Not Bad For A Number Two Driver

(c) Getty Images

After 217 races, 42 podiums and 9 wins, Mark Webber has left Formula One. As he returns to the Le Mans racing series, he leaves behind a reputation as one of the most genuine and straight talking guys in F1. Although his twelve-year stint in the sport ended  without a World Championship win, he will be remembered as a man with extraordinary talent that, for one reason or another, never took the Championship that could well have been his in 2010

Webber made his F1 debut in Australia 2002 and placed fifth in the slowest car on the grid. It was clear he meant business. While his talent was evident, he rarely had the kit to do the job itself. His first season with Jaguar was mediocre while his second season was pretty poor as the team fought its last season. Ironically, the team was sold to Red Bull for just one dollar at the end of 2004. His time in Williams pretty much mirrored his Jaguar experience; his first season was relatively good (his tally of 36 points would remain his highest points scoring in a season until 2009 when he almost doubled that), while his second season with Williams was marred with a string of mechanical failures robbing him of strong finishes, such as a podium position in Monaco.

He moved to Red Bull in 2007 as the team were still in their infancy. His first season was just as poor as his final Williams season, with seven DNFs to his name, including the now infamous incident where team-mate to-be Sebastian Vettel rammed him from the back in Fiji. 2008 was slightly better and he doubled his points from 2007, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the long-awaited win finally came to him. Starting from his first career pole position, he made contact with Brawn’s Rubens Barrichello and was forced to serve a drive-through. Nevertheless, his determination to prove the critics wrong drove him strongly onwards and he secured the first of his nine race wins.

His appetite for wins only increased after this and he won another race in 2009, four wins in 2010, one in 2011 and two in 2012. Among the trophies above his mantlepiece are two trophies from Monaco, having driven to a commanding win in the principality in 2010 and 2012. Clearly his 2010 season was his strongest – and it will always be known as ‘the Championship Webber lost’. His wins in Spain, Monaco, Silverstone and Hungary saw him lead the drivers table as the final races of the season arrived. It was Mark’s to lose.

I reckon it was his spin in Korea that cost him the win. Running second in the inaugural Korean Grand Prix, he hit wet Astroturf and spun out of the race. His team-mate, who was leading the race, later retired meaning Webber, potentially, could have taken twenty-five points. In the end, he lost the Championship by fourteen.

Webber spun out of the 2010 Korean Grand Prix
(c) AAP

As Vettel came into his stride as the team’s number 1 driver, Webber found himself unable to get to grips with the new Pirelli tyres that were introduced in 2011. His almost went the season winless, except that Vettel developed a suspicious gearbox issue while leading the final Grand Prix and caused him to drop behind Webber. In 2012, he was back with a vengeance and won in Silverstone and Monaco, but 2013 saw him go winless.

According to Mark himself, he knew that 2013 would be his last season in the sport before he arrived for the season opener in Melbourne. For this reason, he treated the Aussie media to a dinner before his final home race.

What seems to have been forgotten given Vettel’s absolute stronghold over Formula One is that in 2010 he was far from Championship winning material. Clearly he had the speed but he was still living under the shadow of Schumacher, dubbed ‘Little Schumi’ and later ‘the Crash Kid’ following his trip into the side of Jenson Button’s McLaren at the Belgian Grand Prix. Webber was still able to equal Vettel’s achievements and even led the Championship, while Vettel didn’t lead until the final race when he won.

2010 was the first season I watched and it remains my favourite season. Quite contrary to the one-sided Red Bull that has arisen from Vettel’s string of Championships, Red Bull were once evenly split between their drivers. It’ll be a long time, I imagine, until the memory of Vettel moving across Webber in Istanbul of that year will be forgotten by the RBR crew.

In fact, it was not the duo’s first incident on track. During the 2008 Japanese Grand Prix in torrential rain, Vettel rammed into the rear of Webber, taking Webber out of the race and setting up a tense foundation for the two the following year when Vettel joined the team.

Back to 2010 and more inter-team disputes. Red Bull brought an update to the British Grand Prix in July which included a front wing for both cars. When Vettel’s front wing snapped on Friday morning, the team took the decision to take the wing off Webber’s car and give it to Vettel and to give Webber the old-spec wing, without discussing it beforehand with Webber. He was clearly angry with the decision which he felt demonstrated a clear team favourite. Indeed, when he crossed the line victorious on Sunday, he took a swipe at the team on the post-race radio message, claiming that his performance was “not bad for a number two driver“.

Vettel eventually won the title that year from right under Webber’s nose at the final Grand Prix. In stark contrast to the nail-biting conclusion to the season before, 2011 proved to be a mundanely easy Championship for Vettel who won the title with four races left, such was his dominance. On the other hand, Webber struggled to get to grips with the new Pirelli tyres and nearly went winless, except for a convenient gearbox issue on the sister RB7 which saw race-leader Vettel losing his lead of the final GP to Webber.

