Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 1; Points 26
To many F1 racing aficionados, Mark Webber being touted as a title contender might sound a trifle incongruous. At 36, he is the veteran driver on the grid, has made 200 race starts and yet, never won a World Driver’s Title since he made his début for Minardi way back in 2002.
Webber’s class as a F1 driver has never been in question, but his ability to go for the kill and close out the competition in the latter stages of the season, has. As if to make matters more difficult for Webber, Helmut Marko, the team’s consultant and right-hand man of owner Dietrich Mateschitz, went on record at the start of the 2013 Season by declaring that Mark Webber “can’t maintain form throughout an entire F1 season” and that he had “a little trouble” handling pressure! Webber hit back promptly stating that he knew he wasn’t part “of Marko’s agenda”! Vettel’s recent pronouncements about Webber not deserving to win at Malaysia has further fuelled the already volatile situation within the team.
Webber’s rivalry with fellow driver and world champion Sebastian Vettel, dating back to 2010, has been well documented and analysed will have a major bearing on his fortunes this season. The public spat between the two after Sepang and his criticism of the team principals with regard to providing the German special favours and “protection”, has resulted in the Red Bull Racing team management withdrawing all team orders for future races – at least in the early part of the season. Multi-21, the term that trended on Twitter, is history. While this does reflect on the fact that Christian Horner and Adrian Newey have lost all control over their battling drivers, it does leave Webber freer than in previous seasons to assert himself. But, on the other hand, that could be a dangerous proposition in situations where they might be fighting for a win during any of the impending 17 races! Tremendously exciting for the fans but a sure-fire recipe for disaster for RBR!
To many of us die-hard Formula 1 fans, Webber continues to remain an enigma wrapped in a paradox. He can be as smooth and as explosive as any of the great F1 drivers over the years, and yet, despite having a wonderfully engineered championship-winning car, the results have belied his awesome talent. It must be acknowledged that he has had his fair share of terrible luck as well – simply hark back to the races in Abu Dhabi in 2012 and the one at Austin, Texas. In the first, he got caught in the middle of a chaotic pile-up and had to retire, and in the second, suffered an alternator failure forcing him to beach his RB8 in the early laps. More recently, at Melbourne, he had another electronics failure which compromised his start and pushed him to the middle of the grid.
It is now a foregone conclusion that 2013 will probably be the last season that Mark Webber drives for the Austrian outfit. Simply from that perspective, he has nothing to lose and that elusive title to gain in the bargain. While Vettel has struggled with tyre-wear and more recently at Shanghai, excessive vibrations in his car, Webber has a machine that seems to be a lot more stable and the fastest on the grid over a single lap. Another indication of the Aussie’s grit and determination to establish his legacy at RBR was seen at Shanghai’s second practice where he consistently hit the top of the time-sheets even as his champion team-mate struggled. The Shanghai Grand Prix will provide an excellent indicator of how the Vettel-Webber saga will play out for the rest of the season.
6. Felipe Massa, Ferrari (Brazil): 2012 Season – Wins 0; Podiums 2; Points 122
Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 22; Points
Just a year ago, if anyone had predicted that Felipe Massa would be a title contender, he/she would have been laughed out-of-town. Worse, the person might have lost his right to earn a livelihood in the sports writing business. How things change!
The diminutive Brazilian has turned the form book on its head and if the last season and the early part of 2013 have been any indicator, he is well on his way to getting back to his best.
After his horrific accident at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009 when a spring from another car broke loose and pierced his helmet, cracked his skull and got lodged above his right eye, Massa was never the force that he was before that unfortunate incident. Medical experts have stated that the skull injury impacted his brain in a way that it hampered his concentration and coördination levels in a high-performance race car. There was also the psychological aspect that probably crept into his mental make-up wherein he expected the worst every time that he stepped on the track. It made him look tentative and wary – definitely not categorized as virtues for a Formula 1 race driver!
It is credit to Ferrari that they waited for him to recover from the major surgery and reinstate him in the team albeit as the Number Two driver alongside former world champion Fernando Alonso. While race fans and pundits were extremely relieved with his return to the fold, the results were not forthcoming. Massa had to endure the ignominy of being the first driver ever in the history of Ferrari to not earn a podium in an entire season, in 2011. At the start of the 2012 Season, speculation was rife that Massa would eventually have to go and would be replaced by a younger, higher-performing driver. Sergio Perez, the Mexican who impressed one and all with the resurgent Sauber team (and part of Ferrari’s young drivers program) was touted to be at the top of list to take Massa’s place.
This air of uncertainty played havoc with Massa’s performance in 2012. In 14 Grand Prix starts, he managed only 51 points with 4th pace finishes in Silverstone, England and Monza, Italy being his only notable results. With Massa in the doldrums, the writing was on the wall and everyone believed that a team such as Ferrari would or could not continue to persist with such a poor-performing driver in its ranks. That was when the Maranello giant confounded the Formula 1 racing world by extending Massa’s contract by another year. The results were immediate and incredible! It was as if Massa had rediscovered his groove.
A happier Massa and now almost fully recovered from his debilitating head injury was back to his best. The driver that the racing world admired and respected was back with a bang, driving with the same grace, control and panache of his yeomen years. Massa exploded to a 2nd place podium finish in Japan and then placed P4, P6, P7 and again P4 in the next four races at Korea, India, Abu Dhabi and the U.S. respectively. He ended the season in style at his home race in São Paulo with a 3rd place podium. In all, he had racked up 71 points thereby reaffirming his place among the top 10 F1 drivers in the world.
It has been rumoured and reported that Ferrari is concerned about the impact of Massa’s resurgence on the team’s fortunes this season because even though he is the designated Number Two driver, he is showing signs of dominating his more illustrious counterpart – Fernando Alonso. Proof is available in his performances over the last five races (three last season and two this year) wherein he has out-qualified Alonso. He completed the race at Sepang even as the Spaniard crashed out in lap 2 thereby narrowing the gap between the two further. And only today, Massa topped the time sheets at Shanghai in the second practice.
Massa being back to the best is great news for race fans the world over. However, while it increases the headache of the Ferrari team bosses, it is sure to spice up Season 2013’s championship stakes.