MONTE CARLO // "Today has been the greatest day of my life..." The words were probably superfluous because the look on Mark Webber's face told you exactly how he felt. The Australian has encountered many doubters since he made his grand prix debut with Minardi, perennial minnows, eight years ago. His performances in 2002 earned him an opportunity with Jaguar - and his subsequent ability to flatter in an underperforming car, particularly in qualifying, led to accusations that he was an ineffective racer.
One-lap wonders were achievable, but he could not sustain them for two hours. And then came two seasons with Williams, a team fond of hard-edged, no-nonsense racers in the Webber mould. The relationship did not gel, though, and the team now acknowledge that the problems had less to do with the driver than they did with the material at his disposal. Even so, he was in good shape to challenge for victory at Monaco in 2006 until an overheating exhaust set fire to his car.
That tends to get overlooked. Throughout Webber's career, there have been many unheralded cameos in which circumstance or folly have masked his potential. People recall that he spun on the opening lap of the 2008 British Grand Prix, throwing away the benefit of a front-row start in his Red Bull, but his subsequent pace - he was as quick as eventual winner Lewis Hamilton in the rain - is a forgotten detail.
Sebastian Vettel, Webber's Red Bull teammate, is perceived as the real deal, the best driver Germany has produced since Michael Schumacher, and during 18 months together they have usually been separated by hundredths, at most. Predictably, that has often been taken as a sign that Vettel does not merit the hype, rather than an acknowledgement that Webber might just have been underrated from the start.
During the past two weekends Webber has clearly had the edge. Quicker than Vettel in qualifying, quicker in the race and able to control the pace at his will. He made only one mistake yesterday, speeding in the pit lane on his way to the grid, but it was not a time to be worrying about 2,200 (Dh10,000) fines. "It feels great to win any grand prix," he said, "but to do it in Monaco is very, very, very special and I feel so elated to have joined a list of winners that includes Ayrton Senna and all those other guys."
Webber is now level on points with Vettel, but with two victories to one he is effectively ahead under the FIA's scoring system. How does he see things evolving from here? "There's a long way to go," he said, "but nobody knows how things might look in a race or two. I'm in a good position, though, and would rather be here than 40 points adrift." Webber has never lacked for self-belief. Perhaps, finally, the broader world might start to share it.