Top-flight LMP1 level sports car racing is going through an evolution on the driver side of the championship, because the FIA World Endurance Championship has had a legend retire every year since the series relaunch in 2012.
Audi’s flagship trio of Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello, Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen seemed to be an eternal group of drivers, yet one-by-one, they’ve all signed off. Capello was first to leave in 2012, with McNish following in 2013 and Kristensen, “Mr. Le Mans,” doing so in 2014.
Alexander Wurz, still underrated for his career despite winning Le Mans twice in two different decades, then became Toyota’s legend to retire last year.
And now, Mark Webber has done the same – the Australian perhaps moving earlier than expected at age 40, but freeing up a spot for one of Porsche’s younger guns to likely fill the role from a driving standpoint in 2017. From a number of reports and insider sources, it appears as though either Nick Tandy or Earl Bamber, two-thirds of Porsche’s Le Mans-winning lineup in 2015, would be on pole position for the vacated seat.
Webber was undoubtedly the biggest coup for FIA WEC as a driver, when he joined Porsche in 2014. The evolution of top-flight Grand Prix driver to sports car star is a common one, but while the likes of Anthony Davidson, Sebastien Buemi and others who never got their proper chance at race-winning machinery in F1 have joined sports cars in top-flight equipment, rare is the moment when a driver leaves F1 at the top of his game, with a championship-winning team, and is expected to match that in a championship-winning sports car outfit.
Initially the learning curve was difficult. Webber had the hype swirling around him most when he returned to Le Mans in 2014, after that 15-year drought since that Mercedes blowover in 1999, in his most recent appearance. But he was always going to be learning the ways of sports car racing rather than leading the charge. In Timo Bernhard, he had the consummate pro who’s been with Porsche for years, and in Brendon Hartley, he had the young upstart overflowing with potential yet to maximize it. And he had to accommodate his driving style to fit in among the trio, rather than drive firmly on his own.
It took time for the trio to mesh, and Webber signed off 2014 in the worst possible way, with a severe accident at the Six Hours of Sao Paulo at nearly the identical spot and in nearly the same fashion as one of his worst crashes of his F1 career, 11 years earlier with Jaguar in 2003. Coincidentally, that race was the first where Porsche won overall with its 919 Hybrid, with the sister trio of Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Marc Lieb.
Last season for Webber was a pivotal one. The loss at Le Mans to the sister car driven by Tandy, Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg stung, and being part of a 1-2 for Porsche was small solace. If anything, it motivated a second-half charge, and from there the Bernhard/Hartley/Webber trio rebounded – all doing their parts well to commence a four-race win streak from the Nürburgring through Shanghai. They captured the title in dramatic fashion despite losing time in the garage in Bahrain.
Three tough races to kick off 2016 have more-or-less ended the trio’s repeat hopes, but with Webber still driving as good as ever, he’s again been part of more wins. Perfect driving and execution – and a lack of mistakes by contrast to their competitors, particularly Audi – has seen Webber, Bernhard and Hartley ride another three-race win streak into Fuji this weekend.
Webber told reporters on site at Fuji this weekend you can’t “race half-hearted” in sports car racing and that he couldn’t continue at the same perfect level he’d showcased over these three years in LMP1. That speaks to the admirable quality of class the Australian has shown throughout his career, first in F1 even when the odds were against him, and also to his adaptation into this world of sports car racing.
Additionally, you always want to leave when there’s more to give, rather than having stuck around a year or two too long.
However, it’s hard not to feel that Webber’s retirement will leave a void from the legendary personality standpoint of the sport. A Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso isn’t walking through that door – yet – as a comparable replacement. Neither does Juan Pablo Montoya appear to be doing.
The current grid of LMP1 stars are all overflowing with talent, and they’re all younger, but it’s hard to say they match the “departed five” in terms of global cache.
Despite three wins at Le Mans, the Andre Lotterer/Benoit Treluyer/Marcel Fassler trio has always felt like Audi’s second act. This sequel of champions are excellent, but have never quite felt the original of a Dindo, an Allan, or a TK – all of whom remain on in ambassadorial and corporate representative roles. They may get there with more time, and perhaps they’re underappreciated simply because of the success laid forth by their forerunners. The trio was also inextricably linked with engineer Leena Gade, a history-maker in her own right, who left Audi earlier this year.
Toyota’s Davidson is arguably the best quote in the championship and is probably the closest to the next legend; he’s a McNish-caliber terrier in terms of his feedback and personality. Buemi is both an WEC and a Formula E champion, yet hasn’t cracked that “cache” ceiling. Gianmaria Bruni, as well, in GTE-Pro has been the star of that class since the series’ inception with AF Corse and Ferrari.
Buemi’s FE sparring partner, Lucas di Grassi, brings a Brazilian flair and determination to his efforts. Along with Loic Duval and Oliver Jarvis, these have been the three drivers who replaced Capello, McNish and Kristensen and are trying to carve their own course in the sports car arena.
The rest of LMP1 drivers remain solid pros through-and-through. There’s plenty of LMP1-caliber talents in LMP2, deserving of a shot as well – just late Friday night, the latest three drivers called up (Pipo Derani, Gustavo Menezes, Antonio Giovinazzi) for the end-of-season Rookie Test were chosen.
The catch for sports car racing, as always, is whether its drivers can match up as legends to the iconic machinery they’re driving.
But none, at the moment, match Webber’s presence and aura. He’ll be missed when he steps out, and won’t be easy to replace.