He’s done it at last – Part 2
After taking a brilliant pole position yesterday, Mark Webber delivered an outstanding performance in the German Grand Prix today to finally take his first Formula 1 win in 130 starts, breaking Rubens Barrichello’s record for the most starts before a first win. The Australian, whose amount of bad luck in his F1 career has been compared to fellow Antipodean Chris Amon, blew the opposition away despite a poor start, a drive-through penalty, hitting an air gun leaving the garage en route to the starting grid, light rain falling in the paddock and no doubt many clanging pistons trying to make their bid for freedom in the engine compartment. Everything that could go wrong tried to go, but this time the curse held off, and he cruised home for a comfortable win well ahead of team mate Sebastian Vettel. It is testament to his ability that he was 20 seconds ahead once all the pit stops despite the penalty – without it, he could’ve been half a minute up the road, which just puts his drive into perspective. It really was top quality. Surely he must now be considered to be one of the top drivers in the sport.
It has been a long road for the Australia, who was a late starter in karts and took his time working his way up the ranks. After spending his formulative racing years in Australia, Mark came over to Britain to compete in Formula Ford, and won the prestigious Formula Ford Festival, something he shares with fellow title contender Jenson Button. This gave him a springboard into F3 in 1997 with the small team of fellow Aussie Alan Docking, with whom he achieved solid results. The following year, he then moved into GT racing with Mercedes, driving with reigning FIA GT champion Bernd Schneider. However, the pair came up just short in the title race against veteran Klaus Ludwig and F1-bound Brazilian Ricardo Zonta in a season in which Merc won every race. Mark stuck with them for a 2nd year, including the Le Mans attempt with the infamous CLR. In what is now racing folklore, Mark went for 2 flights in his car in practice before the his car was withdrawn. It wasn’t until Peter Dumbreck’s similar crash in the race, the famous one caught on camera, that the team withdrew completely. Mark’s association with the German marque ended here, and so he went back to single-seaters. F3000 beckoned with the Eurobet Arrows team run by Paul Stoddart, whilst also becoming Arrows’ F1 tester – he drove an F1 car for the first time in late 1999. He finished 3rd in F3 with a victory at Silverstone, the top rookie that year ahead of Fernando Alonso. He (probably sensibly) rejected an Arrows F1 race seat for 2001, instead opting to continue in F3000 and more F1 testing. After moving to the Super Nova team, he began the season as F3000 title favourite. However, in the end he could only manage to finish 2nd despite taking 3 wins, but strengthened his F1 ties by testing for Benetton for a season, which included a new manager – Flavio Briatore.
Mark then switched places with Alonso to become Minardi’s lead driver and immediately delivered, taking 5th place on his F1 debut for the Italian team by fending off experienced Mika Salo in the Toyota. Although that would be his only points finish of the year, he picked up 2 other top 10s, including 8th at Magny-Cours, and outqualified his team mates in every race. It was enough to get him noticed by some of the bigger teams for next year, one of which was Jaguar, whom he signed for alongside Antonio Pizzonia. He made everyone sit and up and take note in Brazil when he qualified 3rd, although the race didn’t go quite as well. However, he still annihilated Pizzonia, who ended up pointless and dismissed. Mark then also went on to outperform his replacement Justin Wilson. The following year, spent alongside Christian Klien, brought little improvement in performance, but this didn’t stop him sticking the car on the front row at Malaysia, only for a clutch problem at the start to send him all the way to the back. There weren’t too many good results, but again he beat his team mate comfortably and again the big teams were watching. He was faced with a choice of 2 race-winning front-running teams – Renault or Williams.
He went for Williams, which proved to be the wrong decision. As Renault won both titles, Williams floundered in the midfield. After a positive start, the team descended. Even Mark’s first podium, at Monaco, was a disappointed after questionable team tactics which brought him in before team mate Heidfeld, who went on to beat him. High points included a front-row start in Spain, a near-podium in the epic at Suzuka, and more 5th places, but it’s probably not talk about the low points. His last season with Williams was even more underwhelming. The car started out as one of the fastest, as shown by Mark’s solid performances in the first 4 races, but it had no straight-line speed and was even more fragile than an agreement between Max Mosley and the teams. The cruellest retirement was at Monaco whilst lying 3rd with a heavier fuel load than both Alonso and Raikkonen ahead. Not much to celebrate as the car fell further and further back through the field. It was time for a change.
So it was back to Milton Keynes with the Adrian Newey-led Team Formerly Known As Jaguar, despite rumours linking him to Renault again. This time, it was probably the better move to make, although it didn’t look like it at the time. The car was again fragile again, robbing Mark of numerous points-paying places, not to mention the final straw at Fuji when he was taken out by his future team mate Vettel. On the plus side, the main highlight of the season was a fantastic podium at the Nurburgring, Red Bull’s best result of the season. Mark’s 2nd year at Red Bull saw the unreliability cut out (well, mostly) and he became a consistent points scorer. There were no podiums (thanks to a tram in Singapore) but a 4th place in the epic race at Monaco and a couple of great quali performances at Silverstone and Monza. However, as the Renault engine fell behind, so did Red Bull’s big team, and by the end of the season, it was Toro Rosso in the points regularly with Mark left scrapping for top 10 places. The year ended even worse with a broken leg and shoulder in his Tasmanian challenge.
Having recovered from his injuries, he started testing in February. The times didn’t look brilliant and it seemed as if Red Bull would once again be consigned to the midfield. Would Mark forever stay as a midfielder and qualifying specialist? But come the races, it soon became apparent Red Bull would be Brawn’s closest challengers. Mark drove through the field in the rain in Malaysia, took his best result in China with 2nd, and beat team mate Vettel for podiums in Spain and Turkey. But at Silverstone, when Red Bull had by far the best car, it seemed that Mark’s big chance had passed him by when he was slowed in quali by a slow Raikkonen, handing Vettel the advantage which he converted into a win. But then came this weekend. Mark was fired up – fastest in FP1, fastest in Q1 and then pole. And then today…