Romain Grosjean

10 fearless predictions for the F1 season

What our crystal ball is telling us about what will happen on four wheels in 2018, with one big asterisk …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Eight days of testing are in the rear-view mirror as the Formula One teams and personnel arrive in Melbourne for Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, with something of a pecking order emerging after a pre-season held in rain, shine and snow (yes, really) at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya earlier this month.

Which means it’s time to take a brave pill and peer into the crystal ball to see what will happen in 2018. Who shines? Who stumbles? Where will the biggest driver rivalry be? Which grandee team will fall from grace? And is there anyone who can elbow their way into the equation to stop Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes winning both world championships again?

Here’s 10 cast-iron guarantees (well, nine at least) for Albert Park this Sunday and the 20 races to follow in F1’s 69th season.

1. Halo won’t be a talking point for long

No, really. Hear us out. Most drivers won’t say much publicly against the cockpit protection device that makes its race debut in Melbourne (Haas’ Kevin Magnussen aside, who raged against it in testing), and yes, it’s an inelegant solution to a problem that clearly needs addressing. Yes, there are serious visibility concerns for spectators to ascertain which of a team’s two drivers is in a car as it flashes past (expect the sport’s organisers to address that pronto with an edict that car numbers must be bigger to counter the lack of helmet recognition caused by the halo). But like anything new in F1, it’ll be abnormal until it isn’t, and before too long we’ll be talking about Mercedes vs Ferrari, which Red Bull driver rules the roost, how many laps McLaren has managed before breaking down and so on – regular F1 topics.

Is it ugly? Absolutely. Will drivers be harder to identify in Melbourne? Most certainly. Will we stop grouching about it? Daniel Ricciardo has some thoughts. “I think people are going to get used to the halo pretty quickly and we won’t talk about it for too long,” he wrote in his column for redbull.com. “Remember back in 2009, the year that Brawn won the championship, and the cars that year looked so different with the small rear wings, almost like F3 cars? People threw their hands up and talked about it a lot at the start, but then we all got used to it and just moved on.” We reckon he’s right. Even if we don’t like it.

2. Ferrari can’t win the constructors’ title

It’s been 10 years since the Prancing Horse won a teams’ title, and it won’t win this year’s one, either. The reason? You need two drivers capable of scoring big points to unseat Mercedes, and while Red Bull has them in Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, Ferrari simply doesn’t in Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen’s past four years at Ferrari have seen him finish 106 points behind teammate Fernando Alonso in 2014, 128 points adrift of Vettel (2015), 26 points behind Vettel (2016) and 112 points in arrears of the German last year. And, in case you’d forgotten (and you’d be forgiven), it’s five years since he last won a race (Australia 2013 for Lotus). The Finn is wildly popular with the fans, has world champion (2007) pedigree, offers invaluable technical feedback, and doesn’t rock the boat internally at Ferrari. All employable attributes. And none of which mean the Scuderia will be sailing to a constructors’ title this year, no matter how good the SF71H is.

3. Which ‘V’ will have more victories?

Will Vettel at Ferrari, or Verstappen at Red Bull win more races in 2018? Last year was 5-2 in the German’s favour, with Verstappen’s victories in Malaysia and Mexico coming in the latter half of the year when he finally had some luck with reliability. The Dutchman looks set to go up another level this year, and Vettel’s old team may be poised to present him with a two-pronged headache with Verstappen and Ricciardo likely to out-perform Raikkonen. Ferrari will likely be more reliable, but in a head-to-head fight, we’re predicting Verstappen, by a hair.

4. Renault will make podiums, plural

The French team hasn’t sniffed the top three since it returned to the sport as a fully-fledged constructor three years ago, but this has to be the year. A chassis that’s striking for its aerodynamic progress, momentum from late last year and two strong drivers in Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz makes us confident that there’ll be a podium photo or two with a yellow hue this year. For Hulkenberg, who holds the dubious record of most starts without a single top-three finish (135), it’ll be long, long overdue.

