Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner has predicted that Mark Webber will come back stronger than ever in 2012 in response to his difficult '11 season.
While Webber's teammate Sebastian Vettel swept to 11 grand prix victories and a dominant Formula 1 title in 2011, the Australian was only able to win once and finished third in the standings. But at the AUTOSPORT International motorsports trade show, Horner said Webber's improving form in the latter part of 2011 and the chance to recharge over the off-season should see him back to his best when this year's title chase commences.
"It's very difficult going up against a driver of Sebastian's caliber, being matched and measured against somebody of his standard," said Horner. "Mark had a difficult start to the year, but he adapted and he worked hard at it and he worked hard to understand the tires in particular. And his performances grew and grew throughout the year and it was great to see him win that final race in Brazil.
"He has gone away and trained hard through the winter and his enthusiasm has rejuvenated and I think 2012 could be a very strong year for Mark."
Horner also believes Webber's 2011 performances were too lightly disregarded, and that his season was more impressive than the results suggest.
"Mark put in some great performances last year and he raced very well," said the team chief. "That pass on Fernando Alonso into Eau Rouge was unbelievable and coming from the back of the grid in China on a different strategy all the way up to third position – again another great drive. He drove some amazing races in 2011.
"He had some difficult starts but I know he has been focused on that and the team has been looking to help him with that as well. So hopefully if those little things can be addressed he can have a strong campaign in 2012."
Horner underlined Red Bull's belief that Vettel and Webber make a well-balanced partnership.
"For us it is a great pairing. OK, there is over a 10-year age difference between the two of them, so they are at different stages of their career, so they push each other very hard and they bring the best out of each other I think," he said.
Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne's appointment to the Toro Rosso race seats has been seen as a contest to decide which of the two Red Bull proteges will ultimately replace Webber in the senior team, but Horner said there was no firm long-term plan for the duo at present.
"We are fortunate to have two guys as talented as Jean-Eric and Daniel that fully deserve their chance in the Toro Rosso and I am fascinated to see how they evolve," he said. "There is nothing guaranteed to those guys, they have got the opportunity and it's now down to them to take it and develop. We will be able to see, compared with each other, how they are progressing."