LONDON (Reuters) - Mark Webber has sweated through the European winter to give himself the best possible shot of beating double world champion team mate Sebastian Vettel when the Formula One season starts in Australia this weekend.
Already one of the leanest and fittest drivers on a starting grid that now includes six champions, the 35-year-old Red Bull driver turns up for his home race in Melbourne lighter and hungrier than ever.
Team boss Christian Horner felt the no-nonsense Australian was sure to be a contender again after a disappointing 2011 season in which the final race in Brazil brought his only victory.
“He has worked hard on his weight because he was probably giving away a fraction of range in set-up of weight distribution last year to Sebastian who is a few kilos lighter than him,” Horner told British reporters.
”He was determined to narrow that band.
”The team has found it for him as well by managing to take weight out of the car so he’s in great shape. I think he lost about a further kilo.
“There’s not a lot of him anyway because he is quite a tall frame,” added Horner. “He’s been very disciplined with his diet to do that.”
Webber’s height and build has been a disadvantage in the past against smaller team mates, allowing him less room to manoeuvre with ballast around the car.
A fitness fanatic, like the similarly lanky but now absent Robert Kubica, Webber took time to come to terms with the new Pirelli tyres last season.
Horner felt the driver also struggled to pick himself up from the disappointment of coming so close to the title in 2010 before losing out at the last race in Abu Dhabi to Vettel.
“I think he’s going to be a contender this year,” said the Briton.
”The tonic of winning that last race at the end of last year going into the winter actually set his winter up very well. He’s gone away, he’s trained hard, he’s come back lighter and fitter than he’s ever been.
”He’s more relaxed, noticeably so, within the team than he was 12 months ago. As he’s admitted, the hangover of not winning at the end of 2010 carried into 2011, and at times last year it didn’t look as though he was enjoying going racing.
“But I think he’s got back his enthusiasm and his passion for the sport,” said Horner.
No Australian has won his home grand prix and Webber, whose contract runs out at the end of the year, faces a major test from his team mate let alone what appears to be a stronger challenge from McLaren and other rivals.
Vettel, 24, won 11 races last year after starting a record 15 from pole position.
The German is chasing his third successive championship which would make him only the third driver to pull off such a hat-trick.
“He (Webber) knows that in Sebastian he is up against currently the best driver in the world and he’s come more to terms with that,” said Horner.
“Certainly his testing performances have been very encouraging and he just seems more relaxed and enjoying his driving again.”
Editing by Tony Jimenez