5. Force India will fall

The British-run Indian-owned team has been hugely impressive in the past two seasons, finishing fourth and as the unofficial ‘best of the rest’ behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Pound for pound, Force India does the most with the least on the F1 grid, aided by a heady dose of Mercedes engine power. But this year shapes as the one where the team could slide, with Renault surging, McLaren given new life by jettisoning its troublesome Honda engines, and the likes of Toro Rosso and Haas making strides. The latter two teams look to be a step or two away from fourth, but we could see a world where Force India drops behind the bigger and wealthier Renault and McLaren outfits – which would likely mean the Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon driver ‘partnership’ that produced several flashpoints last year could get really tense …

6. Standing starts after red flags will be dumped

This new rule probably won’t last long. In the event of a red flag stopping a race, the drivers will be led back onto the circuit behind the safety car, at which point they will line up on the grid in the order they were in when the red flag was thrown for a standing re-start. Exciting for TV and spectators trackside, sure, but Romain Grosjean was adamant that safety needs to be considered after the new system was trialled in testing in Barcelona, particularly if drivers are forced to stay on the same worn tyres they were on when the race was stopped. “In my experience I feel like it’s dangerous,” the Haas driver said, adding “it could be carnage” if the rule stayed as is. “Maybe the others don’t feel the same, but I don’t feel confident going with cold tyres,” he said. Expect the drivers to raise this issue well ahead of time this season, and a compromise to be reached.

7. McLaren will get it right, eventually

Yes, we saw the pre-season testing mileage stats that had McLaren last on the ‘laps completed’ board by some distance after problems that ranged from oil and hydraulic leaks, turbo failures and the engine cover being smouldered by the car’s exhaust. Yes, we know that McLaren’s horrendous pre-seasons of the past three years were a sign of what was to follow as a once-great team managed to only beat Sauber in the constructors’ championship last year. But the MCL33 isn’t slow, and when (note use of ‘when’) it runs properly, it can be a serious contender for fourth place in the teams’ title. Renault’s engine, by degrees, will surely be more reliable than the Honda that preceded it, and in Alonso, the team knows it has a driver who, when motivated, will haul a car into places it arguably shouldn’t be in. We’re backing them in to be a strong points finisher by the second half of the season, and Alonso snaffling a podium or two wouldn’t be a shock.

8. Williams’ decline will continue

Renault will rise, Toro Rosso are bullish, McLaren can hardly get worse and Force India will be a consistent presence in the midfield. Not everyone can improve, which leads us to Williams. Only Toro Rosso (with Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley) have less experience than Williams pair Lance Stroll (one season) and Sergey Sirotkin (rookie), and while the Russian is better than your average pay driver, you have to question the motivation behind his employment when data suggests he’s slower than the man he replaced, the retiring Felipe Massa (and that’s the 2017 Massa, not the near world champion Massa of a decade previously). The team has Mercedes power again, which is a plus, but after a conservative approach to pre-season testing that came after a fifth-place finish last year with 55 fewer points than the year before, is a slip to the bad old days (ninth in the constructors’ championship in 2013) on the cards?

9. Hamilton will win his fifth title

We’ll give you a minute to come up with an alternative world champion for this season. (Pause) No, we can’t think of one either. Mercedes’ pre-season confidence, Hamilton’s blazing form when it really mattered last year and a teammate in Bottas that doesn’t present the same challenges Nico Rosberg once did all adds up to five for us.

10. Where will Ricciardo be driving in 2019?

Speaking of Bottas, he might have as much to do with point 10 as point nine. Or maybe he won’t. Regardless, that giant asterisk we mentioned earlier? We’re using it here …

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16 fearless predictions for ’16

It’s a new year, and seeing as though every other sports writer seems to be doing a look back at what was, I’ve gazed into the crystal ball (recently re-serviced, shod with brand-new Pirelli ultrasofts and running a TAG-Heuer engine) to come up with 16 things that will be (or might be, we can assess them this time next year) in F1 and MotoGP for 2016.

Feedback, good and bad, is always welcome. In no particular order, here goes.

1. Two wheels first. Jack Miller is going to finish in the top 10 in the world championship this year. He’ll be fitter than ever (and needs to be, apparently), the new bike is the best he’s ever ridden, and the new Michelins will marry nicely with his style. We’ll find out this year if his stay in the top flight will be a long one or not.

