Mark Webber has thrown down the gauntlet: his habitual stunning form at the Nurburgring was evident again on Friday, leaving Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel apparently struggling a little in his wake.
Post-Silverstone, Christian Horner and Webber 'agreed to disagree' about the team order in the late stages of that race. Webber absolutely understood his team boss' concerns from the team's perspective. But from his own, there is absolutely zero prospect of him accepting number two status, despite the current wide margin Sebastian Vettel leads him by in the championship.
Earlier in the year Webber found it impossible to control his irritation when a journalist asked him if he was not now in that role. "There's no way I'm ever going to accept the sort of situation Rubens [Barrichello], say, found himself in at Ferrari for all those years," said Webber later. "I think I've showed often enough that I can come back from knockbacks and emerge even stronger. That's what being a competitor is all about."
Since that time, while Vettel has maintained the upper hand, the gap has definitely been narrowing. Webber has been getting an ever-better handle on how to look after the delicate rear Pirelli tyres. His Silverstone pole was perhaps more to do with putting together a more aggressive first Q3 run than Vettel than any underlying pace advantage, but it just added to the momentum of recent progress.
He seems to thrive on a little bit of conflict and coming off the back of events at Silverstone, he could not have wished for a more suitable venue than the Nurburgring. Not only is it Vettel's home race but for some reason Webber has always been absolutely on fire around here. "Yeah mate," he replied when this was pointed out. "It's just a pity we only come here once every two years."
Webber's form was evident both in the qualifying and race simulations. The Red Bull, as usual, looked the class of the field, the Ferraris didn't look as strong as at Silverstone and McLaren, as well as struggling for reliability with an experimental new exhaust on Jenson Button's car, was some way adrift in qualifying simulation but more respectable on longer runs.
There is something about the Nurburgring track that works spectacularly well for Webber: it was at the last grand prix here two years ago that he took his maiden victory with a stunning performance through Saturday and Sunday that left his team-mate Vettel reeling. It was here six years ago that Webber was on a weight-adjusted pole with his third fastest time in a Williams. It was here that he took a podium in the otherwise midfield 2007 Red Bull.
In the qualifying simulations of Friday afternoon Webber was fastest, putting in two laps of 1m31.7s, around 0.3s quicker than Vettel, with most of the deficit coming in the fast middle sector. In fact Webber's closest rival with the cars in this trim was Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who nestled between the two Red Bulls. But the times seemed to be coming easier from the RB7 than the Ferrari, with Alonso off the road several times as he tried to coax everything from the car which - like the Red Bull - featured just small detail changes since Silverstone.
Alonso's 1m31.8s came on his third flying lap on the soft tyres after he'd spoilt both previous laps with lock-ups and lurid moments. As such, the tyres will undoubtedly have been past their best when he set that time, giving some encouragement to the team that it may be able to fight for pole.
But it should be remembered that the Red Bull invariably finds those vital couple of extra tenths in Q3. Although Ferrari beat Red Bull fair and square at Silverstone, there was a suggestion that the RB7 was perhaps overworking its rear tyres a little through that circuit's fast, long duration sweeps and perhaps that flattered the Ferrari. The Nurburgring's layout is considerably easier on the rubber.
McLaren looks unlikely to feature in the pole fight © LAT
McLaren was struggling for one-lap pace, not for the first time this season. Lewis Hamilton was around 1s off Webber in his one-lap simulation runs while Button was effectively out of the picture as an experimental exhaust failed, leaving him sitting in the garage for most of the afternoon. It also looks unlikely that the team will run the new rear wing it brought but didn't race at Silverstone, with continued airflow re-attachment problems after the DRS has been used.
The McLaren picture was a little brighter over the long runs, as usual. The latter part of FP2 tends to be used by the teams to run in race format, not running DRS and testing the durability of the tyres. The McLaren's wing is much more efficient relative to the opposition when run in conventional format than DRS - and this was evident again. Although Webber still led the way in race stint simulations, Hamilton's best lap was only 0.3s slower - albeit on a run that was three laps shorter. In fact, Hamilton's race pace appeared pretty similar to that of Ferrari, a little less consistent than Felipe Massa's but less incident-filled than Alonso's.
The Mercedes look to have the potential pace to outqualify the McLarens but, as usual, the race pace looked less convincing.
Webber's advantage over Vettel continued in the race simulation runs, with the champion only once breaking into the 1m36s, something that Webber managed on no fewer than five laps. The consistency of Webber's run was formidable too, still lapping very fast after 11 laps as the session came to an end.
But confident though Webber is, he will be only too aware of just how formidable Vettel can be, how he has the capacity to look at the telemetry, take it on board and strike back hard.
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