Webber looking more like the real deal
Mark Webber woke up as Formula One leader on Monday with the world recognising the Australian's title credentials after he won the showcase Monaco Grand Prix.
Any grand prix victory is an achievement in itself, winning two in a row, in the space of eight days and at such radically different circuits as Barcelona and Monte Carlo, is even more significant.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, standing in soaking clothes after being thrown in a harbourside swimming pool by his celebrating employees, told Webber's partner Ann Neal that he wanted whatever she was feeding the 33-year-old for breakfast.
"His confidence is very high, he's driving extremely well and he's very relaxed. He's at one with the car and you can see that in the last week," the Briton told Reuters. "His performances in Barcelona and Monaco have been exemplary."
Webber, the archetypal plain-talking Aussie, has always been a popular figure in the closely-knit travelling circus that is Formula One while also considered less of a contender than team mate Sebastian Vettel.
The German, 10 years younger than Webber, arrived in the Austrian-owned team as a winner already with the tag of "Baby Schumi" and a reputation as champion-in-waiting.
It is not entirely inconceivable that Webber, something of a journeyman in the estimation of some, could make Vettel wait a bit longer. He is certainly a title contender now.
"What you are seeing is real," said his previous team boss Frank Williams. "I can honestly say I'm delighted. He's worked very hard and he's as straight as they come.
"When we had him, our car was a disappointment, we felt he was part of the problem but probably wasn't actually with hindsight."
Sunday's win was Webber's fourth in Formula One, all with Red Bull in the last two seasons and catapulted the Australian into the championship lead after six of the 19 races, ahead of Vettel on race wins but level on points.
He was the first Australian to win in Monaco since Jack Brabham in 1959, his country's first overall leader since Alan Jones in 1981.
Both former champions have predicted great things for Webber but it is only since his breakthrough win at the Nuerburgring last July that he has really begun to deliver.
At Williams, the team he raced for in 2005 and 2006, he was welcomed as a latter-day Jones but found the car was not a frontrunner.
"He was always very quick and he was always very committed," Williams co-owner Patrick Head told Reuters.
"I think in the years he was with us and...in his first year at Red Bull every now and then he used to make a bit of a mistake in races. From the second year with Red Bull, that stopped and now he's as solid as it comes.
"Before that, every now and then he'd spin off in the middle of a race for reasons that were difficult to understand. Maybe he was just pushing harder than he should do and now he's got a better car, he doesn't have to push quite that hard."
Head, who has worked with some great champions, agreed that Webber could maintain a title challenge.
"He's a tough and grisly Aussie, he'll be fine," he said. "Sebastian is very good but I don't think Mark will crumble under pressure. He can take that sort of thing."
Webber started last season still feeling the effects of a broken leg and reported for duty this year with a contract up for renewal and media reports suggesting departed Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen could be lined up to replace him.
Since then he has started three races on pole and has helped Red Bull to two one-two finishes, including Monaco.
"I'm not surprised. I think Mark is a great driver, he's clearly got his act together and head in gear," McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, told Reuters.
"He's driving probably the best he's ever driven. I said in Australia that he's got a great opportunity to challenge for the wins this year and he's doing all he can."
McLaren's world champion Jenson Button, who worked with Webber when the Australian was a Benetton test driver in 2001, was happy to congratulate him.
"I know how it feels to win here, it's a very special feeling and he's obviously a very talented driver as everyone is at the front," he said.
"Maybe he doesn't get as much respect as he should do."
By Alan Baldwin, Reuters