2. Kimi Raikkonen’s replacement at Ferrari in 2017 will be either Daniel Ricciardo, Romain Grosjean or Max Verstappen. Valtteri Bottas is out. I know who my money is on.

3. Mercedes will romp to both the F1 drivers’ and constructors’ titles again. Ferrari (well, Sebastian Vettel) will give them more of a fight, but as Christian Horner rightly asserts, their advantage is so huge that stability on the rules front means more of the same, sadly for the spectacle.

4. Casey Stoner will make a wildcard appearance on a Ducati this year. Maybe even two. Watching ‘Hitting The Apex’ over Christmas reminded me of his genius. I still can’t see him ever wanting a full-time comeback though. Imagine how much he’ll hate the attention that comes with him doing even one race if his arm gets twisted hard enough to line up again?

5. There’ll be plenty of talk about Mercedes splitting Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg for 2017, but it won’t happen. Rosberg is bright enough that he’ll stay where he is, drive a great car that he can win 3-4 races a season in, collect a decent salary and unofficially become his team’s number two while setting up his post-F1 career. It’s not a bad life. Filed under Webber, M.

6. McLaren will finish in the top five in the constructors’ championship next year and both drivers will finish on the podium at some stage. And not like this.

AlonsoButtonBrazil15podium

7. Much as I hate to say it (and he denies it), Valentino Rossi will never have a better chance than last year to win the MotoGP title again. For the sake of the sport, let’s hope he has another strong campaign in 2016.

8. Haas won’t embarrass themselves in their first F1 season. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if Grosjean is a regular points-scorer in the second half of the season.

9. For all the talk that 21 F1 races in 2016 is too many, we won’t have had 21 races by the end of the season.

10. The F1 champion will be Lewis Hamilton.

11. Hamilton’s third straight world title will cause me to reach for the mute button on Sky’s cheerleading/commentary more than once. Raise a glass at home every time he’s perceived to be “robbed” across the season.

12. The lead-up to the Australian Grand Prix will feature a photo/vision opportunity featuring bewildered local AFL players with equally bewildered international F1 drivers, with the attempted small talk some of the most awkward of the year. I hope nobody hurts themselves. This time.

13. More media will complain about having to go to Azerbaijan than any race in F1 history. Especially the ones who complain about going to most races anyway.

14. The MotoGP champion will be Marc Marquez, and I suspect it won’t be close.

15. For four drivers on the F1 grid, 2016 will be their final season. Not counting the Manor drivers in this, as there’s always someone with a bigger pile of money than the people with the big piles of money out there who drive for them, if anyone is paying attention.

16. I will make 17 fearless predictions for 2017 at this time next year (at least that’s guaranteed to happen).

F1 2013 review: The more things change …

THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE DECEMBER 11 ISSUE OF MOTORSPORT ILLUSTRATED NEWS. READ MORE HERE

Maybe there is something to the theory that Formula One only comes up with a season filled with drama, intrigue on and off track and a championship battle that rages until the last possible moment in even-numbered years. Think 2008, and Lewis Hamilton’s late, late pass on the final lap of the final race to steal the title from a crestfallen Felipe Massa. Think 2010, when four drivers went into the season finale in Abu Dhabi with a shot at the crown, which was won by Sebastian Vettel after the German hadn’t led the standings at any other time that year. And cast your mind back to 2012, where the last race in Brazil came down to a straight fight between Vettel and Fernando Alonso that only went Vettel’s way after a remarkable recovery drive from the back of the field.

Season 2013 had all of the ingredients to produce another campaign that would live long in the memory of those who relish gripping sporting contests, but the rubber-shredding chaos of the British Grand Prix saw a change to the construction of Pirelli’s tires in line with what it supplied the sport with in 2012. In the final 11 races that followed, one man won 10 of them.

In doing so, Vettel moved himself up to fourth on the all-time win list with 39 wins, just two victories behind Ayrton Senna, which was almost unthinkable as recently as three years ago, and his fourth straight title established or equalled records for wins in a season (13), points scored (397), the greatest winning margin (Alonso was 155 points behind as runner-up), and plenty more besides.

