When Mark Webber first began running strongly for Jaguar last year, there was general surprise. He raced well in Australia until his car broke, and was then in with the chance of a podium finish before crashing in Brazil.
After that, the performances were no longer a surprise. The super-fit Australian went on to shine in several qualifying sessions, but was usually let down by a car that was not as competitive in race trim. This year, however, it has been a different story. The Jaguar R5 is quick in qualifying and in race configuration.
In Melbourne, Webber was sidelined with an uncharacteristic gearbox problem. Here on Sunday his front-row starting position turned to dust immediately due to a technical glitch, but he fought back brilliantly until he sustained a puncture during a collision with Ralf Schumacher, the man he may replace at Williams.
For some time now his name has been connected with a drive for the Anglo-German team in 2005. Juan Pablo Montoya is already heading off for McLaren next year, and though this weekend Ralf was told by Toyota that his asking price is far too high, the German may also be leaving.
The speculation about Webber is now so strong that it seems just a case of who will partner him in the Grove team. His supporters firmly believe that he is world champion material. Even his detractors have started to acknowledge that he is doing a fine job.
"We've always thought he was very good, he's a great charger," Sir Frank Williams said recently. "He clearly is a driver on a charge and he is going places. Drivers are inevitably coloured by the equipment they have, but I think that in a winning team he will win races."
Williams' partner, the technical director, Patrick Head, is also keen. "Mark is a charger in the Nigel Mansell mould, one of those drivers who needs to be fast all the time," he said.
This is high praise indeed from two of the sport's more reserved individuals and, though it need not necessarily mean that Webber is a shoo-in for a drive in their team, that is looking increasingly likely.
The Jaguar chief, Tony Purnell, would love to hold on to him if he can, however. "I think Mark and Michael Schumacher are very similar characters and I think that he will be a world champion one day. I have no intention of losing him, but it's good to have something that other people covet."
Webber is under contract already to Flavio Briatore, Renault and Jaguar, all of whom have a call on his services for 2005 which is performance-related. But as is the way of things in Formula One, accommodations can be reached and none of them is likely to stand in his way if palms are sufficiently well greased.
Paul Stoddart, whose Minardi team gave Webber his big chance in 2002, has no doubts about his potential. "Mark thinks, lives and breathes Formula One," he said. "There is only one other driver like that in the game and that is Michael Schumacher. Mark is so focused, and he has the talent and he has the brains. There is nothing in it between him and Fernando Alonso [whom Stoddart also ran, in 2001] in terms of talent, and they are both stronger than any other driver I have worked with.
"If Webber goes to Williams you are looking at a world champion," Stoddart added. "Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya can quibble and trip over themselves, but Mark will go in there and very quickly work out a way to get the team behind him. Fernando is naturally the most talented driver I have ever seen, but Mark is the complete package."
WORLD DRIVERS' CHAMPIONSHIP standings: 1 M Schumacher 20pts; 2 R Barrichello 13; 3 J P Montoya 12; 4 J Button 9; 5 F Alonso 8; 6 J Trulli 6; 7 R Schumacher 5; 8 D Coulthard 4; 9 F Massa 1.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies