It's a big year for...
...Mark Webber, because everyone needs him to compete against Vettel in 2012 - including Sebastian himself. Pete Gill looks at the year ahead for the Australian...
Last Updated: 07/03/12 4:34pm
It is essentially very obvious why 2012 is a big year for Mark Webber: unless he can recapture his very best form and re-establish himself as a regular race winner then his time at Red Bull - and even his whole Formula 1 career - could be entering its final chapter.
Whether Webber sees the forthcoming campaign in such stark terms is unlikely. Regardless of how you rate the Australian in relation to some of the sport's more heralded stars, his fighting spirit is indomitable and his talent considerable. If Sebastian Vettel's domination goes unchecked then Webber's reputation will surely soar to a level not realised during his time in the present on account of close he ran the German wunderkind in 2010. Mark, for all the criticism he received in the wake of a deeply unsatisfactory 2011 season, may actually be one of the most under-rated drivers in the sport. Just because he's not Vettel, doesn't meant he's not an outstanding driver in his own right.
Yet enough of the sunny uplands because there's no avoiding the unfactual fact that it's now or never for Mark. Unless he can find a way to stem the tidal wave of sustained excellence that Vettel unleashed last season, the Australian will surely be swept aside in November to accommodate a new, younger partner for the current World Champion. Red Bull will surely have no choice but to look to a future devoid of the 30-something Aussie because they must know that, at some point sooner rather than later, Mercedes are bound to come a tempting for Vettel, armed with a blank cheque and the tempting tease that he can do for them what Schumacher did for Ferrari and what Ferrari did for his reputation in return. All of which thus leaves Red Bull already in need of a long-term solution to an inevitable future problem, and Webber on borrowed time as an ageing resident inside the last-chance saloon.
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Mark's sought-after bounceback can be said to have already started in the best possible fashion following his end-of-season victory in Brazil, but it was the ultimate hollow triumph, occurring long after Vettel had wrapped up the title and only in the event of a gearbox failure on the German's Red Bull. The factual fact that Webber hadn't previously won all season - and registered just three defeats of Vettel in qualifying - in the best car on the grid was damning in the extreme. Pushed to its extreme, it could even be used as evidence that Webber is somewhat fortunate to have been given another year alongside Vettel.
In 2012, he must do better. Leaving Red Bull and the sport - after so many years in F1 and so many seasons at the top, just why would he hang around to be a mere midfield runner? - in the wake of a 2011 repeat would be an ignominious humiliation.
Whilst nobody could reasonably expect him to defeat Vettel, it is reasonable to expect him to compete. Otherwise everyone suffers: Webber because his reputation will continue to ebb towards discontent and mockery, Vettel because every driver needs a rival to stand the test of credibility, Red Bull because either McLaren or Ferrari will surely make a sustained challenge to their dominance and the reigning champions will need two drivers to withstand any such fightback, and the viewing public because there is nothing as soporific in F1 as a dominant driver from a one-driver team. Wish him well, therefore.
As yet, the tide of public opinion has not turned against Webber, but it's all-too easy to foresee a scenario in which it would. All it might take is half-a-dozen races at the start of 2012 repeating the trend of 2011 and the finger of discontent will point at Webber for not offering enough of a challenge to his younger, all-dominant team-mate. For that reason alone, the new season represents a massive year in his career. Factor in other pertinent considerations such as self-esteem, the potential of victories and the emotive desire to bow out with a bang, and next season suddenly looms large as a gigantic matter for the Aussie.
Personable, honest and up front in good times and bad, Webber is one of the most likeable figures in the sport. So here's hoping he delivers the sort of early-season success that could take him a long way in a sport of momentum. But there's a vested interest at play too behind the goodwill because, likeable or not, F1 needs Webber to find his voice again after the long silence of 2011 and, if this is the end of his F1 road, to leave with a loud last hurrah.