Webber won the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2011
(c) Getty Images

2012 was a stronger year for Mark but he wasn’t a realistic contender in the Championship which led to another exciting last-race showdown between Fernando Alonso and Vettel, both vying for their third Championship, although Webber did become a double winner in both Monaco and Silverstone of this year.

2013, however, will be remembered as the season where the friction of the previous five years came to a head. In the Malaysian round, Webber was leading following the final pit stop stint. Red Bull, with Turkey ’10 still ringing clear in their memory, ordered Vettel to stay behind Webber through the now infamous ‘Multi-21’ order (which says that car 2 stays ahead of Car 1). Webber, sure that Vettel would comply, went into fuel saving while Vettel continued to charge. Eventually Vettel caught Webber and to the background of Horner’s desperate cries for calm, he battled wheel-to-wheel with Webber for several laps until he finally got past and won the race.

This was the end of the public friendship between the two drivers with rumours circling that Webber was to leave F1 immediately while Vettel made a team-imposed apology for his actions. Vettel went on to win the Championship with extraordinary ease while Webber wrapped up 3rd in the Championship. Fittingly, I think, he finished behind Vettel in his final race.

Among the myriad of reasons for admiring Mark Webber as a driver was his pure determination. His early days with Minardi, Jaguar and Williams were occasional bright lights illuminating an otherwise poor showing, blighted by mechanical failures and his trademark bad luck. Yet Mark never gave up.

His wait to win that all important first victory was the longest in the sport and came in his eighth season in Formula One. His podium topping performance came 24 hours after also claiming his first pole position. Although his new team-mate had claimed RBR’s first race win in China earlier that year (and at a much younger age too), Webber set into motion a battle with Sebastian Vettel which would spill over into the preceding years and last until the end of his career.

Webber waited eight seasons for his first win
(c) Getty Images

One of the biggest reasons that I admired Mark Webber was his refusal to give up. Through his (relatively) early seasons with Minardi, Jaguar, Williams and Red Bull, his career was far from fruitful, and was instead riddled with reliability problems or an underperforming car. Yet he waited for that first win, and finally took it.

He also never gave up when he broke his leg. While competing in the Tasmania Challenge in the winter break between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, he was hit by a Jeep while cycling. He broke his leg but remained committed to returning to the seat which Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz promised him would be there for him when he was ready to take it. Through extensive and rapid physical therapy, Webber was back in the car when the season started in 2009.

In 2010, Webber drove injured as he fought for the Championship. He suffered a fractured shoulder in a mountain bike accident before the Japanese Grand Prix but raced regardless, although failing to tell his team until after the season. The G-forces in the car would have been incredibly painful against Webber’s fractured shoulder, but his determination to race verified his Twitter handle; ‘Aussie Grit’.

Mark was also an incredible sportsman. There are very few racers who can race wheel-to-wheel in this age of pay drivers. One of the most memorable moments of Mark’s racing career will be his overtake on Fernando Alonso in 2011. Although Alonso was exiting the pits and was slower than Webber, Mark only pulled alongside the Ferrari as the two men entered the Eau Rouge corner, wheel to wheel on the steep right hand corner which is difficult enough to get right when in single file, nevermind trying it two abreast. This wheel-to-wheel racing demonstrated the commandery and respect between the two veteran drivers, as the same overtake between most other drivers would have ended in complete disaster. I think one of the things that I’ll most miss is the Alonso/Webber friendship and on track respect.

(c) Getty Images

I’ll also miss Webber’s outspokenness. Most of the current grid are either fed a team line to pull when it comes to speaking to the media, or censor their words as to impress their sponsors or try to finalize a deal with a team. Webber was never one for holding back. In fact, it was Webber who began the Kimi Raikkonen/Vodka association, claiming that Kimi must have been drunk while driving when he crashed into Webber and caused him to retire from a race. Also, he was quite outspoken about team orders and showing his unhappiness with certain situations, such as venting his frustration regarding the front wing issue of Silverstone 2010. F1 will be running short of straight-talkers in 2014.

And so it ends. I’ve often said this season that if he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. I think this is a perfect summation of his career. Every driver hopes to drive for the best team in the world. Unfortunately for Mark Webber, he did just that, but alongside the best driver of the generation. From having a slow car to having a good car with an even better team-mate, Webber never had the chance to shine.

And although he was never, and will never be a World Champion, I’ll always remember Mark Webber for his ability to fight through the darkness, even when it seemed the world was against him or that the team had it in for him (even if sometimes both probably did). Even though the record books will never do, I’ll always remember Webber as a Champion.

Thanks for the memories Mark. G’day mate.

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