THE internal battle which marred Red Bull’s 2010 campaign could be about to rear its ugly head again as Mark Webber admitted he was delighted to see his team-mate beaten for the first time the season.
Webber’s heroic performance in the Chinese Grand Prix saw him leap 15 places to finish third, while Sebastian Vettel couldn’t convert his dominant pole position into his third victory of 2011, crossing the line in second behind McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton.
After a shocking qualifying session, Webber started Sunday’s race a lowly 18th on the grid, while team-mate and championship leader Vettel recorded the fastest lap ever around the Shanghai circuit, securing him pole position from the two McLarens of Jenson Button and Hamilton.
Such was Vettel’s domination on Saturday, the McLaren pair were heard asking him to ‘go easy’ on them come race day.
Starting on the harder compound tyre compared to those around him, Webber struggled to make inroads in the early part of the race, losing out in a battle against Sauber’s Sergio Perez and remaining in the lower order.
At the other end, Vettel struggled off the line and lost out to the two McLarens down to the first corner, just holding off Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg to stay in third.
Chasing down the McLarens, Vettel pitted just yards behind Button but was given the shock of his life when the McLaren man pulled into his Red Bull garage by mistake. The error cost the Brit a place to Vettel, who returned to the action behind Rosberg, who stopped earlier and leap-frogged the pack to lead.
Meanwhile, Webber was slowly making progress up the field. Now on the softer, faster tyres, he was able to see off most of the middle-order comfortably, despite his KERS boost failing once again.
However, his march towards the podium still looked an unlikely prospect with Rosberg continuing to impress out in front, while Ferrari’s Felipe Massa was hanging on the coat-tails of Vettel as they hunted down the Mercedes.
The McLaren pair, on a different three-stop strategy to Vettel’s two-stop, then came to life posting a series of fastest laps. Hamilton made a charge through the field, overtaking the recently pitted Rosberg and Button as he set his sights on Vettel ahead as Massa faltered.
And with Vettel’s tyres on their last legs, Hamilton hunted down his prey and dived up the inside with five laps remaining to romp home to a dramatic victory. However, while the action at the front took the headlines, Webber’s rise was equally as impressive as Hamilton’s victory.
Showing the pace of his RB7 arguably for the first time this season, Webber scythed his way through the field, passing former world champions Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso among others on his way to the final step of the podium, passing Button with just a lap to go.
At the flag, Webber finished just seven seconds behind Hamilton and less than two behind his team mate. The result ended Vettel’s dominating four-race winning streak, and his team-mate Webber was the first to express his pleasure at the run coming to an end.
“Congratulations to Lewis, it’s good that someone finally… of course Seb’s in the same team, but he’s been at the front all along and we’re all fighting for the championship.
“So a shame that McLaren won in a way, but also we can’t let Seb get too far away, so it was a good day for the racing and a good day for points for our team.”
Speaking about his own dramatic race, Webber admitted even he was questioning whether it would happen.
He said: “We decided to start on the prime tyre, which we know is not the most desired, as it doesn’t have the characteristics of the hard tyre in terms of duration and things like that.
“So, we got that out of the way, but it was quite tricky actually, as even with the guys I was with, everyone was using DRS at the same time.
“I made a mistake in turn two on my in-lap and then we came in as there wasn’t much left in the tyres and our race started from there.
“To see P17 on your board after 15 laps you think it might not happen, but suddenly I felt very comfortable with the car. I had a few sets of tyres left from qualifying, so that helped - and maybe that’s the way to do it: miss qualifying and go from there!
“But, all joking aside, I think the guys have done an incredible job - it’s a back to back race and we haven’t had the smoothest run with my car, but I haven’t given up. That drive today was for them and everyone back at the factory. It was a good day for us in terms of points for the team.”
Vettel meanwhile was left to rue a poor start and the wrong strategy for his second place.
“My start was not the best and for some reason it seems the left-hand side of the grid is worse here than the right-hand side,” he said. “It wasn’t brilliant and I lost positions to Jenson and Lewis.
““After that it was about being patient. I think we treated the tyres better in the first stint, we could have stayed out, but there wasn’t reason to at that time, so I came into the box and came out first. It was a surprise that Jenson came into my garage in front of me - I hoped he would carry on.
“Fortunately it had no effect and the guys kept their heads. We came out in the lead and tried hard to stay on two stops.
“The middle stint should really have been a little longer, but at the end of the race I found myself out on the hard tyre and could see Lewis coming closer and closer.
“I tried to defend as best I could, without losing too much time to the guys behind, but he found his way past.
“It was a difficult race and we had a couple of mistakes but we still finished second and third, which is a strong result.”
Vettel still leads the championship by a huge 21-point margin over Hamilton, with Webber a further 10 points back in fourth place behind Button.
The teams now return to Europe with a three week break before heading out to Istanbul for the Turkish Grand Prix - the scene of Red Bull’s infamous collision last year.