It was a tame end to the V8 era, and a season eerily reminiscent of Michael Schumacher’s similarly-dominant campaign of 2004, where the Ferrari driver annihilated the field and left many wondering how they could ever catch up. Of course, nothing lasts forever – as proven by ’04 being Schumacher’s seventh and final title – and a raft of rule changes for 2014 will be welcomed by all but one driver and his team.

That much we know, but what else did we learn in 2013? Read on.

1. We’ve seen this before
There was a brilliant German driver who raced for an outfit with a massive budget and the best equipment who used searing speed, laser-like focus and the almost complete attention of his team to rack up one win after another, all against the backdrop of questionable ethical and moral decisions at rare times of duress. And then there was Sebastian Vettel …. Vettel’s record-breaking 2013 showed that the ‘Baby Schumi’ moniker that has followed him throughout his career is still applicable, from capitalising on the best car on the grid to his insatiable hunger for success and his occasional penchant for making regrettable decisions in the heat of battle (filed under ‘Multi-21’ after defying a team instruction to overtake defenceless teammate Mark Webber in Malaysia). The boos that followed him for much of the rest of the season as he lifted one winners’ trophy after another – justified or not – were a distraction from what the 26-year-old achieved in 2013. Like Schumacher through the early part of the 2000s, watching man and machine in harmony in pursuit of perfection may not be compelling viewing, but credit needs to be given where it’s due.

2. An OBE is the MVP
Sports in this country like to anoint a Most Valuable Player; in F1, the Most Valuable Person would undoubtedly be Adrian Newey, Red Bull Racing’s chief technical officer who was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2012 for his services to motorsport. The 54-year-old design guru won his 10th world championship across three decades with three teams when Vettel took the RB9 to the 2013 crown; the notoriously publicity-shy Newey generally makes a better fist of new rules and regulations than most, meaning all eyes will be peeled when the RB10 breaks cover at the first test of 2014 at Jerez in late January. As Webber departed Red Bull at the end of the season, he made it clear where Newey stands in the sport. “He’s a genius,” was the Australian’s assertion, and it’s one that hard to argue against.

3. Webber’s career was a success
Yes, Vettel’s nine straight wins to end 2013 matched the total number of victories his teammate managed in a 215-race career, but Webber’s tenacity, skill and determination to wring a 12-year stint in F1 out of a three-race contract in 2002 is the sort of story you wonder will ever be replicated in this era of ever-younger drivers with increasingly weighty wallets. By his own admission, the 37-year-old’s motivation waned as the season progressed, but he finished strongly with two poles in the final five races and three straight podiums before stepping away. No, he wasn’t Sebastian Vettel, but Webber’s achievements against him will likely look better over time as the German bids to make the F1 record book his own. The sport will miss him.

4. Sometimes staying put is the best option
McLaren ended 2012 with arguably the fastest car on the grid, and as most teams took an evolutionary approach to tweaking their machinery for 2013 ahead of the big rule changes planned for the following season, McLaren went against the grain by producing a revolutionary car that stretched its ample resources in a bid for a first drivers’ title since 2008. It was a gamble that could barely have gone worse, the team going without a podium for the first time since 1980 and needing a late-season push just to see off the likes of Force India and Sauber to finish fifth in the constructors’ championship. Sergio Perez was signed with great fanfare and then dumped within 12 months, and team principal Martin Whitmarsh candidly admitted the annus horribilis was “a symptom of too much ambition”.

5. A three-pointed star can shine
With its motorsport history and a host of a big names in the cockpit and behind the scenes, Mercedes had largely failed to impress in the three years since its comeback to the sport in 2010, but this season was when it finally arrived. Eight poles from nine races from round three in China showed the team was a legitimate front-runner, and while the F1 W04 was harder on its tires than most, three victories and a strong second in the constructors’ championship was a massive gain on 2012, where the team managed just one top-10 finish in the final six Grands Prix. With a strong driver line-up being retained for 2014 and what is thought to be the best engine in F1 as the sport changes to 1.6-liter V6 power plants, there’s much to look forward to for fans of the Silver Arrows.

