Mark Webber has become very much Red Bull’s number two driver over the past three seasons. That’s more due to the extraordinary performance of his team-mate – triple World Champion Sebastian Vettel – than anything else, and Webber is still highly regarded in Formula One. But it has become clear over time that Red Bull want him to play a supporting role despite their publicly professed policy of driver equality.
Recently, Red Bull Racing Motorsport Director Dr. Helmut Marko criticised Mark Webber quite openly in an interview for The Red Bulletin, Red Bull’s own magazine:
“It seems to me that Webber has on average two races per year where he is unbeatable, but he can’t maintain this form throughout the year. And as soon as his prospects start to look good in the world championship, he has a little trouble with the pressure that this creates. In comparison with Seb’s rising form, it seems to me that Mark’s form somehow flattens out. Then, if some technical mishap occurs, like with the alternator for example, he falls relatively easily into a downward spiral.”
While it certainly seems true that Vettel copes well with pressure, Webber is no slouch. He went into the final round of the 2010 season in Abu Dhabi ahead of Vettel on points and could have won the title if not for a strategic error that put him out of position on a track where overtaking was extremely difficult. For the first half of 2012, it was Webber who looked more like challenging Fernando Alonso for the title, although Vettel certainly found his feet in the second half of the season.
Perhaps Dr. Marko would do better to work within the team and find a solution to Webber’s difficulties under championship pressure rather than undermining his driver by discussing his weakness in public.
The German dream team was created for the 2010 season. Mercedes returned to Formula 1, Michael Schumacher returned to Formula 1, and up-and-coming star Nico Rosberg joined the team. Mercedes had bought Brawn, the team that won both championships in 2009. Who could compete with them?
As it turned out, everyone could compete with Mercedes. They finished only 4th in the 2010 Constructors’ Championship and didn’t ever look like challenging for a win. Rosberg stood on the podium 3 times and qualified on the front row of the grid once, but never really challenged for a race win. Schumacher looked a shadow of his former dominant self, and didn’t trouble the podium all season.
The 2010 season was a big let-down, but perhaps that was understandable. Any Formula 1 team needs time to develop, and Mercedes had not yet had that time. In addition, Schumacher had been out of Formula 1 for 3 years. He was visibly rusty, and only more track time could solve that problem. The positive that came out of 2010 was that Nico Rosberg looked every bit a future race winner. He easily outperformed Schumacher and raced hard on the track for his 3 podiums and 7th place in the championship.
Pre-season testing for 2011 looked promising. The new Mercedes seemed fast, although it’s always difficult to compare testing times. There was hope that 2011 could be a year of podiums and perhaps a win or two. Sadly, it was not to be. The expected competitiveness did not materialise. Once again, Mercedes were the 4th fastest team, and once again they were nowhere near winning a race.
In 2011, Mercedes did not win a race, did not appear on the podium and did not qualify on the front row of the grid. If anything, the team has fallen even further behind Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari than it was in 2010. What is particularly concerning is that Mercedes seem to be operating conservatively. No big technical developments have come from Mercedes this season. Red Bull pioneered the blown diffuser, McLaren started the season with very interesting looking side-pods. What are Mercedes doing differently? They have no shortage of resources, so where is the innovation? If it is happening, it’s not visible.
On the positive side, 2011 saw a resurgent Schumacher. He still lacks a bit of qualifying performance, but his race-pace is no longer questionable. His race starts have been impressive, and as a result he has frequently been fighting with the top teams early on in the races. The car has let him down, however, and he has not been able to translate those good starts into big points. Schumacher put in a fantastic performance in Canada in changing conditions to finish 4th, after running second close to the end. Jenson Button and Mark Webber managed to pass him only with the benefit of DRS. If he can carry this form into 2012 and Mercedes can give him a front-running car, Schumacher should have a strong 2012. His contract finishes at the end of 2012, and while he can extend his contract (the team have already stated that they are open to an extension), Mercedes will have to give him a reason to stay.
Nico Rosberg had a quiet but strong season. He finished 7th in the championship again, ahead of Schumacher, and outqualified his team-mate 16 times out of 19 races. Among his performances, Rosberg led in the opening laps of the Belgian Grand Prix after storming to the front on lap 1 from 5th on the grid. Alas, it was not to last as Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull eventually proved simply too quick for the Mercedes. Rosberg has shown his pace. He has already proven that all he needs is a competitive car to be able to fight for race wins. But there is an impression of frustration developing. 2 years in to his contract with Mercedes, he is not at the front, and it is obviously the car that is lacking. If the 2012 car is not capable of winning, Rosberg’s patience will be severely tested.
Mercedes have now been back in Formula 1 for 2 difficult years. 2012 must surely be a significant year for them. Either they will return to the front of the grid, or the dream will begin to fade. Pre-season testing will give some indication of what is to come, but ultimately, Mercedes have to deliver in the races. Thus far, they have not done so.