Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner has admitted that Mark Webber could remain with the world championship-winning squad beyond the tenure of his one-year extension in 2011.
The Australian inked the expanded contract shortly before his infamous 'not bad for a number two driver' outburst at the British Grand Prix last year, but the deal faced a period of uncertainty as the fall-out of the favouritism row surrounding Webber and team-mate Sebastian Vettel engulfed the Red Bull camp. The F1 rumour mill briefly suggested that Webber may be prepared to tear up his agreement and head for either Ferrari or Renault, but the Australian - who was, at that time, heading the championship standings - ultimately remained on board, even though his title ambitions took a hit towards the end of the season.
With the former Minardi, Jaguar and Williams pilot now among the more senior on the grid, and having already spoken of impending retirement, he was not expected to remain a part of Red Bull's plans beyond the end of the current campaign, but Horner's recent comments suggest otherwise.
"Mark isn't approaching this year [as if] this is his final year," he told Reuters
, "I think we both agreed to keep the contract on a yearly basis at this stage in his career because it's important for us to see that he's got the speed, the motivation, the hunger and commitment - all of which look undiminished at the moment. If anything, [they are] burning brighter than ever."
Now 34, Webber has admitted that he may never get as good a chance to take the world title as he did in 2010, when a spin in Korea - and a subsequently revealed shoulder fracture - proved the death knell for his chances. Horner, however, insists that the Australian could remain a part of the RBR line-up for some time to come and would receive as good a shot at the title as Vettel.
"We'll see how this season develops and, obviously, as we head towards the latter part of the summer, then we'll start to talk about the following season," he added, "If he's delivering at the same level as he did in 2010 then why not? Mark's mentally a tough competitor and I think he will use that [disappointment] inwardly as motivation to come back even more determined, more focused. I think he's come back leaner, lighter and extremely motivated and I think, if he didn't believe that [he'd get equal treatment], he'd stop. He's a strong enough character that if he didn't believe it, he would have stopped at the end of the year."