x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Johnny Herbert's contenders: Webber is ready to step up

Red Bull's Australian driver could cause a shock and seize the crown, says the former Lotus driver.

Mark Webber prepares to throw his Red Bull-Renault across the kerbs during testing in Barcelona.
Mark Webber prepares to throw his Red Bull-Renault across the kerbs during testing in Barcelona.

It's prediction time: who will win the championship? From what I have seen Red Bull do look very quick and I am going to go out on a limb and go for Mark Webber. I think he has matured massively in the last two years. He is a wonderful, intelligent driver and is very fast. He had a good year in 2009, winning his first race, and I think he can take that into this year and the experience of being a contender, and I think if the car is as good as the lap times would suggest then he could be a force to be reckoned with.

He looked as if he could have challenged last year, but had some bad luck with reliability and he will be hungry to prove himself. The Red Bull I would expect to continue from where they left off last year when they were the fastest car in the second half of the season. I think Mark and Sebastian Vettel will both be competitive, but I do think this could be Mark's year.

Will Fernando Alonso work well with his new team Ferrari? Fernando's Latin temperament could be ideal as he is going to be driving for a Latin team and will have a Latin teammate in Felipe Massa. Obviously it could all fall apart and go badly wrong, but I think Fernando will prove a good match for Ferrari. He has a lot to prove after two years of frustration at Renault but he appears to have settled in well as he has been on the pace in testing and looks to be enjoying life with his new team.

There are no doubts over his ability as he is a double world champion, but when he struggled against Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in 2007 we did see that chink in his armour as he dealt very poorly with a teammate going quicker than him, and that is something that Felipe Massa is going to have to try and do himself. Massa is coming back after missing the last part of last year due to the fractured skull he suffered in Hungary. He will be a tough challenge for Alonso as he has calmed down a lot from his early days and he is fast and consistent, which is always a tough combination.

Who will come out on top at McLaren between Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button? It might be the case that some people think Jenson has been brave going to what is largely viewed as Lewis Hamilton's team, but I think going to McLaren was the best move for him. Nothing was moving for him at Brawn GP at the end of the season so he took the next best option, which to him was going to McLaren.

He is the world champion and he will be looking to defend his crown and what is going to be crucial for him is setting up a relationship with his new team. He is going to be up against Lewis, who is going to be desperate to win back the title after being unable to defend it last year. Lewis has a strong bond with the team since being a boy and after being given his shot with the team in 2007 he has taken the sport by storm. What it will come down to in the end as to who will get the most support from the team is who is winning and doing better, so the early races are going to be vital.

How will Michael Schumacher do on his return to the sport? I think it is good for Formula One as there is still a very big fanbase that supports Michael and they will be delighted to have him back. The signs are good for him in the respect that he is back with Ross (Brawn), with who he had all his success and won all his championships. I think the one thing that is going to be difficult for him is the testing, or rather the lack of it.

When he was successful it was for him a case of racing and testing, and he would work with the designer and engineers to set up the car. Now he hasn't got that with the testing ban once the season begins. It is difficult to gauge from testing how Mercedes are doing, but they don't look to be on the pace of Red Bull, Ferrari or McLaren so I think it could be difficult for Michael, well at least initially.

How will drivers have to adapt their driving with no re-fuelling? It shouldn't change things too much, but the drivers will have to be more thoughtful in how they treat their cars. With it no longer being a series of sprints it will be about looking after the tyres when the car is really heavy and also the brakes, although brake pad technology has improved since re-fuelling has been brought in so it shouldn't be a massive issue, though at certain circuits where heavy braking is required it will be.

It was much harder in the past to do it as now drivers have power steering, but back in the early 1990s we didn't have that and the cars were seriously heavy. It will be more physical than the drivers are used to but it should be a good challenge for them and I am sure they will all quickly adapt to it. It should make for some interesting racing as there will be cars quicker on low fuel and others faster on a heavier load, so it still should be unpredictable.

Which of the new teams is going to do best? I think it is going to be hard for all of them in all honesty as when they all signed up there was a budget cap planned, but since then it has fallen through. Virgin have [Richard] Branson funding them, but they have had massive problems in testing due to the fact the car keeps failing. Campos [since had their name changed to Espania] may not make Bahrain, and even if they do they will not be in good shape.

Lotus have Mike Gascoyne leading them and it will be interesting to see what he can design. The last car he designed was with Toyota and that was not a good car. He had a big budget for that and he hasn't got one with Lotus so it will be interesting to see how they do, although they do have a good driver line-up in Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli. I think that for that last reason, the proven drivers they have, that Lotus will be the best new team. sports@thenational.ae

Jenson Button The reigning world champion took the ambitious step of joining McLaren-Mercedes and going head-to-head with Lewis Hamilton. The new regulations may suit the Briton; with no refuelling this season the cars will be heavier in the early stages and his smooth driving style will help to preserve the tyres and brakes. Despite being champion, after the way he stumbled across the finish line at the end last season after not winning any of the last 10 races in the Brawn GP, he still has a lot to prove. Lewis Hamilton Last year was a frustrating one for the Brit as an uncompetitive car in the first half of the season wrecked his dreams of retaining the title he won in 2008. He triumphed twice in the second half of the year in Hungary and Singapore as McLaren improved the car and he will hope to take that form into this year. His immediate goal, however, will be to prove himself No 1 at McLaren by out-pacing Button in the opening races. If McLaren do give him a competitive car then a second world championship could beckon. Michael Schumacher After three years out of the sport the most successful driver in Formula One is back, not with Ferrari but determined to win more races and titles with the new Mercedes GP team. It may take a couple of races for the seven-times world champion to get back to his best, especially if initially the Mercedes is not the fastest car, but the German is going to be a factor this year and his presence on the grid alone adds another dimension to the season. His first objective is going to be to out-pace his teammate, Nico Rosberg. Fernando Alonso After two frustrating years with Renault the Spaniard has a competitive car again after joining Ferrari. He looked quick in testing and will be a contender for a third world crown. How he deals with Felipe Massa and settling into the Italian team is going to make or break his year. After his infamous year at McLaren in 2007, where he struggled emotionally with being beaten by Lewis Hamilton, it will be interesting to see how he copes with having a very fast teammate in Massa on the other side of the Ferrari garage. Felipe Massa Bahrain will be the Brazilian's first competitive action since the crash in Hungary last year that left him with a fractured skull. If testing is anything to go by he doesn't appear to have lost any of his speed and, with a quick Ferrari at his disposal, he should be able to make a tilt at the championship. He will have to start the season well if he is to hold his own at Ferrari at the expense of Alonso, who should be more of a challenge than Kimi Raikkonen. On his day Massa is arguably the fastest man in the sport on raw pace. Sebastian Vettel With a little more luck the German could have been world champion with Red Bull last year. Very fast and, at the age of 22, already with five wins to his name, he made the highly rated Mark Webber look ordinary on occasions. Prior to last season his teammate was seen as a qualifying expert, but Vettel thrashing him 15-2 put that into perspective. His failure to overtake on key occasions last season was a weakness and, with no refuelling, could be even more so this year. He is, however, likely to get even better with more experience.