MELBOURNE, March 13 (Reuters) - Michael Schumacher’s retirement has thrust Mark Webber into the role of Formula One’s elder statesman, but the hard-bitten Australian believes he still has the tricks to keep the “vultures” away from his Red Bull driver’s seat.
Webber will line up at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix as the oldest driver, clinging to another one-year contract with Red Bull and batting away suggestions his 12th season in F1 and seventh with the British-based team will be his swansong.
“I never ever expected that it would be such an interesting topic that I would be the oldest on the grid,” Webber, who will turn 37 in August, told reporters on Wednesday.
”I didn’t even see it coming until the last few weeks.
“I don’t feel the oldest on the grid. You feel you’re the oldest on the grid if you’re back on the grid getting blown away, but that’s my job to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
Webber claimed two victories at Monaco and Silverstone last year, but finished a disappointing sixth in the drivers championship after suffering back-to-back retirements late in the season.
He was again put in the shade by his younger team mate Sebastian Vettel, who collected five race wins on the way to a third consecutive title.
Despite media speculation linking a number of willing candidates for a coveted place in an outfit that has won the past three constructors championships, team principal Christian Horner has backed Webber to continue at Red Bull beyond 2013 if he continues to deliver.
Webber conceded that speculation over his contract had proved a distraction before he re-signed in 2012, but said he had become used to it.
”I think it was Kimi (Raikkonen) who was supposed to replace me in 2009,“ he noted dryly. ”It comes with the territory when you’re in a top team and you’re at the back end of your career.
“The vultures have been on the branches for the last three of four years, that’s just the way it is. But there will be a day where I stop.”
Webber’s age was brought into sharp focus on Wednesday as he strained to remember early impressions of his career in an interactive session with a group of five and six-year-old school-children sitting obediently on a mat before him.
Quizzed about his most stressful race and the number of crashes in his career, Webber, clad in a pair of jeans and a team shirt, candidly told the wide-eyed group that his racing enthusiasm was still fired by “adrenalin”.
He later told reporters he was “absolutely, completely capable” of pushing for Australia’s first championship since Alan Jones’s sole triumph in 1980 with Williams.
Webber will enjoy the company of another Australian on the grid in Daniel Ricciardo, who will race a second season with the Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso and along with French team mate Jean-Eric Vergne, might be expected to graduate to the senior outfit.
Like Webber, Ricciardo has set a goal of becoming Australia’s third world champion after Jones and Jack Brabham, who put the country on the F1 map with his titles in 1959-60 and 1966.
Having two Australians on the grid was an achievement in itself, Webber said.
“Daniel’s been doing his stuff well. I think that coming from Australia it’s very difficult. The strike rate of young drivers getting to Europe is very, very low,” he added.
“It is hard to leave these shores and go and race over there, getting through those junior categories, which he did well.”
Underlining the generation gap between the two drivers, Ricciardo literally bent over backwards in the cause of his career on Wednesday, as he contorted himself into unnatural poses with a touring hip-hop dance act next to Melbourne’s Yarra river.
Ricciardo said the possibility of stepping out of Webber’s shadow and into his driver’s seat was an idea to relish, rather than treat with apprehension.
”I wouldn’t say anything’s too scary,“ Ricciardo told Reuters. ”In terms of hopping into a seat like that, it would be exciting. It always gets talked about, particularly early on in the season.
“I’ve got a big task ahead and I‘m sure (Webber) wants to do his job this year so if it happens one day, it would be exciting.” (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)