6. A Prancing Horse casts a large shadow
The internal politics within Ferrari provided one of the more fascinating subplots of 2013. Alonso, increasingly frustrated at seeing his status as the sport’s top driver overwhelmed by the sheer statistical dominance of Vettel, aired his criticisms of the team one time too many for Luca di Montezemolo after saying he wanted “the same car as the others” for his 32nd birthday in July, with a statement soon after saying the Ferrari president had “tweaked Alonso’s ear” while reminding him that “all the great champions who have driven for Ferrari have always been asked to put the interests of the team above their own”. It was a public dressing-down that raised eyebrows, and Ferrari’s decision to replace the subservient Massa with 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen as Alonso’s teammate for next season soon after left few with any doubt as to who calls the shots at the most famous team of all.

7. The French evolution
It was just over a year ago that Webber referred to Romain Grosjean as a “first-lap nutcase” after punting the Australian out of the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix, yet another opening-lap incident for a driver who had only just returned from a ban for causing a massive shunt at the start in Belgium. The Frenchman’s rough edges were still apparent early in 2013 – his Monaco weekend finished with three big accidents and a 10-place grid penalty for the next race in Canada for taking out Daniel Ricciardo – but his late-season form was too consistently good to be thought of as a fluke. In the final six races, the 27-year-old had four podiums and a fourth, and his one non-finish came when his Renault engine decided to end the V8 era earlier than the rest of the field by blowing up in Brazil. With Raikkonen off to Ferrari, Grosjean will inherit the responsibility that comes with being a team leader at Lotus in 2014; on the strength of what we saw late this season, he’s up to the challenge.

8. Money talks more than ever
It’s somewhat of an indictment on modern-day F1 when a driver like Pastor Maldonado – who scored one point all season – accused Williams of sabotaging his car in qualifying for the penultimate race in Austin, knowing that his combination of speed and $30 million in funding from the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA would all but guarantee him a place on the 2014 grid, a place he duly found at cash-strapped Lotus. It was Lotus, of course, that Raikkonen left after saying he hadn’t been paid all season, fleeing to Ferrari and scheduling back surgery that ruled him out of the final two races after threatening to go on strike. And it was Lotus who considered Nico Hulkenberg, who continually out-performed his Sauber machinery in the second half of the year to become of the stars of the season, before settling with Maldonado and his millions. Lotus are far from the only team to consider drivers based on the depth of their pockets as much as their talent behind the wheel, but F1’s parlous financial state was brought into starker focus by the team that was Red Bull’s main challenger across the final stages of the season making the decision to go with a lesser, but wealthier, driver over someone like Hulkenberg, who must be wondering what he has to do to get a break.

9. Britney moves up the charts
Nico Rosberg – once derisively known as ‘Britney’ for his long blond locks that could have been those of Britney Spears – finally came of age in 2013, showing the promise that was evident from the moment he set the fastest lap of the race on his F1 debut for Williams in Bahrain in 2006. The 28-year-old had always demonstrated flashes, but it was his performances relative to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton that confirmed his quality. Rosberg was out-scored by Hamilton by just 18 points over the course of the season while enduring three times the number of retirements, mostly through no fault of his own, and won the Monaco and British Grands Prix, two of the sport’s most famous races. Always a technically astute driver, the new-for-2014 formula of fuel efficiency, tire management and driving to a moving target rather than letting rip lap after lap will be right down Rosberg’s alley.

10. Tilke can come up trumps
F1’s circuit designer of choice, German Hermann Tilke, has been the target of plenty of criticism for some of the tracks that have come onto the calendar since his first in Malaysia in 1999; while it could be argued much of that was justified after the emergence of such cookie-cutter venues as the soulless Sakhir International Circuit (Bahrain), the unloved street circuit in Valencia and the beautiful but dull Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, Tilke hit the jackpot with the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, which has become one of the most popular stops on the calendar in just two years. Elevation change, sweeping corners, high-speed stretches, superb facilities close to a city center … COTA, as it has become known, has it all. The fans obviously agree, more than 100,000 of them cramming into the circuit for the first two races at the new home for F1 in the ‘States.

USA GP review: Austin powered

THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE NOVEMBER 20 ISSUE OF MOTORSPORT ILLUSTRATED NEWS

For all of his exploits elsewhere, the United States has been somewhere where Sebastian Vettel has never shown the locals what all the fuss over him is about. Part of that is circumstantial: the German’s first Grand Prix start came in the final race held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2007, while last year’s maiden event at the spectacular Circuit of the Americas was just the second time he’d driven in the ‘States, and he was pipped to victory by Lewis Hamilton.

