APRIL 20, 2011
Forget, for a moment, the tactics and the tyres and the manic 97 minutes of racing in China. For me, the funniest and most easily understood split second of truth occurred just after the finish. It came courtesy of Mark Webber.
The first three finishers were discussing the race during the TV unilateral interviews. Webber was talking about his start from 18th on the grid, his fall to 20th, a moment on the grass, the incredible climb to third place behind the winner, Lewis Hamilton, and Sebastian Vettel.
Then, in full flow as the adrenalin continued to kick in, Webber said, almost without pausing: "And congratulations to Lewis. It's good that someone finally..." Followed by a brief hesitation as Webber desperately pressed the rewind button and barely managed to stop himself from saying what everyone felt.
As the watching world mentally finished the sentence for him - something along the lines of "...beat bloody Vettel" - Mark went into desperate recovery mode with soothing phrases such as: "...of course, Seb is in the same team...we're all together fighting for victory...." But the damage - if you want to call it that - had been done.
In a world of camera-induced sound bites, this was a welcome surprise. Followed by the instant realisation that it should not have been a surprise at all because this was Mark Webber. He was, as usual, speaking 'up front' - to borrow the title from a typically forthright book* on his 2010 season.
If nothing else, Webber's articulate and entertaining reflections in print remind you just how far and how fast he has progressed at the top and how quickly F1 has changed in the space of 12 months.
Prior to his victory at the Nurburgring in July 2009, Webber has gone for 129 Grands Prix never having won, taken pole or claimed a fastest lap. Typically, on that momentous occasion for the Aussie in Germany, he'd been given a drive-through to make that much-sought win seem momentarily more distant than ever.
Being pitched against the odds seems to strengthen his resolve. He had a disastrous race in China last year and came back to totally dominate Monaco. At Valencia, he launched a horrifying aerobatic loop off the back of a Lotus - and then came back to win at Silverstone.
Of course, as the book reminds us, there was even more motivation provided in Britain by Red Bull's decision to take the latest nose off Webber's car and give it to Vettel. Mark does not mince his words on the subject. Or, as the introduction to a Mosley-era FIA statement covering a sensitive issue might begin: 'For the avoidance of any doubt....'
'I wasn't happy (during qualifying),' wrote Webber. 'When I woke up on Sunday things were worse. I felt used. Maybe I did go a bit over the top, maybe I was being sensitive, but a stance had to be taken and that could only come from me. This was another occasion (the other being Turkey) where I needed to make my presence felt. I needed to remind everyone: hey, I'm here!'
He did that by getting alongside Vettel's pole position car at the start, leading into the first corner and never looking back. Just in case anyone had missed what had been going on, Webber rounded off his win by broadcasting the memorable phrase: "Not bad for a number two driver."
The difference between now and then is that, once in the lead, and barring unforeseen misfortune, that victory was 90 per cent assured. Webber touches on the subject when reflecting on Malaysia earlier that year, a race that should have been his from pole position but one which was lost when Vettel got the jump on him going into the first corner.
'Looking at it from the outside, some people will say it seems ridiculous that the first corner of a 56-lap race should decide the eventual result, but the fact is it's still extremely difficult to pass in F1.'
Not any more it isn't. The remarkable work by Pirelli (forget, as we said last week, about KERS and DRS) helped produce more than 80 overtaking moves in Shanghai. Webber was responsible for a sizeable proportion of those as he came through from the back of the field to take his 21st podium finish.
There have been memorable wins for Webber but this surely will rank as the best among podium visits that have not involved standing on the top step. And then his day was made even sweeter when he discovered that Vettel had been beaten. Mate, that was so good it was worth talking about. Almost.
* 'Up Front. 2010 - A Season To Remember' by Mark Webber. (Macmillan)
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.