EXCLUSIVE: Mark Webber reveals the only obstacle to Daniel Ricciardo winning a world championship.
The season gets underway this weekend with the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Australian hasn’t won a race since leaving Red Bull at the end of the 2018 season, and while it would be a surprise to see him on the top step of the podium this year, he’s likely to be closer to the front in the McLaren than he would have been at Renault.
Ricciardo has a three-year deal with McLaren, and with a total overhaul of the sport’s regulations coming in 2022, Webber hopes that’s when he can challenge for the world title.
“If you’re in the stockmarket it would be a good time to buy shares in Daniel, because he’s in for the best phase of his career, matching the Red Bull days hopefully,” Webber told Wide World of Sports.
“It’s just a matter of whether or not McLaren can put a campaign together for him. We know he can win races, but can McLaren win seven or eight in a season at the back end of his contract? That’s where he wants to be.
“That’s what you need to do to win a world championship and McLaren will have their eye on that for the third year of his contract.”
McLaren have switched from Renault to Mercedes power for 2021, a definite step forward, while they have a highly-rated driver combination in Ricciardo and Lando Norris.
“They’ve got a bit more power this year, with the Mercedes engine in the back, so that’s good, that’s a bit of lap time in their pocket straight away. I think Daniel will bring a lot to the party, the natural energy he brings, he’s going to be great for the team,” Webber explained.
“He’ll have the factory and the team right behind him, just because of his personality.
“But it’s a big year for Lando Norris as well, it will be fascinating to see how much pressure he can put on Daniel. But I think Daniel’s experience and his leadership will show, having been at the front before.
“It’s a great signing for McLaren, they haven’t had a driver at that level for a long time.”
Webber says any thoughts of a Ferrari revival in 2021 can be put on hold, with the Scuderia coming off their worst season in four decades.
The team managed just two podiums in 2020, with Charles Leclerc, considered a future world champion in the right car, finishing in eighth spot in the championship, five spots ahead of his teammate Sebastian Vettel.
Vettel has been replaced by Carlos Sainz for this season, but it looks likely to be a struggle for the Spaniard.
All cars running Ferrari engines (including customer teams Alfa Romeo and Haas) have been off the pace since late in 2019, when the FIA issued a clarification in relation to fuel-flow regulations.
The immediate impact of the clarification was that Ferrari-powered cars could measure their lap times with a calendar rather than a stopwatch, a situation that didn’t improve in 2020.
And Webber isn’t expecting much to change this year.
“Not really, no. It really knocked the stuffing out of them, with the games they were playing in 2019 with the fuel flow,” he said.
“When you pull that much horsepower out of the car the whole design suffers. It will take a long time to recover from that. Ferrari are absolutely in a rebuilding phase.
“It’s a shame because we need Charles Leclerc at the front, the guy is an absolute star of the sport. He’s got everything. He’s brilliant and we need him challenging for wins.”
Teams had just three days of pre-season testing in Bahrain, with both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas unhappy with the new car.
The team has won seven consecutive championships, but found itself on the back foot in testing earlier this month.
Hamilton had a number of spins, while Bottas said the car was “unforgiving” and the rear needed “calming down.”
Many observers have Max Verstappen’s Red Bull as a slight favourite for this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
However, the 2019 season should serve as a note of caution. That year, Ferrari had a slight edge in pre-season testing, but come race one of the season in Melbourne, the Mercedes drivers locked out the front row and finished first and second by a comfortable margin.
Ferrari meanwhile, struggled home with both cars nearly a minute behind the winner.
Mercedes went on to win 15 of the 20 races that season, Ferrari managed only three.
Webber acknowledged that Mercedes had issues in testing, but warned against dismissing their chances entirely.
“Mercedes are world champions for a reason, but even by their own admission it wasn’t the smoothest test for them,” he said.
“But Bahrain is such a specific track, it’s really hard on the rear tyres, and just because you’re quick there it’s not really an indicator that you’ll be quick everywhere else.
“As a neutral, we want Red Bull to be competitive naturally, but I’m also happy for Lewis to win another championship and break some more records. We just want a cracking season where two or three guys go deep in the championship.
“There’s a good chance of that because the rules are pretty mature, which means it’s hard for teams to come up with anything really special.”
The Australian was quick to point out that world championship points aren’t handed out in the pre-season, despite the endless analysis of test times as so-called experts attempt to figure out the true pecking order.
“It’s such a long a long season,” Webber explained.
“Even by July, no-one cares about the lap times from testing in March. It’s all about reliability at this stage.
“I’ve been involved in many championship campaigns, right now it’s literally the first bricks going down. The championship’s not done until you put the roof on top, which is such a long way away.
“But don’t forget Red Bull finished the season last year pretty strongly, they probably missed a couple of wins through first lap accidents and bits and pieces. At the time I thought that was Mercedes focusing on 2021, but who knows?
“Maybe it was Red Bull taking it to Mercedes in an authentic challenge.”
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