Formula 1 02 Aug 2006 02:52 pm

Whither Webber?

Mark Webber, one of Formula 1’s most under-rated drivers, is ‘on the market’. Which team will he drive for in 2007?

Keen observers will have noted that Mark’s driving has picked up considerably this year — his performances have been strong and mature, but (due to severe reliability issues with the Williams FW28 racer) this is is not reflected in his current position on the world championship points ladder.

Mark has been driving for WilliamsF1 since the beginning of last year. The WilliamsF1 team had an option over Mark’s services for the next two years, but the option expired on Sunday (31 July).

Most F1 commentators think that Frank Williams would like to keep Mark in the team next year, but that he doesn’t want to pay the increase that would have been required had he exercised the option. So the option has expired and Mark is on the market.

And what better time to be on the market? As I wrote some time ago when commenting on Jenson Button’s predicament, there are more good seats available for 2007 than has been the case for many years. Mark must now be on the shopping list of a number of strong teams. And I have no doubt that his market value has surged on the back of strong performances in Monaco and Germany (he was well placed in both races until the car failed).

So, where might Mark go?

* McLaren: Juan Montoya is gone from the team, and it looks like Kimi Raikkonen is probably going. Fernando Alonso is coming in for 2007, leaving (probably) one seat vacant. Mark was nurtured early in his career by Mercedes Benz — it’s not impossible that he would team up with Alonso in what’s likely to be a good car (McLaren’s resources are excellent). However, McLaren is likley to want a front-line seat for Lewis Hamilton in a year or two, so a long term deal may not be available. FN odds: 4:1

* Renault: With Alonso leaving, and Giancarlo Fisichella signed for another year, there’s one seat vacant. Mark is managed by Renault Team Principal (Flavio Briatore), and could easily end up racing with Fisi for the French team. Assuming that Renault can quickly climb back to the top of the tree, this could be a great place to be. Pat Symonds, technical chief at Renault, has praised Mark in the press on a number of occasions, and would probably love to have him in the team. FN odds: 3:1

* Red Bull: David Coulthard probably only has a year or so left in his F1 career. It’s possible that Red Bull may be interested in having a solid driver to work with over the next few years as they concentrate on growing their own new talent. Mark cold be the man. It seems that Red Bull would like to get hold of Renault engines for 2007 (although an existing arrangement with Ferrari may preclude that) — maybe Flavio could use this as leverage to find Mark a home at Red Bull. Working with F1 super-guru Adrian Newey would be quite an attraction for Mark. FN odds 5:1

* Williams: To be honest, I reckon it’s most likely that Mark will stay at Williams. Frank Williams has praised Mark’s performance and professionalism in recent weeks: all the signs point to the fact that Frank would like to keep Mark in the team as partner to rough-and-ready (but potentially quick) rookie Nico Rosberg. I’d not be surprised to see Mark sign a three-year deal at Williams – lining up with the recently-announced Toyota engine arrangement. FN odds: 3:2

One place Mark apparently can’t go is Toyota — the German/Japanese team now has both current drivers (Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli) on multi-year contracts. Both are erratic and moody and, in my opinion, neither represent a solid driving foundation on which to build consistent results. I wonder whether Toyota would have been so quick to re-sign Jarno Trulli had they known that Mark Webber could have been available (the Trulli deal was only announced last week).

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