I’ve been thinking about Mark Webber’s recent success and it struck me that ‘older driver makes good’ is such a positive storyline for Formula 1.
In two successive seasons we have seen the phenomenon of drivers in the later stages of their careers finding success; Jenson Button and Mark Webber. Both have seen their careers revitalized when it looked like the sands of time might be starting to run out for them.
In the last decade, F1 has been dominated by drivers who were successful pretty much from the start of their F1 careers, drivers like Alonso, Hamilton, Schumacher and Raikkonen.
F1 has always had drivers who spend the bulk of their careers pushing water uphill in uncompetitive cars. Many never get the wins they were so certain they would have on their way up the ladder. Instead they make up the numbers, picking up the odd podium along the way and then get dumped out of the sport in favour of a younger driver.
Meanwhile the hot young things, the Alonsos, Hamiltons and Vettels, are groomed by driver development programmes, come into F1 in competitive cars and leapfrog the older pros.
Drivers like Button and Webber must have felt that their opportunity would never come. The concept of a ‘long in the tooth’ driver, considered a ‘journeyman’ by many who gets a winning car and suddenly dominates provides a nice counterpoint to the ‘thrilling rookie’ storyline we have become used to.
Webber is reminding me of Nigel Mansell at the moment. Both had obvious speed, but struggled for consistency until one day in their early 30s they were given a competitive car and they went out and made maximum use of it.
Like Webber, Mansell was 32 when he started winning races. He won two races in 1985 and then was a title contender the following year with Williams, only losing out at the final race. Webber looks like he may emulate that pattern and who knows where the story might end? The Red Bull is the fastest car out there and he’s got some real momentum going. It will take a mighty effort by his team mate Vettel or someone like Alonso to get on top of him.
Although quite different characters, Webber and Mansell are both old school racers. They share a warrior spirit and now that Webber has unlocked the secret of dominating a race weekend, locking out pole position and leading from the front in the race, not giving the opposition a chance, he has the chance to emulate Mansell and Button and go on to become a champion.
As with both of those drivers, many people doubted that Webber had it in him to do this. What makes it very interesting is that within Red Bull, certainly the Austrian side of the company, the weight is behind Vettel.
He is the product of the expensive driver development programme, he’s the one with the most pictures on the website and Webber is there to push him hard. If he gets beaten by the ‘journeyman’ what does that say about him and the huge investment in his development programme?
The team said this week that it found some damage on Vettel’s chassis after Monaco, which possibly accounts for him not being on Webber’s pace in the last two races. It must have been subtle damage as Vettel managed to set the fastest lap in the closing stages of the Monaco race.
But psychologically for the team the new chassis is a page turner; there had to be some other reason why he was being beaten by the other guy and now the pressure is really on Vettel to regain the initiative.
He outpaced Webber in Turkey and Silverstone last season and I think the British Grand Prix in particular is set up to be a landmark event, as the Red Bull will be untouchable due to its prowess in fast corners and so we will see a battle for supremacy between these two fine drivers. Vettel got the upper hand last year, if he fails to do so this year the pendulum may stick on Webber’s side.
Vettel is a huge talent and his time will certainly come. This is Webber’s one chance and it looks like he’s figured out how to make the most of it.