Mark Webber’s best shot at winning his home grand prix comes this Sunday, as Formula One returns to Albert Park. The Aussie is back in Melbourne for the 11th time, and never has he been closer to snaring that much sought after home victory.
It would springboard his 2012 title run and, more importantly, erase the painful memories of last season. There are several reasons for this, some technical, some mental, but all very real and potentially pivotal in a sport measured in tenths of a second.
Firstly, there is Mark himself.
Nowhere in the F1 paddock is there a fitter, leaner, and more determined driver. His height means teammate Sebastian Vettel – who is going for a rare third consecutive world championship this year – has a 10 kilogram weight advantage.
The weight Vettel saves by being shorter can be put into ballast to assist the RB8’s handling, and as a result Mark has pushed himself to the limit to be as strong and lean as possible.
His years spent in uncompetitive machinery – Minardi, Jaguar, Williams – have fuelled a resolve to succeed, and the past two years have only strengthened that focus.
In 2010, he was in the title fight until the last round in Brazil, but finished third to Vettel. Last year it was third again in an unhappy year featuring just one race victory – again in Brazil. All this experience means he is as hungry as ever.
Of course, all the drivers are fit and hungry to win, so determination and conditioning is not enough on its own.
In 2011, Mark failed to get to grips with the new Pirelli tyre. It degraded quickly, and it didn’t suit his driving style. Webber made his feelings known during the season as he fell further behind his teammate, until the final race in Sao Paulo, where Pirelli supplied a test version of their 2012 spec rubber, and Webber delivered a victory.
The Pirellis for this year are widely accepted to be softer, with shorter gaps in life between the four compounds, something which Mark has said suits him far more.
This is also the final year of Mark’s contract with Red Bull – the paddock’s leading team. With feeder outfit Toro Rosso’s young guns, including 21 year old West Aussie Daniel Ricciardo, angling for his spot, Webber is fighting for his seat in the team and on the grid – he is already on record as saying he won’t go back to driving for a midfield team.
A failure in 2012 could mean an exit from F1. While there have long been rumbles from Webber of being treated as a ‘number 2’ driver behind the world champion, team boss Christian Horner this week publicly backed Webber, saying he finally has the car that could win him the grand prix.
New technical and race regulations could also help. Red Bull’s major advantage during 2011 was their clever use of exhaust blown diffusers. To explain, the team developed an innovative way to blow the exhaust fumes from the car through the rear wing, creating downforce.
The other teams followed suit, but Red Bull design legend Adrian Newey did it best, and as a result Vettel swept away the opposition on the way to 11 wins and 15 pole positions.
This has now been banned by the FIA and, while it may seem to disadvantage Mark, any change away from the RB7 which so successfully bore the German to another title is a good thing. It levels the playing field, presses the reset button.
The change reduces grip in the rear of the car, forcing drivers to adapt, and if there is anything a man who has been through four teams in ten largely uncompetitive years can do, it’s adapt. Pre-season testing suggests that the RB8 is again the car to beat, and just maybe this car will suit Mark’s style as well as or better than Seb’s. The boss certainly thinks so.
In terms of the opposition, this year the fight looks to be coming at least initially from McLaren. With Jenson Button now a complete and mature driver, and Lewis Hamilton seemingly having put his private issues to bed, the Woking based team and their MP4-27 looks the goods to challenge for the title.
If they can do so early in the season, Mark won’t spend his time watching Vettel build an unassailable lead, and the team will divide their time and money more evenly.
With a bit of luck and a solid start, not only could Webber finally take the top step in Melbourne, he could challenge for the world championship. Make sure you catch it on Sunday afternoon, as this could well be his final shot.
Follow Will on Twitter: @will_mccloy