Mark Webber isn’t in the business of, as he might put it, blowing smoke up anyone’s arse , which is why the comments took me by surprise. I’d asked him about the prospects of the man who took over the seat at Red Bull Racing he vacated over the off-season, Daniel Ricciardo, for 2014.
Red Bull have had a shocker in pre-season testing – even Ricciardo’s permanently stapled-on grin has wavered a few times in the past week  – but Webber was adamant. Ricciardo will become the fourth Australian, behind Jack Brabham, Alan Jones and Webber himself – to become a Formula One race-winner. And he’ll do it soon.
“I believe he’ll win Grands Prix this year, which will be a very big confidence boost for him,” Webber told me on this week’s ‘Keeping Track’ podcast.
“Patience will be required to a degree because it is a bit of a new scenario for him, but once he finds his feet, the sky could be the limit for him.”
Strong words, and a big call on someone who is yet to finish better than seventh in his 50 previous Grands Prix. But perhaps Webber sees something of a younger version of himself in his compatriot. There was none of the recent trend of getting parachuted into F1 by a rich parent or a sack-full of cash for Webber, and Ricciardo has taken a circuitous and somewhat old-school route to get there too. Karting, Formula Ford, Formula BMW, F3, Formula Renault 3.5, F1 test driver and then into F1 with HRT in 2011. As Webber sees it, Ricciardo has paid his dues.
“He thoroughly deserves the seat – you don’t get a seat like that from not putting the yards in,” Webber reasoned.
“He’s put the work in, he’s been over in Europe for a long time, and he left Australia very early to achieve his goal. He’s achieved arriving in Formula One, he’s earned his stripes, and now he’s in a top team where he can show to everybody, including himself, what he’s really capable of.
“He’s got a very level head, he’s mature and he’s going to learn a lot of things this year which he’ll put in the computer for future years, and that’ll help him be a very handy Grand Prix driver.”
That first win almost certainly won’t happen in Melbourne in two weeks’ time – one pessimistic view in the Bahrain paddock this week had both Red Bull’s eliminated in Q1 at Albert Park and not making it much past half-distance in the race – but Webber more than anyone knows the resources and technical know-how at Milton Keynes, and that Red Bull will be pushing like crazy to get the RB10 up to speed. That won’t come soon enough for too many in the local media who forget that Australia is just one round in a 19-race world championship , but Red Bull will improve in leaps and bounds as the season progresses. Then, and only then, will we see if Webber’s words carry weight.
 The best answer to a question at a presser last year came in Japan, when Webber was asked about the progress of a man he labelled a “first-lap nutcase” at Suzuka 12 months previously, Romain Grosjean. The response? “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.” Plenty of journos will miss Webber’s directness this year …
 Why doesn’t this man have an endorsement with a toothpaste company yet? Get Colgate on the phone …
 Like the Australian Open tennis, when domestic football reporters with loud voices and a platform from which to shout get cajoled into writing something they know nothing about with a global reach, some of the content produced at Albert Park in a fortnight should be accompanied by a laugh track. Just read the byline first.