Mark Webber’s Racing Legacy

With Saturday marking the final race of Mark Webber's racing career, Craig Woollard looks back at the Australian's career from sports cars, to Formula 1, to the WEC.

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Mark Webber of Australia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing is interviewed by the media after attending his final drivers press conference during previews for the Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 21, 2013 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

On Saturday, one of motorsport’s great drivers will put on his racing gloves, boots and helmet for one final time. Mark Webber’s racing legacy will be one remembered with trying times, scary accidents and major success in both single seaters and in sportscars. 12 years in Formula One brought him nine race victories, whilst three in the World Endurance Championship has brought him eight wins, and a drivers’ championship to throw in as well. Webber will be remembered as one of racing’s outspoken journeymen, and as one of Australia’s great racing drivers.

Webber started his career in his native Australia, moving up the Formula Ford ranks, before making a switch to Europe to pursue a Formula One career. He would progress into the world of Formula Three in the UK, where he would prove to be very solid. He would also race at Macau and at the Masters of F3 race at Zandvoort in 1997, finishing in the top four at both.

These strong results would see Webber approached by Mercedes regarding a place on their junior sportscar programme. He would impress at Spielberg, where he first tested a sportscar, and would be given a place alongside reigning GT World Champion Bernd Schneider for 1998. Mercedes and their CLK would absolutely decimate the field that year, winning all ten of the races which made up the championship; five wins each for the Schneider/Webber car and for the Klaus Ludwig/Ricardo Zonta car. However the second car, would secure the drivers’ crown with more consistent results.

Webber would also get his first taste of Le Mans that year, where neither Mercedes would finish. 1999 saw the GT1 championship scrapped, so Webber’s activities were restricted solely to Le Mans that year. A new car was also developed to fit the new LMGTP category regulations – dubbed the CLR. However the CLR would prove to be very unstable at Le Mans, with Webber flipping violently in qualifying, and again in the warm-up. Despite these concerns, Mercedes went ahead with running the remaining cars in the race, only for another Mercedes – this one piloted by Peter Dumbreck, to flip violently, in the exact same spot as Webber’s did that morning.

Webber vowed to never return to Le Mans following the 1999 event, and duly left Mercedes as well. With his career stuck, he returned back to the junior categories to try and return on the path to F1. Webber would race in the Formula 3000 season for the turn of the new millennium, where that year he would finish ahead of some very successful drivers – Fernando Alonso, Justin Wilson, Sebastien Bourdais and Stephane Sarrazin to name a few. However he was unable to secure a F1 drive for 2001, so endured another season of Formula 3000.

Wilson would up his game for the 2001 season, as did Webber. The first seven races would give the impression that it would be a three-horse race for the championship that year between Wilson, Webber and Tomas Enge, as they won each of the first seven events between them. However results would elude Enge in the second half of the year, Webber would suffer from four retirements consecutively, whilst Wilson would pick up podium after podium in his title-winning year, and seemingly a F1 seat to go with it.

However Wilson’s plans to run in F1 for 2002 fell through and Webber was able to secure a seat with minnows Minardi, with help from manager Flavio Briatore and from Minardi boss Paul Stoddart. Webber’s potential was realised as early as his first race at home, as he was given the opportunity to score points in a race of attrition and duly delivered under pressure. Fifth was a result so popular that he and Stoddart held their own unofficial podium ceremony after the race. Points would elude Webber for the rest of the year, but his job was sufficient enough to secure him a Jaguar seat for 2003.

With Webber, Jaguar would equal their best result in the championship, but the performances from the team were not particularly strong. Webber would easily see off team mates Antonio Pizzonia (replaced by Wilson mid-season), and Christian Klien. These performances were enough to allow Webber to jump from one sinking ship (as Jaguar would be bought by Red Bull) onto, unfortunately, another.

Williams were well and truly heading towards a downturn from the 2005 season onwards. Unable to make best of the regulation change for that year regarding tyres, the great team would slip behind Renault, McLaren and Toyota in the standings, before engine supplier BMW would withdraw at the end of the season. Webber would also not have the edge on his more experienced team mate and fellow Mercedes refugee Nick Heidfeld. He did, however, pick up his first career podium at Monaco.

2006 was not a strong year for Williams at all, as the team was given Cosworth power for the first year of the V8 era. The car was off the pace, but Webber would have the edge over his new rookie team mate Nico Rosberg. However, Webber would continue to impress up and down the paddock and the presence of Adrian Newey at Red Bull would lure Webber back to Milton Keynes, alongside the vastly experienced David Coulthard.

2007 would provide some promise for Red Bull, and the highlight of Webber’s season would come at the Nurburgring, where Webber would avoid the chaos around him to secure the second podium of his career. He would finish behind Coulthard in the standings, but had a very good chance to win at the Japanese Grand Prix (despite food poisoning) before being rammed by a young German in the Toro Rosso. This German would be Sebastian Vettel.

2008 would not see Webber visit the podium again, but it would see him finish in the points more consistently. High points in the season would be fifth at Spain, fourth at Monaco in the wet and a front row start at Silverstone before an early spin. He would vastly outscore a retiring Coulthard, but Vettel would finish higher in the championship with the sister team, and with it the seat alongside Webber for 2009.

Major changes to the cars for 2009 benefitted those who started work on their cars earlier in the year prior – namely Red Bull, Honda (which would become Brawn), Toyota and Williams. Red Bull would be the strongest team to not run the controversial double diffuser, which would later be deemed legal. Red Bull would fail to realise its strong pace in the first few events, but the speed would be realised at the Chinese Grand Prix where the team would secure its first one-two finish. However it would be Vettel who would lead Webber home on that occasion.

