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Why Webber always had star quality

Mark Webber celebrates his maiden win

Highlights - German Grand Prix

By Mark Hughes
BBC F1 commentary box producer

So it's finally happened. In his eighth season of trying, Mark Webber has at last won a grand prix - and in a manner resounding enough to suggest there could be plenty more.

It has been way too long coming for someone of Webber's ability but, as Jenson Button has also demonstrated this year, you don't win grands prix unless you are in the right car and the Red Bull RB5 represents the first such machine Webber has got his hands on.

But even within the Formula 1 paddock, his is a talent that for years has been vastly underappreciated.

Few seemed to notice the unerring habit he had of transcending the limitations of his machinery. Yet he has been doing it since he climbed into a Minardi in 2002 and through his days at Jaguar and Williams before getting to Red Bull.

A Jaguar should not have been on the front row - or anywhere near it - at Malaysia in 2004.

A Williams should not have been on a weight-adjusted pole, faster than Fernando Alonso's Renault or Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren, at the Nurburgring in 2005.

I'm delighted he's finally cracked it because he's a super guy and a hell of a driver

Pat Symonds
Renault engineering director

A Williams had no business fighting for victory with Alonso and Raikkonen in the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix.

But all these things, and more, Webber has done. He has also, until this year, been demonstrably faster than every team-mate he has had - which is quite something over seven seasons and suggests he has for years been an absolute ace in sub-standard cars.

But the standard cliched opinion has been "great qualifier, iffy racer". That's based on two things.

If you qualify a sub-standard car higher than its natural level, you are always going to go backwards in the race as the tyres will not withstand the repeated abuse of going beyond their grip limit. Over one or two qualifying laps, it is possible.

The second factor was a certain tendency for his intensely competitive nature to lead him to over-strive and make errors in the heat of battle. It takes no time at all to gain such a reputation and years to lose it.

Since the second half of 2006 he has been rock-solid, statistically no more error-prone than any of the recognised top-liners. Certainly, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton made far more race errors in 2008 than Webber.

Fernando Alonso's Renault leads Mark Webber's Williams and the McLaren of Kimi Raikkonen at Monaco in 20-06
Monaco 2006 was among several races when Webber transcended his car

Stand trackside and Webber's quality is more than obvious.

Watch his supreme ability to instantly find the grip limits, which he combines with an ability to stand on the brake pedal harder than anyone else - and that translates to lap time where the approach speed is high enough to make such pressure possible without locking the brakes.

Then there is his exquisite feel for how to ease off that pressure at the same rate as the downforce is bleeding off because of the reducing speed, and how to blend it all with super-high entry speeds.

Such drivers usually find their way into a competitive car where they can prove their qualities beyond doubt, and it usually doesn't take seven years.

But he had a chance of a winning car back in 2005, when he spurned his manager Flavio Briatore's offer to join Renault and opted instead for Williams. It is difficult to recover from such wrong calls and only now is he doing so.

At the time Webber figured Williams would be the front-rank team they had been a couple of years earlier. They were not and it turned out Renault were entering a golden period. He had been nervous about joining what was already Fernando Alonso's team.

"I wish he'd said yes to us back then," said Renault's engineering director Pat Symonds after Webber's win. "I'm delighted he's finally cracked it because he's a super guy and a hell of a driver. But had he not been such a prat as to turn us down I'm sure he'd now have many grand prix wins under his belt. It's something I've never stopped reminding him of ever since!"

Last November he didn't know whether he had a grand prix career left

Christian Horner
Red Bull team principal

Keeping the faith with Red Bull finally delivered its reward with Adrian Newey's aggressively advanced interpretation of the 2009 F1 regulations, the RB5. That was the good news.

The bad, of course, was a badly broken right leg and shoulder before the car even turned a wheel. Oh, and the installation in the sister car of the new sensation Sebastian Vettel, youngest grand prix winner, faster than any of the team-mates Webber had seen off in his career to date and a guy with all the career momentum with him.

The general expectation was that Vettel would easily establish himself as the team's lead driver.

The late launch of the car maximised Webber's recovery time but even so he was one worried man as he got back in the car for the first time since his Tasmanian Challenge cycling collision with a 4x4.

"I was bricking it the night before," he stated. "Obviously, there were questions I couldn't answer until I got in the car. Would I still be able to do it to the same level? That test answered all those questions and I was ready to progress."

Webber had not been the only nervous one at that test. Team principal Christian Horner looked on.

"Last November he didn't know whether he had a grand prix career left," revealed Horner. "He was lying in a bed in Australia with a badly broken leg and a broken shoulder that he forgot to tell us about.

"When he got in the car in early February he was genuinely apprehensive whether he would have the feel in his right leg and control over his ankle.

Mark Webber and his physio Roger Cleary work on  his broken right leg
A badly broken leg meant a difficult build-up to this season for Webber

"I remember looking closely in his eyes after the installation lap and you could see a great deal of relief that everything worked. From then on he was focusing on Melbourne and he has worked incredibly hard to get himself back to race fitness."

Into the season, Webber was able to push Vettel harder than perhaps most expected but still it was the young German who took the team's first victory, Webber who was the runner-up.

The key seemed to be Vettel's consistently better qualifying - even though the waters were muddied by Webber's habit of opting for a heavier fuel load in the final session.

Superb though Webber's consistent race speed was - helping him to overcome Vettel in Spain and Monaco - the fine edge of his former qualifying mastery seemed slightly dulled.

Ironically, when it mattered more than ever, with a potential race-winning car and a hugely fast team-mate, his qualifying was letting him down after years of it being his most eye-catching skill.

But there were signs at Silverstone that maybe it was returning.

Although his pole challenge ended when he became distracted by a slow Kimi Raikkonen driving his in-lap on the racing line, his speed until then had been mighty. Vettel taking the pole there was against the run of play.

Maybe, just maybe, Webber's injuries had been compromising him more than he was prepared to admit earlier in the season and now perhaps the feel was returning.

Andrew Benson's blog

At the Nurburgring last weekend he was on a mission. Fastest in the first qualifying session, his first flying lap on intermediates in the rain of the second session was arguably the lap of the season to date - 1.5 seconds quicker than Vettel, three seconds faster than anyone else.

Into the final session, his lap was perfect, Vettel's had a couple of errors - and a couple of Brawns slotted in between them. Webber's first pole was the foundation of his maiden victory.

"I'm hoping it's like a muscle," he said in the aftermath, "in that it takes a while to get the first one but the others come easier."

Mark Hughes has been an F1 journalist for 10 years and is an award-winning author of several books

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see also
Martin Brundle column
13 Jul 09 |  Formula 1
Button eager to stop Red Bull run
12 Jul 09 |  Formula 1
Webber 'could be the new Mansell'
12 Jul 09 |  Formula 1
Webber battles to maiden F1 win
12 Jul 09 |  Formula 1
Red Bull blow F1 fight wide open
23 Jun 09 |  Formula 1
Vettel enters realm of F1 great
21 Apr 09 |  Formula 1

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