Mark Webber carved another little bit of motor racing history yesterday, holding his nerve throughout a nail-biting climax to the Monaco Grand Prix. For the first time ever a sixth different driver won the sixth race of the season. But it so nearly didn't happen. Nico Rosberg, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, previous winners this season, dogged his wheeltracks to the chequered flag: 1.3 seconds covered them all, with Webber 0.6 sec ahead of Rosberg, and 0.3-sec gaps back to Alonso and Vettel.
"When did I know I had it won?" Webber answered a particularly asinine question. "When I came out of turn 19 at the end of the 78th lap."
Once the dust had cleared from a start-line crash involving Alonso, Romain Grosjean's Lotus and Michael Schumacher's Mercedes, Webber led from Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. But the McLaren driver lost third place to Alonso during the rash of singleton pit stops which Rosberg initiated on the 27th lap. Webber described that as the first piece of the chess game, and was grateful not to lose out to the German when he made his own stop a lap later.
The top nine starters were obliged to start on the supersoft compound Pirelli tyres on which they had qualified but because he elected not to set a time in the final qualifying session, Vettel was able to gamble on starting with the more durable soft compound tyres. He thus ran a much longer first stint and was able to take the lead as Webber, Rosberg, Hamilton and Alonso came in.
Now Webber had to fight not to let his team-mate open up the 21-sec advantage that he needed to make his own pit call. Complicating the issue was the threat of rain. Had Vettel been able to stay out and wait for that, he would have been handed the race on a plate. From his advantage of 17 sec he would have been able to make just the one stop, for wet weather tyres, whereas his closest rivals would have had to come in again for them.
However, in the end the rain only came 10 minutes after the chequered flag fell, so by the 46th lap he came in for his mandatory switch to the supersoft tyres. Crucially, he got out in fourth place fractionally ahead of Hamilton, who had the revitalised Felipe Massa threatening him.
At times in the final third of the race the top six were all within 3.1 seconds of one another. It was tense stuff as the gaps between them opened and closed as they sped round, unable to overtake, but probing and pressuring the man in front. Very light rain for a short while at the Mirabeau corner added to the challenge and stress. But none of them made any mistakes, and Webber just held on to win for the second time in Monaco.
In the closing stages Hamilton fell back a little, but still the top six cars were blanketed by just over six seconds. Further back still, a superb drive netted Scot Paul di Resta seventh place ahead of his Force India team-mate Nico Hülkenberg.
"It feels incredible," Webber said, still looking a little drawn after the strain of his hour and 46 minutes' flat-out work. "Early on it was all reasonably straightforward and a matter of just managing the gap with Nico. Then he went for the undercut on the pit stop and we had to react to that. But then the next stage was very strange, because it took a while for the soft tyres to warm up. I had very, very low front grip and had to manage that with the brake balance while managing Nico, and with Seb out front I had to make sure he didn't get the magic time he needed for his stop.
"Then there was also the threat of rain. I was praying for it not to. But in the end it was a major day for the team and myself, and I'm really, really happy.
"Being the sixth different winner in six races feels pretty good. It's all still up and down in qualifying and the races are hard to predict. That's a little frustrating for us and different to how it was in the past, but maybe we'll get things sorted by Montreal."
While Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari celebrated, Hamilton and Button stewed at McLaren. The former made a poor start then lacked pace, the latter was stuck behind Heikki Kovalainen's Caterham, spun after picking up a puncture, and then retired.
"I really dislike going backwards," Hamilton said. "We still came away with some points but we need to react fast. The team have definitely got some work to do because we are falling behind race by race. The others are picking up some serious pace."
He was unhappy with his start, and what he felt was another slow pit stop. "I just don't understand why the two guys next to me and the guy behind me got perfect starts. I was very, very fortunate not to get caught up in the crash. And I don't know how long my pit stop was but I lost quite a lot of time," he said.
Button, meanwhile, said: "Heikki was so slow, but he's very good at placing his car, and if a guy places his car in the right place, you can't overtake. I think he was looking in his mirrors more than looking forward. It was frustrating when he didn't get a penalty for it and it just slows us all down. When I did get down the outside of him at the chicane he just kept moving across and it was like, 'OK, I'm up against the wall now and we're touching wheels...' There has to be a balance when you're fighting for 12th place and I don't think he had it right, but that's racing.
"At least I didn't have to do the last eight laps and feel pain for even longer, that's one way of looking at it."
Monaco: how they finished
FIA Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo
1 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1hr 46min 06.557sec
2 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:46:07.200
3 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:46:07.504
4 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:46:07.900
5 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:46:10.658
6 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:46:12.752
7 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:46:48.094
8 N Hülkenberg (Ger) Force India 1:46:49.119
9 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus F1 Team 1:46:50.593
10 B Senna (Br) Williams 1:46:51.073
11 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari at 1 Lap
12 J-E Vergne (Fr) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 Lap
13 H Kovalainen (Fin) Caterham at 1 Lap
14 T Glock (Ger) Marussia at 1 Lap
15 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-F1 at 2 Laps
16 J Button (GB) McLaren at 8 Laps
17D Ricciardo (Aus) Scud Toro Rosso 65 Laps completed
18 C Pic (Fr) Marussia 64 Laps
19 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 63 Laps
20 V Petrov (Rus) Caterham 15 Laps
21 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 5 Laps
22 P de la Rosa (Sp) HRT-F1 0 Laps
23 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 0 Laps
24 R Grosjean (Swit) Lotus F1 Team 0 Laps
1F Alonso 76pts
2 S Vettel 73
3 M Webber 73
4 L Hamilton 63
5 N Rosberg 59
6 K Raikkonen 51
7 J Button 45
8 R Grosjean 35
9 P Maldonado 29
10 S Perez 22
11 P di Resta 21; 12 Kobayashi 19 13 B Senna 15 14 F Massa 10 15 N Hülkenberg 7 16 J-E Vergne 4 17 D Ricciardo 2 18 M Schumacher 2 19 H Kovalainen 0 20 T Glock 0 21 N K'keyan 0 22 C Pic 0, 23 V Petrov 0 24 P de la Rosa 0.
11 Red Bull 146pts 2 McLaren 108 3 Ferrari 86 4 Lotus F1 Team 86 5 Mercedes GP 61 6 Williams 44 7 Sauber-Ferrari 41 8 Force India 28 9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 6 10 Caterham 0 11 Marussia 0 12 HRT-F1 0.