Mark Webber has revealed that he is staggered at the apparent closeness in lap times between the different Formula 1 teams in pre-season testing so far given the huge upheaval in regulations – suggesting as many as 14 of the 20 drivers could be in the mix for victory come the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in just under three weeks.
Whilst such a significant change in the technical and aerodynamic rules in the sport – the greatest in recent history, taking in dramatically re-designed wings, the return of slick tyres and the advent of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) technology – might be expected to create greater performance gaps between the teams as some get it right and some get it wrong, it would appear, on testing evidence at least, that the majority of 2009 machines are all in roughly the same ballpark in terms of both single lap and race distance pace.
That has prompted Red Bull Racing star Webber to predict that the forthcoming campaign could be the most unpredictable in years, and whilst he reckons Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes will once more be up at the sharp end of proceedings, he argues that the top flight's traditional pace-setters could face some unanticipated challenges along the way from the likes of RBR, BMW-Sauber, Toyota and Renault.
“I think it is too close to call,” the 32-year-old told Australian newspaper the Herald Sun
. “There is no question about it. The first time we are going to find out the real pecking order will be in Melbourne.
“I cannot remember another off-season in winter testing which has been this close. We've just had another week at Jerez, and it is really difficult to read who is doing what.
“What I just cannot believe is, after the biggest regulation changes in 20 years and with all those boffins at all those teams beavering away for so many months, the cars have produced pretty close lap times and we're still all tonking around within a tenth or so of each other. That's what is really fascinating. How that has happened, I don't know – but it has.
“It is literally us, Toyota, Williams, Ferrari and BMW. We have all, at certain times, done the business – and the Renault as well. There are a lot of people in it. You would expect McLaren maybe to have done a bit more, going by the testing over the last few years, but apart from that, we all know they are more than capable of turning up in Melbourne and spanking everyone.”
Indeed, Webber's home race in Melbourne has rarely been too kind to him in the past, with a number of strong performances regularly undone by the intervention of ill-fortune, meaning he has yet to better the fifth place he achieved on his grand prix debut there with Minardi back in 2002.
From seven starts, he has troubled the points-scorers on just two occasions Down Under, but he is hopeful that the Adrian Newey-designed, Renault-powered RB5 produced by his Milton Keynes-based squad will allow him to change all that in 2009.
“It's the most comfortable car I've been in, to be honest, in terms of seating position,” the New South Wales native confirmed, “[and] I feel I'm driving well. I've still got a bit of work to do with the balance of the car, but I've been around long enough to know there are no points for driving in November to January.
“I feel very happy with my consistency – that is the key for me. I've never been overly concerned about the pace [in testing], because I know race weekend is when it matters.”