Mark Webber has admitted that the status of 'dark horse' of the F1 2010 World Championship suits him down to the ground, revealing that he feels stronger both physically and mentally heading into the new season this weekend - and vowing to 'do my talking on the track'.

The Mark Webber that will launch his challenge for glory in Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir is a very different proposition to the Mark Webber of twelve months ago, when the Australian began proceedings still bearing the scars of a horrific mountain-biking accident whilst on his annual charity Pure Tasmania outdoor adventure challenge the previous November, when a collision with a car had left him with two broken legs populated by metal pins and a broken shoulder.

At 33, the New South Wales native is the second-oldest of the tipped title protagonists in 2010 - behind only returning F1 legend Michael Schumacher at Mercedes Grand Prix - and his Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner contends that he is being unjustifiably overlooked, arguing that into his ninth season at the highest level and with a brace of consummate, commanding victories now under his belt at the N?rburgring and Interlagos last year, Webber is a man in the prime of his competitive career.

Pre-season predictions have focussed predominantly on the celebrated comeback of the most successful driver in top flight history, the all-British duel at McLaren-Mercedes, double world champion Fernando Alonso's new home at Ferrari and highly-rated young pretender Sebastian Vettel - Webber's own team-mate at RBR, and a man who only out-scored the Queanbeyan ace by 14.5 points last year despite the latter's early-season discomfort from his injuries, that he has since admitted held him back to a certain extent at the time. Write Mark Webber off, Horner warns, at your peril.

"Last year gave Mark a great deal of inner confidence," the Englishman - a former racer himself - is quoted as having said by Planet-F1. "There's a big difference between thinking you can win and knowing you can win. Mark had been in Formula 1 a while and had never been in the best situation, in a race-winning car, and then he suddenly found himself with the tools to get the job done.

"Sebastian had the early results, winning in China and [at] Silverstone, and many drivers would have been crushed under that momentum from their team-mate - but Mark is a tough competitor, and he turned up in Germany, on Sebastian's home ground, and totally dominated the event.

"Mark demonstrated his abilities last year, and now he has the confidence of being a double grand prix-winner. Going into 2010 without the injuries he was carrying, he is better prepared than he has ever been. He could barely walk getting onto the plane to go to Australia [for the opening race in 2009], but he's had a couple of pins removed from his leg so he has full movement and has been able to train properly.

"Mark is a very dedicated sportsman who trains very hard, applies himself 100 per cent, and as an example to aspiring young drivers he is the epitome of what a grand prix driver should be. He is in the latter years of his career, not at the end of it, and so he has a lot of experience behind him. He is still very driven, but he is also comfortable with where his strengths and weaknesses are, and he works hard on those.

"It's a different Mark Webber this year compared to the start of last year, and I don't see any reason why he can't be a contender [in 2010]. People overlook him, but for me he is the dark horse of this year's championship. For sure, Sebastian is a prodigious talent, and to be challenging for a championship last year was remarkable for a guy in only his second full year of grand prix racing. A lot of lesser drivers would have wilted under the pressure of having Sebastian as a team-mate, but Mark hasn't."

Those sentiments are shared by the man himself, who is seemingly revelling in his underdog billing ahead of the campaign, palpably excited about the possibility of sneaking in under the radar and pinching the trophy away from rivals who are considered far more likely suspects to prevail. Fighting fit and bullish about his chances, it is clear that the tantalising prospect of going three spots better than in 2009 and becoming the first of his countrymen to lift the world championship laurels since Alan Jones exactly three decades ago is his burning motivation.

"I don't get wound up about it," he told ESPN F1. "Let's see if I can do as last year and have people saying, 'Bloody hell, he's in the hunt'. I accept that I might be a bit of a dark horse, but that is a good position for me to be in. It's [that] normal people will go for Jenson [Button], Lewis [Hamilton], Michael, Sebastian, who is young, [Felipe] Massa, who has fought for the championship, and Alonso, who has two titles. I'll do my talking on the track.

"The big difference for me this year is physically and mentally. I don't have the worry of waking up wondering if the leg has improved. It's hard to say if it affected my performance [in 2009]...maybe mentally I was a bit drained, because I did have an off-season with operations and recuperation."

And then finally, frank and forthright as ever, Webber offered his view on what Schumacher might achieve this year, the EUR64,000 question approaching Bahrain.

"I think it will be a bloody hard season for him," he told British broadsheet the Daily Telegraph, when asked about the record-breaking seven-time F1 World Champion. "I think he'll go alright but I have never, ever seen a phenomenal comeback. When has the second career ever been better than the first?"


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