This time last year the predictions were that an even stronger Sebastian Vettel, newly crowned as world champion, would pulp Mark Webber, and sure enough the German had the upper hand with 11 victories to the Australian's one. This year the naysayers forecast that if the Australian doesn't shape up he'll lose his Red Bull seat either to the French rising star Jean-Eric Vergne or his countryman Daniel Ricciardo, who will cut their teeth in the sister Toro Rosso outfit this season.
Webber has heard it all before, and takes negativity in his long stride. After, all, some said he'd never win a grand prix and he took two in 2009, or that he would never become world champion, yet he came within an ace of taking the title that eventually fell to Vettel in 2010.
He's not your typical Formula One driver, this interesting character from Queanbeyan, in New South Wales. Of course, he's fitter than a butcher's dog, which of the 24 men on the grid isn't? But he knows (and cares) about the history of his sport. He knows a lot about other sports, too. He was the only current driver with the moxie to speak out following revelations about Max Mosley's private life four years ago. And he has a wider view of the world than any of his rivals, and an essential humanity born of that willingness to broaden his outlook.
And Webber (below) is no pushover, even though Vettel might have made it look that way at times. He took that crushing disappointment of 2010 on his lantern jaw, sucked up the mistake that spun him out of the wet Korean GP and set in train his team-mate's run to his first title, and was one of the first to congratulate him.
But just because he's rounded and has gentlemanly traits, don't under-estimate him. Jenson Button says that the hardest man in a close fight is neither Fernando Alonso nor Lewis Hamilton, but Webber.
"Mark doesn't give you a millimetre more than you need," he says, respect rather than censure evident in his tone. "He's the toughest nut, and he takes more risks than the others."
Like Damon Hill in his legendary battles with Michael Schumacher, Webber goes away, shores himself up with his long-time partner, Ann Neal, and ponders his defeats before coming back stronger. He's figured out where he lacked pace in 2011 and why, and come back ready to take the fight to Vettel in 2012 the way he did in 2010.
"I'm looking to have a much better year this year than I did last year," he says, "which, of course, means a lot of winning and improving the start of the season, which is clearly possible. I feel better than I did this time last year, in terms of coming off the back of the pre-season testing, and it's nice to have the feeling that I had in Brazil last year.
"It's going to be a great battle again at the front. This is what I'm excited about – it's what I'm training for, it's what I'm preparing for and this is why I'm looking forward to getting the first part of the championship under way."
The big problem he faced last year was getting to grips with Pirelli's less durable rubber, which replaced the Bridgestones he had mastered. Vettel got a handle on that much sooner. He started the year feeling uncomfortable with his RB7's handling on the new rubber, and it took a while to massage that feeling away.
"I feel better than I did last year – which wouldn't be hard because I was pretty much in the shit at the start of it," he admits cheerfully, "so this year should be better."
It's the season of six world champions, as Kimi Raikkonen joins Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher, but that clearly doesn't faze Webber.
"The competition has been pretty strong for the last few years, to be honest, some great names. We've lost Robert [Kubica], and gained Kimi. Obviously, I wasn't at the front when Michael was winning, but it's always been very competitive." In other words, to use the Australian vernacular, "No worries, mate."
A lesser man might not be able to bring himself to acknowledge the achievements of the man whose performance put his own in the shade, but not Webber. He pays Vettel his due when discussion turns to whether the young German is a great world champion.
"There have been a lot of single champions but when you do the double it's held in very high regard," he says. "When you do the double it's more than double, it becomes exponential. When you win the championship it's certainly special but winning two is certainly a feather in your cap. To win a couple is very impressive."
Which is why he is still driven to get his first, which for a while seemed to be within his reach two years ago before that slip in Korea. He likes the idea of making it seven champs on the grid in 2013.
Of course, when you drive for Red Bull these days you have a very good chance of emerging as world champion, but Webber would dearly love to change the name on the trophy and believes that he starts the season in the best shape to achieve that. Remember how Nigel Mansell came so close in Adelaide in 1986, was then written off after losing out to his Williams team-mate Nelson Piquet the following season, but bounced back finally in 1992? The two have much in common.
"We're in good shape," Webber says. "We believe it's going in the right direction, but it only takes two- or three-tenths of a second and we'll need to do more. Let's see when the gloves are off over the weekend, and then still we need to go to Malaysia to see a slightly different track as well, because Melbourne is a pretty specific place.
"The good news is that we have a sensational season ahead of us. There's no guarantee, but I feel there are going to be some really good moments this year. There'll be some headwinds too, that's normal, and over a long season things can happen to us where we'll have to deal with adversity here and there. That's part of competing at this level and any top sport, but I'm bloody excited about the whole season and looking forward to doing some fantastic results."
The team principal, Christian Horner, has seen the steel in Webber, and is confident he'll mount a much stronger campaign than he did at the start of 2011, and that a faster Webber won't make life difficult for either Vettel or the team the way it did perhaps in 2010.
"Mark's had a good winter," he says. "He's had a good pre-season and has come to Melbourne with a spring in his step – which wasn't the case last year. He's in a good frame of mind and, hopefully, he can have a strong season. We have two really competitive drivers and we expect them to push each other, but they both know that the team is the most important thing."
