Australia’s Mark Webber won’t have enjoyed seeing David Coulthard standing on
the podium of the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix. It should have been him up there.

Unlike Coulthard, Webber kept up with the
leader – and eventual winner – for more than an hour of the 78-lap race.
Doomsayers who had predicted that Webber had been helped onto the front row of
the grid with a low petrol load were proven wrong. Only in the heat of Sunday’s
battle did Webber emerge as the real hero.

Sad, then, that he boarded a plane in Nice
having left a smashed steering wheel and a set of flame-charred overalls as the
main products of his day’s work. Frustration and Mark Webber are close
workmates this year.

In many ways, his performance in 2006
mirrors the questions that surround his future: he’s a talented driver, but
will he ever deliver on that promise?

If it’s true that you’re only as good as
your last race, Webber could expect greatness to come knocking sooner rather
than later – Monaco was a first-class drive. But rewind a fortnight to Spain,
and not only did Webber’s Williams not shine; neither did he.

Contrary to popular belief, F1 is not a
question of marrying a good driver with a good car and finding a title
at the
doorstep. If that were true, Giancarlo Fisichella would have found
success at
the wheel of a Renault. It’s a careful balancing act between
driver-team-car. And getting it right, as Schumacher did for so long,
and as Alonso is doing
now, is akin to alchemy.

The problem with F1 in 2006 for a
competitor like Webber is the dearth of genuinely great drivers. Following Schumacher,
Raikkonen and Alonso, there is an enormous “division two” on the back of the
drivers’ parade truck: Fisichella, Montoya, Barrichello, Massa, Trulli,
Heidfeld, Coulthard, Villeneuve, Button, and of course Aussie Mark.

Put F1’s top trio in the same car and you
can book an early table for the annual end-of-year FIA prize-giving gala. But
given the relatively level playing field Webber et al compete on, it takes a
genuine champion – a WORLD champion – to step up into that company.

Peter Fray

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