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Mark Webber Dominates for a Win at Silverstone

Mark Webber: "Not bad for a number two!"

Once again the Red Bull squad seemed to have a likely one-two finish within their grasp, and once again they revealed their Achilles heel (i.e. driver rivalry that the team brass seems unable to cope with).  Team mates Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber shared front row on the grid today, and although Vettel sat on pole, when the red lights went out it was Webber who lurched into the lead.  The two drivers fought for the same piece of real estate, playing a brief game of chicken.  It was Vettel who came out the loser.  He caromed off and on and off the track again, using an imnpressive amount of runoff area.  In so doing, he punctured a rear tire, which did much to decide the outcome of his race.

Meanwhile, Webber shot off into the lead, with Lewis Hamilton in hot pursuit.  And while Hamilton struggled mightily to make an impact on Webber, the Aussie never relenquished the upper hand.  It was his race to lose, but he never made a false step.  When he finally took the checkers, he said, “Not bad for a number two,” a not so oblique reference to the weekend’s front wing controversy.

During practice, one of the two front wing upgrades brought to Silverstone by the team was damaged.  The remaining wing was taken from Webber’s car and mounted on Vettel’s.  The Aussie was not amused.  He’d already been nursing an inferiority complex over his supposed secondary status at the team.  Vettel is the golden boy of the Austrian owned outfit, and while putative team boss Christian Horner might have been inclined to let Webber keep the new wing, apparently orders came from Austrian corporate headquarters that the wing was to be allotted to Vettel.  It was duly swapped, and Vettel duly took pole.  How much of his pace was owing to the wing is a matter for conjecture.

Horner later stated that the choice was made using rational criteria: (a) Vettel was leading Webber in the points, and (b) Vettel showed better performance with the new wing during practice.  After the race, as if to validate this window dressing, Horner said that Webber would be given preference at the next race at Hockenheim, inasmuch as he now leads Vettel in points.  But of course, this is always subject to revision, especially if Vettel proves quicker than Webber in practice and qualifying again.  Or if Red Bull GmbH honcho Dietrich Mateschitz says otherwise.

As for the rest of the race, as is often the case at Silverstone, most of the action took place among the midfield cars.  Due to a variety of tire punctures, a safety car deployment and a drive-through penalty given to Ferrari pilot Fernando Alonso, the running order was mixed up quite a bit, which meant the midfield was occupied by some of the grid’s heavyweights, which made for some interesting dicing.

McLaren’s Jenson Button, who started a miserable 14th, drove his usual sensible, patient race, and worked his way up to fourth.  He was recently miffed when former champ Damon Hill likened McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Button to the proverbial tortoise and hare, but Hill’s remarks only stung because they were valid.  Hamilton races aggressively, and takes the fight to the enemy.  Often it works well, but sometimes it ends in tears.  Button, on the other hand, with several years more experience under his belt, has learned how to read a race and let it come his way.  He’s generally not as quick as Hamilton on the day, but there have been instances this year when he’s won races  that Hamilton might have but didn’t, because he’d misjudged the race.

Vettel did well enough to claw his way up to seventh.  After his first lap pit stop for new rubber, he was dead last.  I’ve often thought that Vettel was a bit like Damon Hill: quick in a clear field, but easily bogged in traffic.  But his aggressive run today proved that wrong, and it’s easy to see that as he evolves as a driver he’s every bit as much of a racer as his fellow golden boy, Lewis Hamilton.  I think in equal equipment, Vettel would be an equal match for the young Briton.

Rubens Barrichello was impressive today in the Williams.  The Williams duo had been struggling over the past few races, but recent upgrades seem to have made a significant difference.  What isn’t any different is the performance differential between Barrichello and his rookie team mate Nico Hulkenberg.  Barrichello was hired on a one-year retainer with an eye to his mentoring young Hulkenberg, but while he’s certainly showing Nico the way, it doesn’t appear that Williams will have much cause to replace Barrichello for 2011.  He seems very much lead driver on the team.

Not so returning ace Michael Schumacher, however.   Yet again, Nico Rosberg outpaced him at nearly every step this weekend.  Given that Rosberg was gushing over the most recent upgrades to the Mercedes package, Schumacher had little room to complain of how the car let him down.  He did complain of being mired in traffic, but then so was everyone else who was behind Webber and Hamilton, that duo essentially being in their own race ahead of the rest of the field.  Sad to say, Schumi seemed unable to overtake a single car, while he did manage to lose a few positions in scraps with Kobayashi, Vettel and Sutil at various times on track.

The benchmark for any team is always the quicker of the two drivers, and as long as Rosberg continues to find performance in the W01 Mercedes, Schumi will have little room for making excuses, beyond saying that he wasn’t able to put a decent lap together, or he was mired in traffic.  But those are excuses he never had to resort to in his prime.

The word leaking out from the Mercedes camp is that Schumacher is gung ho to scrap development of the W01, in order to concentrate on the W02 for 2011.  There is much logic to this, from his point of view.  His current year is a disaster, and there might be some truth to the fact that part of his problem lies with W01 itself, which is, in fact, an evolution of car (badged as Brawn last year) that was designed around Jenson Button.  Schumi will be keen to offer as much input as he can to produce a car more to his own liking.  Naturally, Nico Rosberg, who has been able to score the odd podium finish thus far this year, doesn’t see things quite the same way.

Of course, it’s also possible that a fresh irony might greet Schumacher at the other end of the wind tunnel.  Suppose they tailor the new car specifically to his needs, and Rosberg still manages to outclass him at every turn?  Schumi is on a three-year deal with Mercedes, but one wonders if all parties concerned might have a rethink at some point during next season if Schumcher continues to seem stuck in reverse.

Image by f1photos.org, licensed through Creative Commons.

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