Webber hoping for rosewater in 200th race

Red Bull's Mark Webber will begin the 200th race of his career at the Bahrain Grand Prix and it's unwise to write off his chances despite his dismal showing last weekend.

Mark Webber, Red Bull
Suhas Bhat

By Suhas Bhat

Sometimes, you feel like rooting for the guy down on his luck. Right now, that man is Red Bull's Mark Webber in Formula One.

It might not mean much at this early stage to see the Australian be denied a win in Malaysia and then see him crash out in Shanghai but the fierce competitor, who participates in a charity race during the off-season while other F1 millionaires vacation in picturesque locales, is a man on a mission - to mount one last bid for the championship before time runs out.

I can still vividly remember the forlorn figure that sat and fielded questions after a disappointing Malaysian Grand Prix when Sebastien Vettel defied team orders to overtake him and unsportingly take the 25 points on offer.

Seated in the Red Bull motorhome as we were, it took us a while to get hold of the former Minardi driver as he and Vettel were delayed by a ninety-minute long debriefing session.

"Don't ask him a stupid question," an Australian journalist had warned me then. "And especially don't talk to him about retirement. He hates that word."

Webber gave his customary explanation as to what had transpired - his tyres were worrying him when Vettel disobeyed team orders and he was a bit disappointed but "what can you do?"

Despite being clearly frustrated, he did not have any strong feelings of animosity towards the German. Grabbing the chance to steer the conversation away from controversy, Webber then chose to answer at length a question about his favourite races.

He replied: "I think it's easy to have the wins as your favourites but there are clearly some other races where you've performed very, very well. I think in 2010, the race in Suzuka with Sebastian [Vettel] and I."

The duo fought wheel-to-wheel and Webber finished just 0.9s behind the then-upstart 22-year-old.

At the time, Webber was leading Fernando Alonso by 14 points in the title race with three races to go. It's telling that this particular race came to Webber's mind as he lost yet another battle, albeit on unfair terms, that Sunday.

He also fondly remembers making a sensational entrance to F1 with a fifth-place finish in the 2002 Australian Grand Prix with first team Minardi.

"Your first race is pretty special in Formula One," Webber continued. "That's a big moment for any driver.

"To arrive in formula one and compete at that level, albeit in a very small team in my case, was extremely rewarding."

Since 2002, he has gone on to drive for Jaguar and Williams, seen seven drivers come and go (including Malaysia's Alex Yoong) and lofted the Australian flag high with nine race wins.

Can Webber succeed in his 200th race?

Heading to Bahrain for the next race, Webber knows that he can't afford another retirement. Already 26 points behind Vettel in the championship race, he has to move on from a horrendous weekend that saw him run out of fuel in qualifying and crash into Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne in the 15th lap in Shanghai.

His car definitely has the pace to achieve a strong position in qualifying and it's apparent from Vettel's late surge in the previous race that Webber would also have had a chance to fight for the podium had he not bowed out early.

However, slow starts to many of his races in the past couple of seasons have made things tough. Furthermore, there is a perception that Red Bull generally prioritise Vettel's interests as the younger man is seen as more likely to bring home a fourth championship.

Team principal Christian Horner has vehemently denied this, of course. But the fact remains that should Vettel continue to widen the gap, Horner may start instructing Webber to hold back.

Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who had a superb race in Shanghai with almost everything going his way, will be considered a favourite for this race, having won it three times there. But then it's worth noting that Renault have consistently outperformed the Ferrari engines in recent years.

Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen, chasing a 21st consecutive race in the points, could struggle to shine on a circuit that sees less overtaking than most with sand getting in the way of the wheels, causing graining and reducing traction.

Furthermore, Lewis Hamilton, who still needs a first win with new team Mercedes, will also fancy his chances elsewhere in comparatively normal conditions. The car needs work, he admitted in Shanghai, and the Briton would do well to secure a third consecutive podium, having nearly lost out on a third-place finish to Vettel last time around.

And what about the defending champion? Well, popular opinion is definitely against him at the moment and it's about time that Webber gets a chance to spray rosewater (champagne's not allowed) on the podium instead.

Red Bull have already vented some of their displeasure at Vettel by not including him in their homage video celebrating the Webber's 199-GP career.

"He is a legend and he is going to stay that way. The 200 milestone, I think we will be sitting down and doing the 250 milestone," former Minardi team principal Paul Stoddart said in the footage.

With a three-place grid penalty, it will be definitely be a tall order for the Aussie.

A whole nation, though, will be willing him on and after a Adam Scott triumph at the Masters, Webber would love to be the next to give them cause for joy.

Whether he wins or not, though, you can bet that the focus will be firmly set on Australia's premier racer at Bahrain this weekend.

The F1 drivers will also have to race amid the backdrop of a country in turmoil. In areas far away from the Sakhir circuit, there have been reports of explosions and the use of tear gas to subdue protestors, providing a stark contrast and something of a jolt to those involved in the F1 circus.

But you can expect that most of the F1 fraternity will stay mum, aware as they are that F1 stops for no one (and nothing) with not even 9/11 having brought a postponement to the Italian Grand Prix five days later.

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