged by Ecclestone make it hard for races to make any money out of hosting a grand prix and Silverstone simply does not have the funds to pour money into solving the problem.
But a problem there is, and it could easily recur – as every F1 driver pointed out at the weekend, the British summer is notorious for its poor weather.
Those involved in the post-mortem meetings planned for this coming week will have to be imaginative in trying to coming up with solutions, but solutions, whatever they are, do need to be found.