So frequently accused of favouring Sebastian Vettel, Christian Horner has warmly praised Mark Webber for having 'exceeded all of our expectations, including his own' in F1 2010 - and whilst he forecasts another 'tough' time of things for Red Bull Racing in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza next weekend, the Englishman conceded that he hopes the team similarly may again spring a surprise.

In the wake of his runner-up finish in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps last weekend - as Vettel endured a calamitous afternoon in the Ardennes and consequently came away empty-handed - Webber issued a veiled 'back me' call to his team [see separate story - click here], now that he is 28 points clear of the young German in the title standings with just six races left to run. Whilst continuing to insist that both drivers will continue to be treated equally for the foreseeable future, Horner admitted that the Australian has greatly impressed him this season.

"I think he's exceeded all of our expectations - including his own - in what he's delivered this year," he told Redbull.com. "He has a huge challenge with the team-mate that he has, which is a great situation for the team. We have two guys at very different stages of their careers. It means there's a different dynamic and a different approach in many respects, but the difference between them is minimal.

"He hasn't really changed in himself [since joining RBR back in 2006], but he has evolved. Like a fine wine, Mark has got better with age. He's having a phenomenal season and driving fantastically well. He's managed to sustain a very high level for pretty much the whole season now.

"I think when he won his first grand prix, at the N?rburgring just over twelve months ago, it was a big moment for him and his confidence has grown significantly from that point. As a grand prix-winner, he truly believes in his ability and his opportunity this year - as does Sebastian, which makes it such an exciting season."

Exciting it certainly has been, but Horner reflects that on the resumption from the mid-season break, he was filled more with apprehension than anticipation about how the RB6 would perform around Spa and the ultra-fast Monza. Both are notoriously heavily power-reliant circuits, and the Renault engine propelling Webber and Vettel along is - in his estimation - some 30-40 horsepower down on rivals Mercedes and Ferrari, a deficit he claims even a successful F-duct 'isn't going to make up for' and one that renders the Red Bull something of a sitting suck in a straight line.

Whilst Webber annexed pole position in qualifying in Belgium, on race day it was a different matter as Lewis Hamilton and McLaren-Mercedes imperiously ruled the roost - and the New South Wales native's excellent second place in tricky climatic conditions was ultimately greater than Horner had hoped for. More of the same in Italy - around what he suggests will be 'our weakest circuit of the year', given its low downforce-dependence - will do just fine, he quips.

"You could see very, very clearly, even against the [Mercedes-powered] Force Indias, how much we struggle in a straight line," the 36-year-old mused of the energy drinks-backed outfit's Belgian outing. "We know Spa and Monza are McLaren territory and we just have to limit the damage, as we managed to do with Mark. Actually, to come away with a second place was a very good result for us.

"Monza will be a tough weekend for us, for sure - but we knew that. Here, we didn't expect to be as strong as we have been; hopefully at Monza we can do likewise. We performed better than expected in Montreal and Valencia this year, and if you compare this with the tracks that McLaren have performed badly at - for example Hungary, where Mark lapped Jenson [Button] - at a track that doesn't suit us, we still managed to get a second place out of it. I think Monza will be our weakest circuit of the year arguably, so a bit of rain there might be nice."

Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali, however, has poured cold water on Red Bull's claims, with ITV-F1 quoting the Italian as having reacted somewhat incredulously to Horner's professed pessimism.

"The weakest track for them? I would love to be in their position!" he retorted. "You can tell Christian that! I would love to have the weakest situation for them in Monza. I don't think so... I think they have a very good car, and the numbers speak for themselves. Let's see if it's just tactics or if it's true."

Joking that he hopes Vettel enjoys 'a slightly less incident-packed race' at Monza, looking further ahead still, finally, Horner suggested that the following tracks would play rather more to the RB6's strengths - with the possible exception of new addition Korea - and contended that fans are set for a thrilling conclusion to the campaign over the next two-and-a-half months.

"Singapore, Japan are circuits that will much more suit our car," he mused. "Korea has a very long straight, but Brazil and Abu Dhabi we were strong at last year. This championship will ebb and flow; there's a long way to go, and I think whoever strings a succession of results together consistently and probably wins another one or two races between now and the end of the year will ultimately come out as the victor.

"We think we're in a good position. Leading the championships going into the break gave us a big lift, and we came back from that fully recharged. We need to keep doing what we've been doing, and keep focussing on what we've been good at: We've won six grands prix - more than any other team - and we could have won more. At every grand prix you learn something and try to apply those lessons in future races. We have a very strong team, two great drivers and we're well-set - but we don't underestimate the challenge of McLaren and Ferrari.

"I think it'll come down to the little things at the end of the day; the six [upcoming] races are like six FA Cup finals. That applies to the drivers, the team [and] it means effectively twelve good starts, a minimum of twelve good pit-stops, twelve good qualifying sessions... It's going to be exciting."

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