This Sunday in Brazil, Mark Webber bows out of F1, after a 12 year career featuring 215 Grands Prix starts and nine wins. He’d dearly love to make it ten, with a third victory at Interlagos, but F1 is an unsentimental business and his team mate Sebastian Vettel is in no mood to give him presents.
Memories will be fresh for both men of the start of last year’s race, where Webber took an aggressive stance in the opening corners towards Vettel, who was fighting for the world championship. In the ensuing sort-out Vettel and Bruno Senna tangled, sending Vettel to the back of the field.
The extent to which that rankled with Vettel became clear when Adrian Newey spoke about in it in a recent BBC Radio 5 Live special. There will be no love lost this Sunday at the start.
Webber cast himself as “not bad for a number two driver” after his famous win at Silverstone in 2010. This was at the height of Webber’s competitiveness and therefore of the tension between the two drivers, after they had collided in Turkey. Red Bull’s decision to give Vettel Webber’s front wing in Silverstone without telling him, was one of the worst decisions made by an F1 team in terms of the negative impression it created to the public, which still endures to this day. Vettel was – and always has been – good enough to compete without that kind of advantage and it colours the fans’ view of him and the team still.
In reality, Webber was in his prime in 2010 and since then, as he has aged, it’s been a difficult job to hold onto Vettel, who has developed significantly, especially with the exhaust blown diffuser cars, which require a certain technique to maximise the performance. Just latterly, Webber has been performing very well, taking pole in two of the last four races, but his race performances have been slightly further away from Vettel than his qualifying.
Nevertheless he is leaving on a high and would love to walk out of the Interlagos paddock on Sunday night with a winners’ trophy. The Red Bull should be the form car there so qualifying will be important and from there we’ll see if Webber can raise his game to deny Vettel a nine race winning streak.
Webber’s great strengths are his speed, particularly in high speed corners and his aerodynamic sensitivity. He’s always qualified well and raced well particularly when there is a challenge, like coming through the field on a multi-stop strategy. His feel for grip on a track was highlighted in the days of single lap qualifying, where he excelled; nailing the time on the one and only lap available.
Newey has paid tribute to his aerodynamic sensitivity and it’s one of the main reasons he is still at Red Bull, where Helmut Marko would have loved to get rid of him years ago. His feel for the aero balance of a car perfectly complimented Vettel’s feel for tyres and control systems on the car and between them they have tuned the Red Bull cars in to every track. You never hear either of them say the set up was wrong, for example. Without Webber, the less experienced Vettel of the last few years might not have had such a good car on race day.
“I think it has been one of the strongest pairings in Formula 1,” Vettel said in Interlagos on Thursday.
“We obviously didn’t have the best relationship on a personal level but in terms of working professionally together for the team it has been very strong. Both of us have tried very hard to improve the car and surely the fact that he will not be around next year will be a loss for the team, a loss for myself, because it has always been a huge challenge.
“I have learned a lot from him and I can stand up straight and say that there were many, many times, many places where I have benefitted from him.”
The Pirelli years haven’t been too kind to Webber, his advantage in the high speed corners is there for qualifying (as we saw in Austin) but in the race it hurts the tyres, so he has to rein it in. He has also struggled to feel the car on worn soft tyres towards the end of stints, where he loses time. But, as he says, it’s the same for everyone. It’s just a shame that it takes away a lot of what being a “racer” is all about. Just ask Lewis Hamilton.
Webber and his family, have always been a pleasure to deal with; he is as straight as he seems on TV and always seeks to help people he trusts to understand the sport better. He was a huge help to me when I wrote the 2007 biography of Michael Schumacher, “The Edge of Greatness”.
That doesn’t mean that one should gloss over his weaknesses; he is an emotional character and sometimes that comes to the surface, which has harmed his competitiveness in some races. Despite his huge experience he is also still quite nervous at the start of races and his start performance stats are among the worst of the top drivers. This has cost him many points over the years, as he dropped places off the line after qualifying strongly.
The highlight has to be the way Webber ran Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton close for the 2010 championship.
Going into the final round at Abu Dhabi that year Alonso had 246 points, Webber 238, Vettel 231 and Hamilton 222. Webber didn’t get the most from himself or the car in qualifying and the race and ended up 14 points behind Vettel, who clinched his first world title.
Webber has been handing out T Shirts to be worn this weekend in Brazil with #mademymark on it and it’s a fitting send off for a popular driver. There is no-one coming through who is like him, no-one who will speak his mind like that. It’s a loss to the sport.
“Not bad for a number two driver” – is his own self penned epitaph and the one people will remember. It’s tough, but truthful (like him).
But he was so much more than that in F1 – as a driver and as a man.
* Although he’s not taking part himself, the Swisse Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge will take place at the end of this month, billed as the “toughest in the event’s history”. The running, kayaking and cycling challenge in the wilds of Tasmania has been a pet project of Webber’s for ten years and raises money for charity.
The stars in the event, which starts on November 27, include Olympic gold medallists Emma Snowsill and Kenny Wallace, triathlete Courtney Atkinson, seven-time surf champ Layne Beachley – and Mad Max stuntman and former ironman Guy Andrews.
Webber’s protege, GP2 racer Mitch Evans, will take part in the event, “He’s given me a bit of advice,” said Evans. “He thinks I will be fine, as we train together most of the time he has a good idea of where I’m at. I have high expectations in terms of it being seriously tough mentally and physically. I can’t wait to test myself.”
The Swisse Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge supports Whitelion and the Save the Tassie Devil appeal