In the wake of his back-to-back victories in Barcelona and Monaco this month, Mark Webber's erstwhile team boss Sir Frank Williams has admitted that he perhaps underestimated and unjustly maligned the Australian when he drove for him four years ago – acknowledging that his former charge 'has risen'.
Fresh from his commanding lights-to-flag triumph in the Spanish Grand Prix seven days earlier, Webber produced a similarly imperious performance to claim his maiden success around the narrow, tortuous streets of Monte Carlo at the weekend – the first of his countrymen to do so since Sir Jack Brabham, more than half a century ago – as he survived no fewer than four safety car periods and a late backmarkers' coming-together just in front of him to retain his composure and with it lift one of the most prestigious and coveted trophies in F1.
That has elevated the Red Bull Racing star into the joint lead of the world championship, and Williams contends he can stay there – with renewed confidence in himself and the knowledge that he has what is unquestionably at present the fastest car in the field underneath him.
Coming from a man who has watched many drivers and many world champions come and go during his three decades-plus in the top flight, that is high praise indeed – and the Englishman was even forced to concede that he had perhaps let Webber go too easily at the end of 2006.
“When we had him, our car was a disappointment, and we felt that he was part of the problem,” the 67-year-old told AFP
, “but he probably wasn't actually – with hindsight. He has developed himself, believed in himself I am sure, and probably charmed everyone around him at Red Bull. Mark has risen, there is no question.
“It shows in equal cars that Mark is on top form, providing [Sebastian] Vettel is also on top form. It is pretty even-Stevens, actually. Two or three years ago I would have said that Mark put himself under too much pressure, but I don't see any evidence of that now looking from the outside.
“He is cool and calm within himself, and what you are seeing is real. I can honestly say, no bullshit, that I am delighted. He has worked very hard – he is as straight as they come. I've seen him in airports, and when people stop him he has all the time for them. He's very impressive.”
Should Webber go on to maintain his momentum all the way to the conclusion of the campaign, he would become only the third of his countrymen ever to lift the ultimate laurels – the F1 Drivers' World Championship crown – and the first since Alan Jones all the way back in 1980. Other paddock observers are confident the New South Wales native can indeed emulate that feat.
“We all know how strong Sebastian is, but Mark is now beating him,” remarked Mercedes Grand Prix reserve driver and Webber's former Williams team-mate Nick Heidfeld, according to ESPN
. “More-and-more, he is evolving into the world championship favourite.”
Ten-time grand prix-winner Gerhard Berger, meanwhile, lauded the 33-year-old's speed, precision and controlled aggression around the streets of the Principality at the weekend, whilst the Austrian's compatriot Niki Lauda was similarly effusive.
“Right now he is almost unbeatable,” the three-time F1 World Champion told Kleine Zeitung
. “Vettel's problem is that suddenly his greatest enemy is within his own team, just as it was with myself at McLaren with Alain Prost.”