Nick Heidfeld has admitted that he is 'surprised' by just how much Mark Webber has struggled in comparison with Sebastian Vettel in F1 2011, claiming that the Australian 'certainly won't be able to do enough' to pip his Red Bull Racing team-mate to the title this season – but suggesting that someone else just might.
Eight races into the current campaign, and Vettel has accumulated a commanding 77-point advantage over closest pursuer Webber in the chase for the coveted crown – equivalent to more than three grand prix victories. Whilst the runaway world championship leader and defending F1 Word Champion has triumphed on a staggering six occasions, his team-mate has done so not at all.
What's more, only once has Webber out-qualified Vettel this year as the 34-year-old has encountered difficulties in adapting his driving style to suit Pirelli's tyres, and with the young German very much regarded as the energy drinks-backed outfit's favourite son, Heidfeld reckons the theme of one-way traffic at Red Bull will remain a constant season-long.
“Of course Sebastian is doing a very good job, but I am a bit surprised with how difficult it seems to be for Mark,” the Lotus Renault GP star – who partnered Webber at Williams back in 2005 – told Australian newspaper the Herald Sun
. “Last year, even though Sebastian won the championship, Mark was able to be very strong in parts of the season. It seems to be a bit more difficult for him this season.
“I think he can come back and be stronger and I do think, at some races, he will at least be able to give him a hard time – but he certainly won't be able to do enough to beat Vettel for the championship.”
Meanwhile, Red Bull's controversial motorsport advisor Dr. Helmut Marko – often regarded as Webber's greatest detractor inside the team, and a key player in major decisions – has reasserted that the Milton Keynes-based squad needs 'two strong drivers' moving forwards, although contrary to his earlier pronouncements, he now hints that Lewis Hamilton is not a viable option, conceding that 'to our knowledge he is with McLaren until 2013, which is a long time'.
“He (Webber) has told us that he wants to go on with us for another year,” the Austrian told Bild am Sonntag
, adding that 'our young guys at Toro Rosso have missed the last little spark' to warrant promotion. “We are looking at this, and stability is important for a team. We need someone who is as good as Sebastian, because we have found the constructors' title is very interesting financially, and you can do it only with two strong drivers.”
Heidfeld cautioned, however, that whilst he does not expect Webber to turn the tables on Vettel over the second half of the F1 2011 campaign, with the unknown effect of the FIA's imminent ban on off-throttle blown-diffusers due to come into force at next month's British Grand Prix, there is hope yet for the likes of Hamilton, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso.
“There are still many races to go,” the German stressed, “so there is still time to catch him (Vettel) if anyone is good enough. From Silverstone on, we will have a regulation change with the diffuser, and that might change things a bit. We can only guess what will happen with that and how it will affect everyone, so we will have to wait and see.”