x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Testing times for Mark Webber despite Chinese Grand Prix brilliance

The pressure is growing on the Red Bull driver, but a fantastic race from 18th on the grid shows things are looking up for the Australian.

Red Bull Racing's Mark Webber went off the track yesterday but recovered to take third place on the podium.
Red Bull Racing's Mark Webber went off the track yesterday but recovered to take third place on the podium.

SHANGHAI // Mark Webber, a driver who is popular throughout the paddock, had provided an early indication this weekend that the pressure of performing in the shadow of teammate Sebastian Vettel was proving problematic.

The Australian had uncharacteristically snapped at a reporter after being asked if he felt like he was "being battered over the head with a baseball bat" - a reference to Eddie Irvine's analogy of being beaten five times in succession by then teammate Michael Schumacher in the 1990s.

Webber has endured a disappointing start to the season with Red Bull Racing - a season many believe could be his last serious chance at the world championship.

______________

More on the Chinese GP

Victorious Hamilton ends Vettel charge in China
Formula One Q&A: Adrian Sutil
Formula One notebook: After the Chinese Grand Prix
A stop-start day has Ferrari's Massa frustrated

_______________

First he suffered set-up problems at his home race in Melbourne, finishing fifth, and two weeks later in Malaysia, an issue with his Kinetic energy recovery system (Kers) device forced him to drop from third to ninth by the end of the first lap before He fought his way to fourth. Vettel won both races - and comparisons to the best driver the sport has ever produced, Schumacher.

Yesterday, however, under an unclouded sky, the light began to break through for the 34-year-old.

Starting 18th on the grid after a disastrous qualifying session that resulted in him becoming Red Bull's first Q1 casualty for 18 months, he produced a brilliant drive to battle his way through heavy traffic and finish third, seven seconds behind the winner.

At the post-race press conference, the familiar, affable Webber was back. "Maybe that is the best way to do it all the time, not even take part in qualifying and just go from there," he said.

"I was looking for more yellow flags, a few more retirements, a couple of Vodafone [McLaren-Mercedes] cars pulled over, but nothing: no yellow flags, I had to pass everybody. I really earned it."

"It wasn't easy to come back through those guys. When you see P17 on your board after 15 laps you think 'how is this going to come?' But then all of a sudden I just felt comfortable with the car."

Webber, after opting to start on the harder, slower tyres, showed tremendous talent to pass 15 cars, including Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button - all former world champions.

But he was reluctant to compare his performance against other races in his nine-year F1 career and downplayed praise from Christian Horner, his team principal, who called his drive "phenomenal" and labelled him "driver of the day".

"There were some phenomenal races even when I drove for smaller teams," said Webber, who began with Minardi in 2002 and drove for Jaguar and Williams before joining Red Bull in 2007.

"[Things just] worked out for me. It's easy to sit here and say, 'Yeah, it was phenomenal, top-three drive, overdone, rah, rah, rah,' but in the end, that's my job, mate, isn't it? You just have to get your head down … and get on with it - so that's what I did."

With two drivers on the podium, Red Bull now lead McLaren in the constructors' championship by 20 points, but Webber admitted whispered pleasure at teammate Vettel not securing a third successive race win.

"It is good that someone finally [beat him]," Webber said. "Of course Seb is in the same team, but he has been on a phenomenal run and we are all here together fighting for victories. It's a shame McLaren won, but also we can't let Seb get too far away. It was a good day for racing and a good day for us in terms of points for the team."

With three weeks until the next race in Turkey, both Red Bull drivers are hoping the team can finally solve the Kers riddle. Webber, who revealed his car had been rebuilt four times this weekend, said the problems the power-boost system provides are not simply performance related.

"It makes it so much harder for the team in terms of making mistakes; when you open up a car and put it back together all the time, it's not easy," he said. "Fortunately, we now have a bit of a break, so it will be a clear focus for us in terms of durability, consistency and understanding the system."

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae