SHANGHAI, April 13, 2011 (AFP) - McLaren and Ferrari may look to Mark Webber to help clip his teammate Sebastian Vettel's wings in this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix -- and end his runaway start to the 2011 world title race. Both McLaren drivers Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton found the pace to mount a challenge to the defending world champion in last Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix. But the British pair know that if they cannot close the gap quickly and
stop the Red Bull driver reeling off a third successive win, it will become ever more difficult to catch him in this year's championship. Vettel has already bagged 50 points after his faultless start and is 24 points clear of Button, his nearest rival in the drivers' standings.
Another win at Shanghai on Sunday will give the German a comfortable gap over his pursuers before the F1 roadshow returns to Europe for the Turkish Grand Prix next month. But Australian Webber showed in Sepang last weekend that he has shaken off the frustration that dogged him in Melbourne at the season-opening race by fighting back from another setback -- this time with Red Bull's faulty Kinetic Energy Regeneration System (KERS) -- to finish fourth. Given his competitive instincts and the team's positive reaction to his stirring drive, Webber could emerge as a threat to Vettel's dominance -- a factor that may help tilt the title race towards a more open field. "When someone makes a start like Sebastian has this season, it is tricky for the rest of us," said Button. "But although I am already a lot of points behind him, I do feel we are closing in on the Red Bull pace."
Vettel has won the two season-opening Grands Prix and five of the last six races and appears, at age 23, to have found a maturity in his driving and decision-making that, combined with the formidably fast and reliable Red Bull car, has lifted above his peers. But Button and Hamilton do not see it that way and believe that if McLaren can continue to make the forward strides they have in the last month, they can carry the fight to the young German and end his winning streak.
Hamilton, who endured a torrid race of strategic errors, poor tyre selection, a collision and then a post-race penalty, has also vowed to move on and concentrate on winning. "We made a lot of progress in Malaysia in terms of speed and in qualifying and we were fast in the race," he said. "I am not dwelling on what happened during the race, but I felt we had the speed to compete with the Red Bull and now I am thinking only of beating them." McLaren plan to use an updated version of the recently-revised exhaust system and floor that was introduced in Melbourne.I do feel we are closing in on the Red Bull pace." If it works well, Button and Hamilton could close the gap on Vettel and the Red Bulls. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, mindful of the challenges ahead in a long season, heaped praise on Webber in the aftermath of his heroic recovery drive in Malaysia.
"Mark's old enough to know how long the season is, and his points are invaluable," he said. "He was unlucky at the start. He sort of had the worst of all worlds. The KERS went into safe mode, an electrical issue we haven't seen before. "So he had the combination of a bad start and no KERS and slipped to 10th -- to fight back for fourth shows it was a great drive by Mark and I am sure he will be very strong now."
As the top teams regroup ahead of round three, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo -- who said pre-season that only the championship would do for the team this year -- has expressed his confidence in Spaniard Fernando Alonso's ability to recover from a strange loss of pace in qualifying. Senior team figures including team chief Stefano Domenicali, technical director Aldo Costa and engineering chief Pat Fry were all called back to Italy this week for an investigation into the team's curious loss of competitive speed.
Another Red Bull-McLaren battle is in prospect in China this weekend, but with the hope that this time Vettel is not allowed to have it all his own way.