Leaving his Mark on F1
In the pantheon of F1, where sits Mark Webber?
In bare statistical terms, he ranks 34th on the all-time grand prix winner’s list. He scored one GP win more than Denny Hulme and Jacky Ickx, and one less than Ronnie Peterson, James Hunt, Jody Scheckter and Gerhard Berger. Notwithstanding the way the grand prix calendar has expanded over the years (providing the modern driver with more opportunities to win), Webber is in pretty handy company here.
He rates even better when it comes to qualifying, the true indicator of raw speed. Webber is 25th on the all-time pole winners’ list, equal with Sir Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Ickx, Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Montoya. Again, not exactly a bunch of journeymen, that lot.
So stats-wise, he’s up there. But the numbers only tell half the story of Webber’s career. That’s because it consisted essentially of two distinct halves – before Red Bull and at Red Bull – with the first half being defined by a distinct lack of success.
Webber’s nine wins and 13 poles took place within a five-year window at the wrong end of his 12 years in F1. In the seven seasons before 2009, his best was a pair of third places. Till ’09 he’d never finished higher than 10th in the World Drivers’ Championship.
Crucially, by the time he got his hands on a car genuinely capable of winning, he was 32 years old. At the same time team-mate Vettel was primed for success at the age of 21.
As Mark concedes, the main reason he went to Red Bull at the end of 2006 was that after those two wilderness years at Williams it was the only option available to him. Ironically, this would prove the career-move masterstroke that his previous team choice had failed to be.
Going from Minardi to Jaguar in 2003 was a no brainer; the cash-strapped F1 minnow was only ever a foot in the F1 door for Webber – as it had also been for Alonso the year before. Jaguar might not have been a front runner, but it gave Webber the platform to show, in only his second season, that he was the real deal. And show them he did. In only his third start with Jaguar, in Brazil, Webber qualified third. Next race, Imola, he was fifth on the grid, and was third fastest in Hungary. It exceeded Jaguar’s and pretty much everyone else’s expectations of the Australian – more to the point, it probably also exceeded Jaguar’s expectations of its car.
Barely a year into his F1 career and Webber was being touted as the next superstar.
Achieving such status seemed assured when at the end of a two-year tenure at Jaguar (which at the time was making its exit from F1 by selling the team to its main sponsor, Red Bull…), Webber signed with Williams.
Williams wasn’t his only option; he could have gone to Renault instead. But why would anyone chose Renault over Williams, with all that history: seven Drivers’ and nine Constructors’ championships since 1980?
Williams hadn’t had a great 2004, but it had won the last race of the season. Going to Williams looked like a good idea at the time, but what Webber didn’t know was that Williams’ stocks were already on the slide. The two frustrating seasons spent there nearly killed his career.
In his book Webber reveals it only took the first day of testing in the new Williams FW27 to realise he’d made the wrong decision. But that the car was a dog was just the start: the working environment at Williams was ‘like a morgue’, and Frank Williams and Patrick Head were ‘living off their past successes’.
Webber says that the unhappy partnership with Williams wouldn’t have lasted past the first year had he had anywhere else to go. In the meantime, over at that other place to which he could have gone 12 months earlier, Renault, Alonso had just won the first of consecutive world championships…