Leav­ing his Mark on F1

In the pan­theon of F1, where sits Mark Web­ber?

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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…

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