Last Sunday, the packed crowd in attendance in Austin, which is fast-becoming one of the most popular stops on F1’s 19-race annual global odyssey, got to see Vettel’s greatness up close. For many watching trackside, it was their first time; what he achieved will be remembered for all time.

In winning his eighth straight Grand Prix, the Red Bull Racing star added yet another record to a CV that’s close to overflowing with them; no driver had won more than seven consecutive races in one season in the history of the sport, and it left just Hungary as the only stop on the F1 calendar where Vettel hasn’t sprayed victory champagne. His 12th victory of the season usurped his 2011 title-winning campaign that featured 11 wins, while equalling the record held by his great friend and mentor Michael Schumacher for most race wins in a single season – 13 in 2004 – remained in play with the final race of the year in Sao Paulo to come next weekend.

Read more: http://motorsportin.com/

Japan GP review: Vettel’s high five

THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE OCTOBER 16 ISSUE OF MOTORSPORT ILLUSTRATED NEWS

For a man who is just 26 years of age, Sebastian Vettel has come a long way in a short time, and it’s in Japan that the rapid rate of his ascension comes into starker focus. Back in 2007 at Fuji Speedway, a 20-year-old Vettel made the biggest mistake of his career in Japan, clattering into Red Bull driver Mark Webber behind the safety car in treacherous conditions as they were both in contention for unlikely podium finishes. Webber, a straight-shooter at any time, let alone after an unforced retirement on a day when he was ravaged by food poisoning and repeatedly vomiting inside his helmet, was unimpressed to say the least.

“It’s kids, isn’t it?” was Webber’s memorable response when asked by a TV reporter for his immediate thoughts after the accident. “Kids with not enough experience – and they go and f**k it all up.”

Vettel’s tears in the Scuderia Toro Rosso garage that day told you he realised he needed to grow up, and fast. In the six years since, it’s fair to say he’s done just that. Sunday’s race win at Suzuka – his fourth in five years at the revered Japanese track – was his fifth victory in succession, the first time any driver has managed the feat since his mentor Michael Schumacher won seven straight races for Ferrari in 2004. And as a fourth consecutive world title came within touching distance, the German could bask in the glory of another success at a circuit that the drivers agree is the best on the calendar.

Read more: http://motorsportin.com/

Webber’s Japanese adventures

Vomit, a burnt bum, kids that “f**k it all up” and first-lap nutcases – life has never been boring at the Japanese Grand Prix for Mark Webber, and after last weekend’s litany of disasters in Korea, surely better fortune is on the cards for the Aussie this weekend in a country that has never been one of his favourite stops on the Formula One calendar. But for all that, Suzuka remains one of the tracks he’s held in great reverence throughout his 12-season career, and one last chance to let an F1 car rip around one of the sport’s best circuits is something he’ll relish.

Webber, of course, hasn’t missed a Japanese Grand Prix since 2002; my own Japan run started in 2004, and as we chatted in the Suzuka paddock on Thursday, plenty of those memories came flooding back.

There was 2004, when, after qualifying a Jaguar in third place in a car that had no business seeing the top 10 without a pair of binoculars, he had to retire as his seat was getting hot – to the point that his backside was almost on fire. Five points for Williams 12 months later (back when five points actually meant something for fourth place) was his second-best result of that season. The next year, I vividly remember watching him wrestle a pig of a Williams through the final chicane, seemingly closer to disaster on every lap as he searched for pace the car didn’t have before binning it on the start-finish straight late in the race, clouting the wall and conveniently coming to rest opposite the Williams prat perch, ensuring himself a short walk back to the garage.

And then there was Fuji.

I’m not sure I’ve been belted by rain more at a sporting event than that first year at Fuji in 2007. The famous mountain was spectacularly visible – for about 30 minutes in Friday morning practice. From then on, the grey clouds turned to black, and proceeded to lash rain on the circuit for the best part of two days, rain that made the 1976 season-decider immortalised in the movie ‘Rush’ at the same circuit look like a passing shower.

