MONTE CARLO // Two races, two radically different circuits, two victories in the space of two weekends. Mark Webber is on a roll right now - and the fourth success of his Formula One career gave the Australian a share of the world championship lead.
He led the 68th Monaco Grand Prix all the way in his Red Bull-Renault, but his afternoon was anything but straightforward. Webber got away well from pole position, but fellow front-row starter Robert Kubica was swamped and immediately lost a position to Sebastian Vettel. Everybody made it cleanly through the first turn, but the leaders had still to complete their opening lap when the safety car appeared for the first time.
Nico Hulkenberg, the Williams rookie, suffered a front=wing failure in the tunnel - the fastest part of the track - and slammed into the retaining wall, spreading carbon shrapnel across much of the principality. That was an opportunity for Fernando Alonso to take a strategic gamble. Having started from the pit lane, because he missed qualifying in the wake of a sizeable practice accident, the Spaniard pitted immediately to make his one mandatory tyre change.
He was thereafter obliged to complete almost a full race distance on a set of medium-compound Bridgestones, but the Ferrari is famously light on its feet. The race resumed at the beginning of the seventh lap, by which time Jenson Button, the 2009 winner, had dropped out in his McLaren-Mercedes. The pre-race points leader pulled off on the second lap with that racing rarity, a blown Mercedes V8. The cause was human rather than mechanical, however: the defending champion drove to the grid with a sidepod cover still in place - and the absence of cooling air triggered the failure.
No sooner had the field been released than Webber began to edge away. He pulled 1.4 seconds clear of Vettel within a lap and increased his advantage relentlessly thereafter. The Red Bulls made their tyre stops on laps 22 and 23, Vettel coming in first, but Webber's comfortable lead was soon to evaporate. Rubens Barrichello became the second Williams driver to cause a safety car interruption, when something broke at the rear of his car and he skated off the road at Massenet at high speed.
Webber got his head down once again when the race resumed on lap 34 - or, at least, he did for the next 10 laps, at which point the safety car was redeployed to allow a loose drain cover to be replaced, close to the point where Barrichello had crashed. Yet again, though, the leader's pace on cold tyres at the restart was sensational and he immediately dropped Vettel by 1.9 secs. That gave him a platform on which to build yet another sizeable lead, but his efforts would be undone once more as the race drew towards its close.
Backmarkers Jarno Trulli and Karun Chandhok tangled at La Rascasse as the Italian attempted to squeeze into a gap that was rather smaller than his car. His Lotus rode up and over Chandhok's HRT - and Webber was right behind, about to lap the pair for the second time. "I wondered what the hell was going to happen," he said. "My first thought was for Karun, because Trulli's car almost hit him on the head, but I was also wondering whether there would be room for me to get through."
There was - and for the fourth time he found himself following the safety car, although this time it stayed out until the final corner and Webber had merely to accelerate across the finishing line to cement his success. Vettel took second, from Kubica, while Felipe Massa remained fourth from start to finish in his Ferrari, ahead of Lewis Hamilton's McLaren-Mercedes, with the latter having to look after his wearing brakes during the second half of the race.
Alonso's bold strategy shuffled him up to sixth on the road as others pitted, but it initially looked as if he had lost a place to a classic piece of Michael Schumacher opportunism at the final corner on the final lap. However, the rules do not permit overtaking after a final lap under the safety car, however, and, following an investigation, stewards punished Schumacher with a 20-second penalty that dropped him to 12th.