Why the old dog Mark Webber was caught out by an old trick in Abu Dhabi | Features & Experts | Sky Sports Formula 1
Sky Sports F1's Mark Hughes on why the veteran Australian was unable to keep pace with his Red Bull team-mate this weekend
"Old dog, new tricks mate," answered Mark Webber to why he struggled with the tyres so much in Abu Dhabi last weekend.
While Webber had beaten team-mate Sebastian Vettel to pole for the second time in three races, he had absolutely no answer to Seb on race day. Even once Webber had cleared Nico Rosberg's Mercedes, which had out-accelerated him off the grid, he could do nothing about the 25sec lead Vettel had built up. Vettel was going more quickly than Webber and using up less tyre.
"When we go to this range of tyre, it's a bit more high maintenance for me," Mark admitted. "It's such a fine, delicate balance... you can 'feed' the tyre a lot if you treat it in a different way but how to get into that window is sometimes not obvious."
Abu Dhabi represented the worst possible combination for him in that the rear option was delicate relative to the demands of the track. If it's a relatively hard tyre for the circuit's layout or if the limitation is the front tyre, then Webber can usually get a decent combination of pace and stint range. But if the challenge is about keeping a delicate softer rear tyre alive, he invariably gives a lot away to team-mate Sebastian Vettel.
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There was little wrong with Webber's ultimate pace in Abu Dhabi - as his pole position showed. Although his task was made easier by Vettel making a crucial error on his final Q3 lap, Webber's speed was fully competitive. It was coming in a rather different way though, particularly in the tight twists of sector three, a stop/go street circuit-like section full of right-angle bends. Watching the cars through there during their long runs on Friday, the contrast between how the two Red Bulls were being driven was stark.
Vettel would enter a corner carrying a lot of momentum but was not trying to make the direction change all in one move; instead he'd let the car run out slightly wide after the apex, the speed still coming down and only then complete the turn. Normally, the slow exit this gives would damage the lap time but on a section of track where the gap between the turns was so small this was no longer the case. Only once the car was fully turned was he then getting clean and hard on the throttle and thereby the load on the rear tyres was minimised.
Webber by contrast was driving in a much more traditional and aggressive way, getting the direction change completed by the apex, carrying in a lot of speed and then trying to get as early and hard on the power as possible, even before the cornering load had come off the rear tyres. The car would accelerate out there, twitching and nervous as the rear tyres struggled to provide both cornering and tractive force at the same time. It was very quick - until the rear tyres overheated after a few laps.
The interesting point is that Vettel's technique here was not at all like how he normally drives the car. Usually, he accentuates the turn-in, getting the rear to slide wide before the apex, then standing on the throttle to use the exhaust flow to provide extra downforce that kills the rear end slide once it has accomplished the direction change. The key is Vettel's adaptability and his always-open mind about where the biggest area of advantage is on any given track in any given situation.
That blend of delicacy and dynamism is a Vettel speciality and has been rewarded extremely well during the Pirelli era because of the fragile nature of the tyres. In the days of more robust tyres, Webber was a master at maximising the braking grip and he remains slightly faster than Vettel through the high speed bends - a point that Vettel himself acknowledges. But Webber's all-out aggressive driving style has been punished hard by the more subtle requirements of the Pirellis.
"It's not going to change now, mate," he said, with resignation last weekend. "It's over."