Christian Horner has praised Mark Webber for an 'unbelievable year' of which he should be 'very, very proud' – and despite his previous confession that the future for Red Bull Racing is Sebastian Vettel, he has tipped the popular Australian to 'come back even more motivated and stronger next year'.
Towards the end of the F1 2010 World Championship campaign, Webber looked to be on-course to lift the ultimate laurels, arguably until the turning-point of Korea, when the man from Queanbeyan threw what would likely have been victory into the wall with an early error in treacherous conditions that ended up costing him dearly.
Coming up short in the Abu Dhabi finale last weekend – able to take the chequered flag just a distant eighth at Yas Marina – was the final nail in the coffin for Webber's gallant title challenge, as team-mate Vettel sped on to a brilliant victory in the Middle East, and with it the coveted drivers' crown to become the youngest F1 World Champion in history.
The New South Wales native has conceded that he is 'bitterly disappointed' by the outcome [see separate story – click here
], and many are surmising that his best chance to claim the sport's greatest prize has now been and gone – particularly with Horner having admitted last month that since 'Mark is in the autumn of his career...we are building the team around Sebastian', doing little to convince RBR's detractors that Webber will have an equal crack of the whip in 2011.
The energy drinks-backed outfit's team principal, however, is adamant that the forgotten man amidst all of the post-race celebrations will be far from forgotten next season, and that he will not only come out fighting and determined to turn the tables on Vettel, but he will also – in the light of all the accusations of favouritism at Milton Keynes this year – do so with the full support of his team behind him.
“Take nothing away from Mark – he's had an unbelievable year,” the Englishman underlined of what has been comfortably Webber's finest campaign in the top flight to-date. “Mark can be very, very proud of what he's achieved. We're all very proud of what he's done – he's been an awesome competitor.
“He's taken this championship into the last race. He led during the summer, and he could well have won it himself at different stages of the year. Overall, he's been a big part of the success of this team, and he has pushed Sebastian to the limit. They've been so close on so many occasions.
“It's tough for Mark. He will look across at the jubilation on the other side, but he knows he's had equal equipment all year. He knows the support he's had from the team, so I've told him he should hold his head high. I'm sure given a few days to digest things, to reflect, he will come back even more motivated and stronger for next year.”
Horner is equally effusive in his praise for Vettel, after Red Bull's policy of not asking one of its two drivers to back the other at any stage during the season – facing criticism in particular for not switching the order in the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos earlier this month in Webber's favour – was vindicated in Abu Dhabi when the Heppenheim native overcame the odds to re-write the F1 record books. It will, he is confident, be the first triumph of many.
“I always said this championship would have another twist,” the 37-year-old went on. “It's down to what happens on the circuit – and that's the way it should be. The first time Sebastian has led it has been right at the end. It's a team effort and ultimately Sebastian prevailed. I'm very proud of what Sebastian has done.
“Both drivers can be very proud – they both took it into the last race. [Vettel] has had his ups-and-downs, he's had a few engine issues here and there, but he has never lost faith and he has stuck at it – and he's triumphed in the end. It's been a very emotional and unbelievable week for all concerned.”
When asked how he would rate Vettel alongside the world champions he has worked with in the past at Williams and McLaren-Mercedes, meanwhile, Red Bull chief technical officer Adrian Newey reflected: “The things I would say are common with all the great drivers. Obviously natural talent – that goes without saying – but then having that underlying grit and determination, and having a good brain, and Sebastian combines that very well. If you have that combination, winning a championship hopefully becomes a matter of time.”