Race-day morning, something wasn’t right, and it had nothing to do with the velocity of the water as it cascaded from the sky. There were 21 drivers on the drivers’ parade; the one who was missing was, as he might put it, “hurling his guts up”, ravaged by food poisoning. Given the conditions, it would have been perfectly excusable for Webber to sit out, but he dragged his weakened body into the Red Bull RB3 and cruised around behind the safety car until the weather was deemed suitable to start the race.

Webber, covered in vomit inside his steamed-up helmet with rain continuing to tumble, worked his way up the field from seventh on the grid. Before long he was second, title contender Fernando Alonso had crashed, and Webber was gaining on Alonso’s rookie McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton, the race leader who surely wouldn’t have fought too hard as he attempted to bank a slab of points critical to his title aspirations. The best result of Webber’s career looked to be on the cards, and the top step was real possibility.

And then this. “It’s kids, isn’t it?” Webber spat to startled pit lane reporter Louise Goodman after a 20-year-old named Sebastian Vettel had rammed him off the track in the rain behind the safety car, eliminating both cars from the race. “Kids with not enough experience – and they go and f**k it all up.” Interview over. Makes you wonder what ever became of that Vettel ‘kid’ and whether he eventually turned out to be half-decent …

Later that afternoon, I got a sense for the sort of bloke Mark is, win or loss, good or bad. Two hours after the race, we sat with Mark’s partner Ann and dad Alan and chatted. I’d filed all my stories for the day, had no work to do, no reason to be there other than to see how he was. He looked dreadful, but hung around. “You’ve come a bloody long way mate, so you’re right,” was his reasoning.

It’s either the sublime or the ridiculous for Webber in Japan. In 2009, he made a mess of the Red Bull by going off at the trickier-than-it looks-on-TV Degner 2 corner in Saturday practice, smashing the car up so badly that he couldn’t qualify it hours later. Starting dead last from the pit lane the next day, his first four laps probably should have been accompanied by a laugh track. Three pit stops – two for the headrest material in the car coming loose and one for a puncture – put him nearly as many laps behind the field as the rest had completed. The response was a near-faultless drive – to 17th given how many laps down he was – with the fastest lap of the race thrown in to boot. Teammate Vettel won from pole with no mechanical problems or ill-fortune (stop me if you’ve heard that before), but Webber was happy he’d at least achieved something. “Can’t let Seb have everything, can I?” was his wry comment over a solemn post-race green tea.

A year later, Webber was at his best and most amusing. Qualifying was a complete washout on the Saturday – we spent more time discussing cricket as the rain belted down – but on Sunday he was on it, arguably the strongest weekend where he didn’t win the race in his F1 career. Pipped to second on the grid by Vettel by 0.068secs in a hastily-arranged Sunday morning qualifying, he finished 0.9secs behind his teammate after 53 laps to enjoy a 14-point lead in the championship with three races left. Korea and that crash was to come a fortnight later, but Webber was almost in as good form off the track as he was on it that weekend.

He wanted to get the one flight back to Australia that left Tokyo that night, and had a helicopter lined up to take him straight from the circuit to Narita Airport, and time was tight. The only problem was, because he’d finished second, he had the post-race press conference to negotiate. Knowing I was onto his escape route, he grinned as he entered the presser, politely asked if he could get through his questions first despite not having won the race, and then scampered off to the waiting chopper still in his race suit. Got in a little bit of trouble too, but it was worth it for the sheer audacity of it all. He made the flight too …

Then there was last year. Strong qualifying, second again behind Vettel who is absolutely mega at Suzuka, and ready to do something big in the race. Come Turn 2 on Sunday, Webber was on the grass facing the wrong way, turned around by serial offender Romain Grosjean, and while he recovered through the field to ninth, you could almost see the steam coming out of his ears every time he passed the pits. As he crossed the line to take two points on a day where he felt 18 would be the bare minimum, I knew I just had to scurry down to the post-race ‘pen’ where the TV cameras gather to broadcast the thoughts of the drivers after they returned to pit lane. I promised the Fleet Street tabloid guys sitting near me in the press room that I’d share what I got from my compatriot if they kept an eye on other things for me, and they weren’t disappointed.