The one thing Webber isn't focusing on right now is the future, even though his one-year rolling contract expires this season. "It's been the same since 2005, and I've done all right since then," he says. "I've achieved some amazing things in the last few years which I'm proud of, and if I'm sitting here with a two-year contract I wouldn't feel any different.
"I still want to perform. I'm not going to say, I've got a two-year contract and I'll just cruise around and get serious next year. I don't even think about the contract, I think about results. Contracts take care of themselves. If you're not good enough, you get out. If you're getting the results, you stay on."
Title talk: Our predictions for the season
1. Sebastian Vettel
Vettel will continue to be the yardstick the others will measure themselves by because he'll probably have the best car aerodynamically, but he'll have a lot harder time of it than he did in the past two years with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher in competitive cars.
2. Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton will regain his mojo and win plenty of races for McLaren. The car looks good, especially in the high-speed corners, and his head is back in the right place after a productive winter spent soul-searching, reorganising his life and readjusting his mindset. He looks hungry, relaxed – and focused.
3. Kimi Raikkonen
Raikkonen's comeback will be very successful. They say you should never go back, but the Finn has youth and renewed vigour on his side and clearly hasn't forgotten how to drive fast. Hopefully, he'll have fewer accidents than he did in his rallying career, but you can count on him to lift Lotus.
Best of the rest...
The battle within the midfield will be even more intense than it was in 2011, with Force India, Toro Rosso, Sauber, Williams and Caterham all pitching in to fight for whatever lucrative points might be left over by Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and Lotus.
The French renaissance will produce two very strong title contenders of the future. Jean-Eric Vergne will emerge as the find of the season down at Toro Rosso, echoing countryman Alain Prost's rise, while Romain Grosjean will grasp his second chance with both hands at Lotus and will also impress.
FIA Formula One Australian Grand Prix (Melbourne)
1 J Button (GB/McLaren). Fastest lap time: 1 minute, 27.560 seconds, 11 laps completed.
2 L Hamilton (GB/McLaren) 1:27.805, 14.
3 M Schumacher (Ger/Mercedes) 1:28.235, 17.
4 F Alonso (Sp/Ferrari) 1:28.360, 21.
5 M Webber (Aus/Red Bull) 1:28.467, 21.
6 N Rosberg (Ger/Mercedes) 1:28.683, 22.
7 D Ricciardo (Aus/Torro Rosso) 1:28.908, 23.
8 P Maldonado (Ven/Williams) 1:29.415, 16.
9 K Raikkonen (Fin/Lotus) 1:29.565, 8.
10 K Kobayashi (Japan/Sauber) 1:29.722, 26.
11 S Vettel (Ger/Red Bull) 1:29.790, 21.
12 N Hulkenberg (Ger/Force India) 1:29.865, 17.
13 P di Resta (GB/Force India) 1:29.881, 18.
14 B Senna (Br/Williams) 1:28.953, 21.
15 S Perez (Mex/Sauber) 1:30.124, 22.
16 R Grosjean (Fr/Lotus) 1:30.515, 16.
17 H Kovalainen (Fin/Caterham) 1:30.586, 16.
18 F Massa (Br/Ferrari) 1:30.743, 11.
19 J-E Vergne (Fr/Torro Rosso) 1:31.178, 17.
20 V Petrov (Rus/Caterham) 1:31.983, 8.
21 T Glock (Ger/Marussia) 1:34.730, 8.
22 C Pic (Fr/Marussia) 1:40.256, 11.
23 N Karthikeyan (India/HRT) no time set.
24 P de la Rosa (Sp/HRT) no time set.
1 Schumacher (Ger/Mercedes) 1 minute, 29.183, 16 laps.
2 Hulkenberg (Ger/Force India) 1:29.292, 19.
3 Perez (Mex/Sauber) 1:30.199, 23.
4 Alonso (Sp/Ferrari) 1:30.341, 13.
5 Kobayashi (Japan/Sauber) 1:30.709, 14.
6 Di Resta (GB/Force India) 1:31.466, 13.
7 Massa (Br/Ferrari) 1:31.505, 14.
8 Kovalainen (Fin/Caterham) 1:31.932, 16.
9 Rosberg (Ger/Mercedes) 1:32.184, 17.
10 Vettel (Ger/Red Bull) 1:32.194, 19.
11 Webber (Aus/Red Bull) 1:32.296, 20.
12 Glock (Ger/Marussia) 1:32.632, 17.
13 Petrov (Rus/Caterham) 1:32.767, 15.
14 Grosjean (Fr/Lotus) 1:32.822, 11.
15 Button (GB/McLaren) 1:33.039, 18.
16 Hamilton (GB/McLaren) 1:33.252, 11.
17 Maldonado (Ven/Williams) 1:34.108, 21.
18 Raikkonen (Fin/Lotus) 1:34.275, 7.
19 Senna (Br/Williams) 1:34.312, 17.
20 Vergne (Fr/Torro Rosso) 1:34.485, 29.
21 Ricciardo (Aus/Torro Rosso) 1:34.604, 31.
22 Pic (Fr/Marussia) 1:34.770, 13.
23 Karthikeyan (India/HRT) 1:42.627, 16.
24 De la Rosa (Spain/HRT) no time set.Reuse content