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Mark Webber: 2010's dark horse

Adam Hay-Nicholls March 23, 2010
Mark Webber celebrates his maiden F1 victory in Germany last year © Sutton Images

The Australians are fiercely proud. Proud of their national identity, their heritage and intensely proud of their sporting heroes. Mark Webber is no exception. Despite living in the UK since his career really took off in 1996, he remains a true Aussie sports fan. He likes nothing better than seeing the Poms taking a hiding in the Ashes or Casey Stoner succeed on track.

And he reverts back to being a fan when given the opportunity - and the Red Bull family has given him many such opportunities. His guests at races are other athletes backed by the energy drink company: motocross riders, MotoGP legends, Superbike heroes or top flight footballers. In Bahrain in the company of previous F1 Aussie legends, he wasn't just shaking the hands and having his picture taken with former Australian F1 champions Sir Jack Brabham and Alan Jones, he genuinely looked like he was privileged to be in their company.

And this season, despite the sport's, the media's and arguably the team's spotlight shining on the 22-year-old Baby Schumi in the garage next to him, Webber is there with a stable set-up, a fast car and, albeit an outside one, a chance of being crowned world champion this year.

Webber's success last season was hardfought and hard-earned. This was the man remember who began the year on crutches with metal knitting together the shattered bones in his right leg and whose - admitted slim - world championship hopes only ended on Lap 46 of the Singapore Grand Prix. Then, despite the practice session crash and failure to make it to Qualifying in Japan, during the race he had no chance of scoring points in, he worked on car set-up with his team as his team-mate sailed to victory. This work ethic paid off just a race later where he took a commanding win at Interlagos.

So could this work rate, effort and slick machinery mean this could actually be Webber's year? Can he build on the confidence gained through last year's victories, the stability of his team and what is clearly a quick car to become the outsider from Down Under and win the title? Webber himself knows that there is the chance to top the tables come the chequered flag at Abu Dhabi, but in characteristic (characteristic Webber and characteristic Australian) style, he won't countenance much consideration of joining the names of Brabham and Jones just yet. "It's by no means impossible," he told Australian newspaper The Sunday Age, "but we have some tough opposition. But by August we will know. It's such a long way to go, so it's silly to be talking world titles at the moment."

I wouldn't say Seb and me are the best of friends - we are competitive individuals and that's the nature of the sport. I don't like getting beaten by him and he doesn't like getting beaten by me
But people are. Red Bull Racing are one of only three teams to start the year with the same line-up and engine as they finished last season (one of the others interestingly being sister squad Scuderia Toro Rosso) and have a real sense of purpose and continuity about their challenge. More is made about Vettel, but then he's at the other end of his career, a young driver who Mr Ecclestone is tipping for the world title. Which probably suits the Australian. Webber works diligently, but quietly on improving every aspect of his game, and while the pairing has on the outside little in common, they both possess that innate desire and drive.

"We both work very hard, it's a very good team," said Webber. "I wouldn't say Seb and me are the best of friends - we are competitive individuals and that's the nature of the sport. I don't like getting beaten by him and he doesn't like getting beaten by me."

Rather than be threatened by the German's youth and potential, Webber, at 33 and approaching the latter stages of his career, is far from raging against the dying of the light, he is rightly upbeat about this season:

Webber sits in the Red Bull garage ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix © Getty Images
"I have generally taken each year as it comes. At the start of this year I feel better and more motivated to keep going. Once you get great results you want the races to come every weekend. You have to earn your stripes, they don't hand these drives out for free."

Prior to Germany last year Webber was often, unfairly, considered an also-ran. While he could string together great Qualifying sessions, he never converted these to race distance victories. It looked as though he would end his career without ever mounting the top step of the podium.

But a stream-lined Red Bull Racing which was in the process of shrugging off its reputation as the party playboys of the Paddock and becoming renowned more for its Adrian Newey-designed cars and newfound passion for ontrack rather than off-track activities gave him the chance to convert that hard work into trophies. The race after his first victory you could see the man was more relaxed, more confident and more than happy to lose the nearly tag. As he says:

"When you compete at this level year in, year out and have been scratching at the surface and haven't had a victory, you are still a nearly man, but when you do win races, people know you can execute those long races and deliver."

Interestingly, those Newey cars are built around Webber first before being scaled to fit the shorter Sebastian Vettel. This week and next Sunday in particular are special not only for Webber, but for the country as well. It was at Albert Park that Webber made his F1 debut in 2002, taking a Minardi (the very DNA of Toro Rosso) to a spectacular fifth place and his first F1 points. Last season Red Bull had showed potential at the track but came away point-less. Webber is hoping not only for more points, but a more impressive spectacle than last weekend: "We know we have had some bizarre races here," he told us.

"We have had Safety Cars, interesting weather and it's a street circuit. We plan for lots of different scenarios… Melbourne can traditionally throw up some odd results." What wouldn't be so odd would be for Webber to make his mark on the championship at this race. He's told the press that Red Bull have a new, lighter chassis to unveil for this race and are looking at building on the positive (positive apart from a rogue spark plug) events in Bahrain. The team and Webber are serious about halting the Prancing Horses' stampede and making sure the Red Bulls grab the championship by the horns before the race in Malaysia.

By the time he gets to the starting grid, as well as the usual sponsor meets-and-greets, the interviews and the TV appearances, Webber will have attended a lunch for Australian sporting heroes, given a lecture at a local university and been given a civic reception in his hometown of Queanbeyan. But perhaps most tellingly, he'll have had a stand at the grand prix named after him. The Albert Park organisers have chosen to put Webber between the Fangio and Senna stands near Turn 16.

Who knows which other list those three names might appear in by the end of this year?

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