Webber would get his chance to shine however. At his 130th Grand Prix, held at the Nurburgring, he would secure his maiden pole position. Despite a penalty for causing a collision at the start, Webber drove an aggressive race and would outwit Rubens Barrichello and Brawn to secure his maiden win, and would release an amount of emotion which had been building up for many, many years.

A late title bid would not happen for Webber in 2009, with races in Italy, Singapore and Japan really putting those hopes to bed. He would however secure his second career victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix that year, after outmuscling Barrichello at the start of the race.

For 2010 however, Red Bull would produce a mighty machine. Vettel would have the edge over Webber in the first handful of races, but would be pinned back by reliability issues. However Webber would deliver some crushing drives from pole to win at both Spain and at the coveted Monaco Grand Prix. The first cracks in the Webber-Vettel relationship would appear at Turkey, after the two collided. Vettel would be out on the spot whilst Webber would finish third that day. A scary shunt at Valencia, not too dissimilar to his flip at Le Mans more than a decade earlier would be his first retirement of 2010, whilst Vettel won.

Upgrades were brought for the British Grand Prix, but when Vettel’s failed in third free practice, Webber’s variation of the new front wing was given to Vettel on the basis that he was higher in the championship. Furious, Webber, would capitalise at the start when Vettel got a puncture. “Not bad for a Number Two driver”. Arguably Webber’s strongest drive that season came at Hungary, where he capitalised on a Vettel mistake behind the safety car and used an alternate strategy to hound down Alonso’s Ferrari, and succeeded.

Webber would continue to pick up strong podiums as the year progressed, but an off-track injury set him back slightly – not helped by crashing out on his own in the wet at Korea. A tactical error at the final race of the season would see him, Alonso and Lewis Hamilton all pipped at the post by Vettel, and Webber’s only chance of fighting for the F1 crown it seemed, was done.

The 2011 season would see two drastic changes to the scene – out were Bridgestone’s durable tyres, and in came Pirelli’s ‘chewing gum’ tyres, and the introduction of DRS, which helps drivers overtake their rivals with absolute ease. Webber and Vettel would be equipped with the RB7 – their most successful car, but still lacked the sort of dominance seen by Mercedes in the modern era. Nonetheless, Vettel was imperious with the new tyres, overtaking devices and the exhaust-blown diffuser, and whilst Webber would finish every race bar one in the top five, he had no answer to Vettel’s dominance. He did however win the Brazilian Grand Prix again, after Vettel suffered a gearbox problem.

Red Bull started 2012 on the back foot a bit – the car produced by McLaren would prove to be quicker out of the blocks than what anyone else could produce. The podium would be just out of reach for Webber at the start of the year, before he would secure his second win at Monaco. Three races later, he would brilliantly win the British Grand Prix after passing Alonso’s much-improved Ferrari. At this point, it looked as if it would be he, and not Vettel who would challenge Hamilton and Alonso, but it wasn’t to be. Vettel, in typical Vettel fashion, came on strong when he needed to and would find some strong form at the end of the season, whilst Webber slipped down the standings to sixth – his lowest since 2008.

Webber would be provided with a strong chance of victory at the Malaysian Grand Prix early in 2013, where he led following a different tyre strategy. Vettel was closing in, before the famous “Multi two-one” radio call was given. A brilliant battle between Webber and Vettel took place, with the German coming out on top, and Webber furious. At that point, he would be contacted regarding a return to the venue he promised to never return to, as part of a new project with Porsche. Webber would accept this offer.

Webber’s final season in F1 would be winless, whilst Vettel would go unbeaten throughout the entirety of the summer break. He would however match his best championship position with third, and would finish on the podium in the final race, celebrating a great F1 career in style.

The nature of the World Endurance Championship, especially in the top class – LMP1, is very, very different to the DRS-infested and tyre saving-prioritised life of Formula One. The Porsche 919 Hybrid is a car which can boast a staggering 1000 horsepower, and has an incredible amount of downforce, and mechanical grip. 2014 would be a tough year for Porsche, which saw Toyota dominate the class. Webber would also struggle to adapt to the nature of the series, but would evidently show progression as the year progressed. However at the final race of the season, he would be involved in a frightening accident at Brazil, in a similar manner to his shunt there in 2003.

The 2015 season started off much better for Porsche and for Webber – leading at Silverstone before a problem put them out of contention, starting on pole at Spa, and being the second part of a Porsche 1-2 at Le Mans, finally putting the 1999 event to rest. At the Nurburgring, where Webber took his first F1 race, he would brilliantly win, and he along with co-drivers Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard, would continue to win. Four wins in a row, and a miraculous recovery drive to fifth at the final race of the year, would be enough to secure Webber’s one and only World Drivers’ Championship.

2016 would not quite go according to plan for the crew of the number one car despite another four wins, but their results would help Porsche to another Manufacturers’ Championship, and could well assist the sister car driven by Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb to a Drivers’ Championship on Saturday. It is expected that Nick Tandy will replace Webber for 2017, it would be fitting to replace a driver of Webber’s calibre with a driver with the talent and calibre which Tandy has shown his career so far.

All in all, Webber will be remembered as a tough nut full of Aussie Grit and determination. He never let injury or other setbacks get in his way. On his day, and around fast tracks such as Silverstone and Catalunya, he would be seemingly unbeatable, but ultimately a F1 title did not come to fruition. However, vast success in the past two years of the World Endurance Championship with Porsche along with his F1 success will rank him amongst motor racing’s finest.
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