Webber bullish, but the track ahead is chicane-ridden

The Drivers' Championship is within Red Bull Racing's grasp. Webber (161 points) might not exactly be perched comfortably atop the leader-board as he is only five points ahead of Lewis Hamilton with seven more races to go. But he will go into the Belgian Grand Prix (August 29) with the kind of determination that accompanies a man who has tasted success and is craving for more. Going into the summer break, Webber has won four races — the most by a driver so far this season. Over to G. Raghunath.

When Red Bull, the manufacturer of the eponymous energy drink, took over Jaguar Racing in 2004, the team wouldn't have even dared to dream of winning the World Championship. Obscured as it was by mediocre performances and middle-order finishes, it was impossible not to suspect Red Bull's intention in becoming a player in the Formula One circuit. Did the team really want to win a race, leave alone the world title? Or was it trying to use the sport as a means to market its energy drink?

The 2009 season, however, changed people's perception of the team. Though Red Bull Racing launched its assault on the title a little too late (Brawn GP had taken control by then with Jenson Button posting seven victories in the first eight races), the team had sent out warnings to its rivals that it was no pushover. And this year, Red Bull Racing began its charge quite early — a charge that was quite sensational in both its planning and execution. And the credit for this should go to the team boss, Christian Horner, the technical head, Adrian Newey, and drivers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel.

The Drivers' Championship is within Red Bull Racing's grasp (see table). Webber (161 points) might not exactly be perched comfortably atop the leader-board (he is only five points ahead of Lewis Hamilton. Vettel, Button and Fernando Alonso are adrift of the leader by 10, 14 and 20 points respectively with seven more races to go), but he will go into the Belgian Grand Prix (August 29) with the kind of determination that accompanies a man who has tasted success and is craving for more. Going into the summer break, Webber has won four races — the most by a driver so far this season.

Between Webber and Vettel, Red Bull Racing has 11 poles and six victories, and definitely what are now known in the circuit as the “Cars of the Year”. That's how powerful the team is. However, the 10-point lead that Webber has over Vettel could prove to be a good head-start for the Aussie in the second half of the season if only he can keep his car and mind in line.

Nothing succeeds like success, but then success could also bring in other attendant problems, as Red Bull Racing realised midway through the season. If the team's technological master-strokes such as the low exhaust and rear blown diffuser systems and flexible front wing — which has contributed immensely to its success — sent the established teams scurrying back to the drawing boards, its spunky but warring protagonists, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, ensured that it was no more than a parody of the team which otherwise seemed to have every other issue firmly under control. Sod's law at its best, you might say.

The nervous tension between the two drivers was first seen at the Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul when Webber, leading the race, and Vettel, in hot pursuit, collided in the 40th lap much to the dismay of the team. It was a collision that brought back the nightmare of the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix for the Australian. Vettel, then driving for Red Bull's second team, Scuderia Toro Rosso, rammed into Webber, running second, which effectively sealed the Aussie's fate in the race.

This time the crash jeopardised a potential 1-2 finish for Red Bull though Webber, with a new nose cone, brilliantly steered his car to the third place, behind the McLaren duo, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. Vettel, whose race ended then and there after the incident, drew astringent criticism from most experts for his mindless overtaking manoeuvre. As for the drivers, they debated long after the race weekend. Vettel insisted he was quicker and had the corner; Webber retorted: “We'll probably have a difference of opinion until we go to our graves.”

The young German, though, had the backing of the majority of the Red Bull crew. And most importantly the team's racing consultant, Helmut Marko, who blamed Webber for refusing to allow Vettel to pass him.

Three races later, at Silverstone (British Grand Prix), the relationship between the two Red Bull drivers was dented further when Webber was asked to sacrifice his new front wing to help refurbish Vettel's damaged car.

In a way, the move was symptomatic of Red Bull Racing's priorities and who the team's favourite (or the number one) driver was. To the makers of Red Bull, which is quite popular among the youth in Europe and many other places — some use it mainly as a mix for alcoholic beverages — it might seem natural for their team to repose faith in Vettel, 23, who, besides being phenomenally talented, is also pretty marketable.

But ply Webber with stereotypes and he is wont to trash it. He has done it before — during his debut season in 2002 for instance, when he scored the first points for the back-marker Minardi when nobody gave him a chance to do so; and in the few seasons before joining the Red Bull stable when he put cars from teams that were far from competitive on the front rows of the starting grids. And he continues to do it.

Webber's victory in the British Grand Prix despite his bete noire starting the race from pole position was the stuff of champions. The 34-year-old Aussie overwhelmed Vettel after the first corner and dashed to victory.

He proved to the Formula One world, and particularly to his team, that at his age he still has the fire within to reduce even the stiffest of challenges to ashes. Webber then raised the hackles of the team with his terse comment: “That's not bad for a No. 2 (driver).”

Red Bull Racing, realising the calamitous consequences of having two drivers who were at each other's throat, made serious attempts to bring about a rapprochement between Webber and Vettel after the British Grand Prix.

Though Webber and Vettel did not hug each other in public or go on record clearly regarding the current status of their relationship after the jam session at the home of Red Bull Racing head, Christian Horner — Webber, Vettel & Co, reportedly, rendered Bryan Adams' ‘Summer of ‘69', Deep Purple's ‘Smoke on the Water' and Don McLean's ‘American Pie' during the session — the Milton Keynes-based outfit did manage to restore some sanity in its ranks.

For McLaren, one of the top three contenders, speed has been a major issue this season. Its efforts to improve both Hamilton's and Button's cars haven't yielded desired results. The team's novel F-Duct has been a let-down though it has worked very well for Red Bull Racing which perfected the system to suit its package.

Individually, former champion Hamilton and the defending champion Button have had good runs this season, but they need faster and reliable cars to beat back Red Bull Racing's challenge. And like the championship's leading team, McLaren too needs to handle its drivers discreetly, for at the Turkish Grand Prix there were sufficient hints of a mild skirmish between Hamilton and Button after the two had moved into the lead in the wake of the Webber-Vettel collision.

Ferrari, a favourite each season, began 2010 on a winning note with its new signing Fernando Alonso leading a 1-2 finish for the team in Bahrain. Thereafter the Maranello outfit's performance has been abysmal, so has its upgrades. The team, however, showed its resilience in good measure at the German Grand Prix, but Alonso's victory was overshadowed by allegations of the banned ‘team orders'. Ferrari was fined $100,000 for the offence and will appear for a FIA hearing on September 8.

Mercedes, in its third reincarnation, has so far not been able to replicate its extraordinary success as Brawn GP last year. Even more disappointing has been the high-profile comeback of Michael Schumacher, who has woefully been off the pace. The seven-time world champion's die-hard fans, just as Mercedes' boss Ross Brawn, believe that Schumacher is still capable of producing that explosive run which had made him a legend in Formula One. And they are waiting.