Twelve months ago, he was labelling Romain Grosjean
a 'first lap nutcase' after the Lotus driver collided with his Red Bull
in Japan, but Mark Webber
admits that the Frenchman is a very different rival in 2013.
As well as having fewer incidents of note – Monaco aside – Grosjean has also established himself as a competent frontrunner, whether playing a chasing role to Kimi Raikkonen
or, as at Suzuka on the weekend, leading in his own right. With the Finn off to Ferrari
next season, Grosjean is looking to take on the number one role at Enstone, and references like Webber's can only help his achieve that aim.
A blinding start from the outside of row two allowed the Frenchman to get around Sebastian Vettel
and cut inside Webber as the top four headed for turn one of the Japanese GP. Once in front, he was able to control the race through the first round of pit-stops, before strategy eventually told against him, Lotus finding itself caught between covering Webber's switch to a three-stop strategy and Vettel's ability to get by on two stops.
With the German gone out front, Grosjean battled to hold onto second spot, but ultimately had to yield to Webber a few laps from home, having put up stern resistance to the Australian's DRS-assisted attacks on fresher rubber.
“I think it's very clear that Romain has a very different mental approach to the job this year,” Webber acknowledged, “He's driven some quite strong races, putting together the whole weekend, which is a sign of a driver starting to get a bit more relaxed and confident. [There are] a lot less mistakes, not just in races, but in practice...
“You know, we're not here to blow smoke up his arse but, in the end, he's doing a very good job this year and it's a big step for him. Last year, [and] also the first year against Fernando [Alonso], wasn't easy for him and to come back... yeah, he's doing a good job.
“It starts and stops with him. I just hope he doesn't improve too much more before the end of the year!”
Chasing Grosjean at the start of the race effectively put paid to Webber's chances of victory, as the Australian's RB9 wore out its tyres too quickly for him to remain on a two-stop strategy and forced Red Bull
to pit him three times before the end of the race.
“We were obviously looking to get in the lead, to put some pressure on Romain, [but] I don't think the option [tyre] was easy to handle for any of us,” Webber noted, “I wanted to put some pressure on Romain towards the end of that stint, [and] we were more or less in the window for a two-stop. As soon as I pitted after the prime [tyre], the guys said 'yeah, we're on a two-stop, it's no problem. Look after the tyres and we'll stay on two'. Then we switched to three [stops], so I think they just saw that it was just a quicker way for me to do three stops.”
The third stop allowed Webber to return to the softer, medium compound, Pirellis for the run to the flag but, despite closing quickly on Grosjean, it took the veteran several laps to find a way by. Red Bull
team boss Christian Horner subsequently revealed that Webber had lost one opportunity to use the assistance by trying to activate marginally too early, but the driver added that it wasn't always enough to rely on DRS.