“I haven’t obviously seen what happened at the start but the guys (on the pit wall) confirmed that it was the first-lap nutcase again, Grosjean,” Webber started, and then he was off. In an era where driver after driver is too busy thanking a sponsor or on-message to deliver anything of interest, the next 90 seconds were gold.

“I don’t know what the issue is. We’re starting an hour-and-a-half Grand Prix and we all fold into the first part of the lap … I was hoping for his sake that somebody else hit him and put him into me, but the guys said it was all of his own doing. Maybe we have two separate starts, one for him and one for us. We finished eight seconds off fifth place, and I was in reverse for 10 seconds on the grass.

“The rest of us are trying to fight for some decent results each weekend but he is trying to get to the third corner as fast as he can at every race. He needs to have a look at himself. How many mistakes can you make, how many times can you make the same error? It’s quite embarrassing at this level for him.”

And with that, Webber was off, stopping by the Lotus hospitality area for what was described as a “conversation” with the Frenchman, although it was more than likely a fairly one-way chat …

You sense only Webber could have had the sequence of events that scuppered his race in Korea last weekend happen to him. Out of position on the grid from a 10-place grid penalty after qualifying third, he’d moved his way into potential podium contention before pitting for a second time – and came out right behind Sergio Perez’s McLaren as its right front tyre exploded. As the first car on the scene, a puncture ensued … which necessitated another pit stop … which dropped him down to 11th … which meant he was in the firing line for Adrian Sutil’s spinning Force India after the re-start … which meant a Red Bull on fire. Given his usual luck, it was a surprise the 4WD safety vehicle that was dispatched onto the circuit didn’t hit him when it eventually got to his smoking car. Webber does have history with being hit by 4WDs in places where they shouldn’t be, after all …

Perhaps, just perhaps, this is the weekend it all comes together. The RB9 will be ideally suited to Suzuka’s sweeping curves, he loves the circuit, typically goes well here and is due a massive slice of good fortune after his recent travails. Vettel’s recent form suggests the German will be mighty hard to stop, but it’s very possible that some ‘Aussie Grit’ could propel Webber to his first victory of the season – and a great way to finish up at a circuit that he describes as one that provides “an awesome feeling to know you’ve got the best out of the car.”

One thing we do know: win or not, it’s bound to be entertaining. Japan and Mark Webber together know no other way.

Korean GP review: One more makes four

THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE OCTOBER 9 ISSUE OF MOTORSPORT ILLUSTRATED NEWS

There’s the glitz and glamour of Formula One, then then there’s the Korean Grand  Prix. The venue, 250 miles from Seoul and built in an area planned for a city that never eventuated, is unloved by most of the F1 travelling pack and, it seems, much of the local community, given the number of people masquerading as empty chairs at the Korean International Circuit last weekend. But for Sebastian Vettel, there are 25 points on offer for a win in Korea just as there are at Monaco, Monza or Spa, and the points for his eighth victory of the season last Sunday were as gladly received as any others he’s managed in what’s becoming a year befitting the dominant driver of his generation.

For its brief history as a stop on the F1 map, Korea has often given the impression that it’s all too hard. At the first Korean GP in 2010, the circuit was still being built on the Friday of the race weekend; 12 months later, the teams returned to discover trash from that maiden visit still in bins in the hospitality areas and the corks from the post-race champagne celebrations still on the podium. All of the sport’s biggest hitters stay together in the one trackside hotel that’s suitable, as the remainder of the nearby accommodation is primarily made up of ‘love hotels’ where rooms are let on an hourly rate. The drivers are seemingly in a bigger rush to leave on private planes on Sunday evening after the race than they are on track at any other stage of the weekend …

Korea is proposed to be the fifth round of next year’s F1 season, slotting into the Asian leg that follows the season-opener in Australia, but has an asterisk next to it on the proposed calendar for 2014 that was circulated last week. If last Sunday’s Grand Prix was the last at the venue, you sense few would shed a tear, but Vettel would be one of those who might lament its passing. Sunday was the Red Bull driver’s third win in four Korean Grands Prix, the only time he hasn’t held the winners’ trophy aloft coming in 2010, when his engine blew within 10 laps of the flag while he was leading the race.

Read more: http://motorsportin.com/