Mark Webber is set to line up on the grid for the 218th and final time in Brazil today as the Australian driver draws a curtain on his eleven-year Formula One career that has seen him leave quite an impression on the sport.
Webber made his debut for backmarkers Minardi back in 2002, and he immediately turned heads in Formula One after finishing fifth at the Australian Grand Prix. Given that the team had never expected to score any points, it was one of the most remarkable results of the year that was made all the more special given that it was the home race of both Webber and team boss Paul Stoddart. Although the team was not entitled to any champagne, every other team on the grid made their way down to Minardi’s garage with a bottle in hand to allow them to celebrate in style. The race not only saw them pick up a couple of points, but it also secured the future of the team who ran on a shoestring budget.
For 2003, Webber secured a move to Jaguar (who would later become Red Bull) and was well placed during the frenetic Brazilian Grand Prix that year. However, the race was eventually red flagged due to a series of large accidents, one of which saw Webber spear into the wall on the main straight and end up without points. Nevertheless, he performed well for the team and finished the championship in tenth place.
Although 2004 was less fruitful as Jaguar’s budget dwindled, Webber secured a move to Williams in 2005 with whom he picked up his first podium finish in Monaco that was the highlight of a strong season. However, 2006 proved to be more difficult as Williams struggled with an unreliable car meaning that Webber could only score points on three occasions, although a good run at Monaco saw him come close to another podium finish.
2007 saw Webber move to Red Bull to begin the partnership that would continue until the end of his career. However, things were not so rosy at first as he struggled to pick up regular points, although he did capitalize on the wet weather at the Nurburgring to finish in third place. He was poised to claim another podium finish in the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji Speedway, but his race ended after rookie Sebastian Vettel, then driving for Toro Rosso, crashed into him. It was the first in a series of incidents between the pair, and the Australian driver was less than impressed, saying: “Well, it’s kids, isn’t it? Kids with not enough experience, doing a good job, then they **** it all up.” Webber found some consistency in 2008, but it wouldn’t be until the change in regulations that Red Bull would come to the fore as a leading team.
Alongside the newly-promoted Vettel at Red Bull, Webber finally had a capable car to work with in 2009. He clinched four podium finishes in the opening eight races before finally claiming his first victory at the German Grand Prix. Despite being given a drive-through penalty for an aggressive move on Rubens Barrichello at the start of the race, Webber rallied to win the race from pole position and he was jubilant over the radio at the end of the race. He would taste victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix later that year also, capping off a good season.
Webber’s one real chance to win a world championship came in 2010 as he proved himself to be the most consistent driver across the first part of the season, and he claimed four fantastic wins – including his first at Monaco – to head into the final flyaways with a championship lead. However, whilst Vettel found his feet, Webber struggled with a retirement in Korea and a frustrating race in Abu Dhabi. Ultimately, he finished third in the championship, but he had come agonizingly close to becoming the first Australian world champion in thirty years.
One of the big talking points of the year came in Turkey when he and Vettel – teammates – crashed into each other when fighting for the lead. Although Vettel had been the driver making the pass, Helmut Marko insisted that the blame lay squarely with Webber. It was a theme that was present throughout their time as teammates at Red Bull. A further dispute broke out three races later when the team clearly showed favor to Vettel by giving him Webber’s new front wing when the German broke his, but Webber had the last laugh as he won the race whilst his teammate suffered a puncture on lap one.
2011 was Vettel’s year as he claimed eleven victories and swept to the championship, but Webber was very consistent as he finished in the top five in every single race bar one where he retired. However, he could only claim one win – the final round in Brazil – meaning that he finished the championship in third place behind Vettel and McLaren’s Jenson Button.
The madness of 2012 meant that Webber was one of seven different winners in the opening seven races, but he chose his location well as he controlled the Monaco Grand Prix to take his second win at the principality. However, when championship leader Fernando Alonso started to stutter, Webber failed to capitalize whilst Vettel swept to four consecutive wins to give himself the edge and – come the end of the season – a third consecutive title. Although Ferrari did offer Webber a contract for 2013, he opted to remain at Red Bull for what would be his final season in the sport.
The final straw in the Webber-Vettel marriage came at this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix. In changeable conditions, Red Bull were well placed for a one-two finish with Webber ahead of Vettel. The team told the drivers to ease off and hold position, but Vettel ignored these orders to pull off a childish manoeuvre on Webber and steal the win, leaving the Australian driver frustrated with his younger teammate (“Multi 21, Seb!”). However, he acted graciously unlike Vettel, who simply said “I was quicker, I won the race” and lost a lot of fans in the process. In June, Webber confirmed that he would be retiring at the end of the season and moving to Porsche’s revived Le Mans programme, and he came so close to winning the British Grand Prix on the same weekend amid the tire failures. Despite a number of issues blighting his efforts in 2013, Webber has produced some brilliant drives, and it would be fitting to see him bow out with a win today.
Never one to lie down and simply accept the sometimes unjust nature of Formula One, Webber has become a fan favorite for his honest approach. At many times, it has appeared that he has simply ‘put up’ with Vettel’s antics, and although he has never won a world title, Webber believes that he is champion material. “Do I see myself in the same calibre as some of the single world champions? Of course I do,” he said in Abu Dhabi. “I’m still very proud of what I’ve achieved. Am I multiple world champion? Probably not, but I still believe its been a very proud and honest career for myself.”
“Honest” is a word that sums up his career. Thanks for the memories, Mark, and for being a blueprint that we hope many drivers will follow in the future.