And so the games begin, the psychological warfare that characterises any sporting competition – and intensifies when the stakes reach their highest. As he bids to defend and even extend his world championship lead in Singapore this weekend, Mark Webber has been warned by rival Jenson Button that his advancing years and wealth of experience in the sport could in fact turn out to be a hindrance in the battle for glory.
At 34, Webber is the oldest of the five contenders for the F1 2010 crown by some four years, though Button entered the top flight two years earlier back in 2000 – and there are, indeed, a number of parallels between the pair. The British star lifted the laurels last season, having been written off as a genuine title challenger some years earlier, with most opining that his time and his chance had passed. Likewise, the Australian was not widely considered a protagonist for the drivers' trophy on the eve of the current campaign – and yet now he is leading the way.
Aside from Button, McLaren-Mercedes team-mate and fellow former world champion Lewis Hamilton, double title-winner Fernando Alonso at Ferrari and Webber's own team-mate Sebastian Vettel are all eagerly endeavouring to knock the New South Wales native off of his perch.
Button suggests experience can in some circumstances be a double-edged sword, and that Webber might succumb to the pressure and anxiety of knowing that as he nears the twilight of his F1 career, he may never get another opportunity to claim the ultimate prize, or certainly never one quite so good.
“It can be a bad thing, because you think to yourself, 'I've got a good car and experience of ten years but this could be my last chance to fight for a championship,” the reigning world champion is quoted as having said by The Associated Press
, reflecting on his own situation this time twelve months ago. “It's a tough position to be in, and also not having the experience of winning a title, the same as Sebastian. They might be very strong in the head, and it might be easy for them, but it wasn't for me at the end of last year.”
One key difference between Button and Webber, however, is that whilst at this stage of the 2009 campaign, the former's Mercedes-powered Brawn GP was palpably no longer the fastest car on the grid – forcing him into a defensive rearguard action as he strove to hang onto his advantage – the latter's Red Bull Racing remains by common consent the class of the F1 2010 field.
In Webber's mind, there is no question at all of needing to race for points rather than podiums and victories – even if he acknowledges that his and Red Bull's total lack of prior experience of a title showdown does not necessarily count in their favour.
“Winning makes a difference, and that's what our goal is to do [in Singapore],” asserted the man from Queanbeyan, on the eve of a race that he has yet to finish in its two previous editions. “It's completely suicidal to sit back and say, 'I can pick up fifth and sixth' — that's not good enough. Where you have slightly uncharted waters, it comes with a degree of inexperience – but there's also that great thing that you are incredibly hungry for it. We as a team at Red Bull totally understand how unique this opportunity is.”