Horner: Webber is going to be a contender this year

Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing play cricket on St. Kilda beach. Formula One World Championship, Australian Grand Prix, Rd1, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday 14 March 2012.

Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel play cricket on St. Kilda beach ahead of the Australian GP weekend

Mar.15 (Reuters) Mark Webber has sweated through the European Winter to give himself the best possible shot of beating double world champion team mate Sebastian Vettel when the F1 season starts in Australia this weekend.

Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing and Christian Horner (GBR) Red Bull Racing Team Principal in parc ferme.  Formula One World Championship, Rd 16, Korean Grand Prix, Race, Korea International Circuit, Yeongam, South Korea, Sunday 16 October 2011.

Christian Horner with Mark Webber

Already one of the leanest and fittest drivers on a starting grid that now includes six champions, the 35-year-old Red Bull driver turns up for his home race in Melbourne lighter and hungrier than ever.

Team boss Christian Horner felt that the no-nonsense Australian was sure to be a contender again after a disappointing 2011 season in which the final race in Brazil brought his only victory.

“He has worked hard on his weight because he was probably giving away a fraction of range in set-up of weight distribution last year to Sebastian who is a few kilos lighter than him,” Horner told British reporters.

“He was determined to narrow that band. The team has found it for him as well by managing to take weight out of the car so he’s in great shape. I think he lost about a further kilo.

“There’s not a lot of him anyway because he is quite a tall frame,” added Horner. “He’s been very disciplined with his diet to do that.”

Webber’s height and build has been a disadvantage in the past against smaller team mates, allowing him less room to manoeuvre with ballast around the car.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 27:  Race winner Mark Webber of Australia and Red Bull Racing celebrates with Red Bull Racing team mates on the podium following the Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 27, 2011 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Mark Webber

Mark Webber celebrates winning the 2011 Brazilian GP

A fitness fanatic, like the similarly lanky but now absent Robert Kubica, Webber took time to come to terms with the new Pirelli tyres last season.

Horner felt that the driver also struggled to pick himself up from the disappointment of coming so close to the title in 2010 before losing out at the last race in Abu Dhabi to Vettel.

“I think he’s going to be a contender this year,” said the Briton.

“The tonic of winning that last race at the end of last year, going into the Winter actually set his off-season very well. He’s gone away, he’s trained hard, he’s come back lighter and fitter than he’s ever been.

“He’s more relaxed, noticeably so, within the team than he was 12 months ago. As he’s admitted, the hangover of not winning at the end of 2010 carried into 2011, and at times last year it didn’t look as though he was enjoying going racing.

“But I think he’s got back his enthusiasm and his passion for the sport,” said Horner.

Mark Webber (AUS) KL Minardi Asiatech PS02 finished his first F1 practice in a respectable 20th place. Australian Grand Prix Practice, Albert Park, Melbourne, 01 March 2002 DIGITAL IMAGE

Mark Webber made his debut at the 2002 Australian GP with Minardi

No Australian has won his home grand prix and Webber, whose contract runs out at the end of the year, faces a major test from his team mate, let alone what appears to be a stronger challenge from McLaren and other rivals.

Vettel, 24, won 11 races last year after starting a record 15 from pole position.

The German is chasing his third successive championship which would make him only the third driver to pull off such a hat-trick.

“He [Webber] knows that in Sebastian, he is up against currently the best driver in the world and he’s come more to terms with that,” said Horner.

“Certainly his testing performances have been very encouraging and he just seems more relaxed and is enjoying his driving again.”

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