Dateline: August 28, 2011,Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – On lap 37 of the Belgian Grand Prix, staged at the world’s greatest Grand Prix circuit, two of the world’s greatest Grand Prix drivers give us a moment that will live long in the memories of all who watched it.
On lap 37 Australian Mark Webber’s Red Bull Renault is in hot pursuit of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. Instead of waiting for the uphill surge to Les Combes, Webber nails his colours to the mast – and nails Alonso as the two of them flash side-by-side through Eau Rouge, long held to be the most awe-inspiring corner in F1 racing.
Moments like those abound in Mark Webber’s career, and fittingly he produced some more during his landmark 200th Grand Prix weekend. The contrast between Bahrain and Spa could not be greater, but the trademark Webber commitment was still shining brightly as he diced with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in the closing stages of the Sakhir race on April 21, 2013.
“It’s amazing to think it’s 200 starts already,” said Webber in his preview to the Bahrain weekend. “I can remember my first race like it was yesterday, but that’s the way it goes. Time passes very quickly. It’s a good milestone and I’m proud to have made the 200-club. There have been some good moments along the way too.”
Small wonder that he remembers his first race: it came in his home country on March 3, 2002, and it gave Webber his first F1 podium appearance – in a totally unpredictable way. He didn’t finish in the top three, as you are supposed to do to occupy one of those coveted three steps; but he did coax an ailing Minardi home to the unlikeliest of fifth-place finishes and, by popular demand, he made his own private podium appearance in front of a rapturous Albert Park crowd.
Paul Stoddart was the Minardi team owner at the time. “To better that he’s got to win,” Stoddie pronounced. Webber would – but nobody, probably Mark least of all, expected that it would take another 129 Grand Prix starts before he did.
Some drivers have famously found themselves in the right place at the wrong time in their F1 careers, and in the early stages Mark was one of them. Jaguar, whom he joined after one season at Minardi, failed to live up to its British Racing Green heritage; Williams, the next stop on his F1 itinerary, was well into the long decline that culminated last year in the team’s worst-ever season.
Still, it was with Sir Frank that Webber claimed his first ‘legitimate’ podium, finishing third in May 2005 at a track that was to occupy a rather special place on the Australian’s resumé: Monaco.
In 2007 Webber made the move that was to prove as decisive as one of his trademark passing manoeuvres. He joined Red Bull, and though the early results were unspectacular, the presence of a certain Adrian Newey was the carrot that had attracted Webber to the fledgling team.
Ten points in 2007, 21 in 2008: the numbers tell their own tale. But so does the number 130.
On July 12, 2009, Mark Webber lined up for his 130th Grand Prix at another famous circuit, the Nürburgring, high in Germany’s Eifel Mountains. He lined up on pole position for the first time; and, as any Australian fan will tell you, he converted that pole position into his first Grand Prix victory.
As has often been the case with Mark Webber, it was less than straightforward. Everyone held their breath within seconds of the start as Webber fended off an attack by Rubens Barrichello, the two cars seeming to bounce apart. “The reaction coming off each other was probably what alarmed the stewards,” Webber recalls, “but when I got a drive-through penalty I thought that was it, it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Oh yes it was. Recovering superbly – another hallmark of Webber’s career – he calmly resumed the lead when Barrichello’s Ferrari crew fumbled a stop and was able to cruise home with almost 10 seconds in hand. As if to reassure himself that the wait was over, Webber yelled ”Yes!” into his helmet no fewer than 17 times…
In all Webber has now won nine races, not one of which has been handed to him on a plate. Two victories have come at the home of the world championship, England’s Silverstone circuit. Two more have come at F1’s jewel in the crown, Monaco, in 2010 and 2012. Those are names any Grand Prix driver would love to have on his CV.
There have, though, been heartbreaks as well as highs. In 2010 he could – should? – have become Australia’s third world champion but an ‘off’ in Korea and a lacklustre last race in Abu Dhabi let his teammate Sebastian Vettel through for an unlikely first title win.
He has clashed with Vettel on several occasions, notoriously at Istanbul in 2010, and in Malaysia he suffered the recent indignity of observing team orders while the German did not, losing out on what would have been his 10th Grand Prix win. Speculation has it that this will be Webber’s final F1 year, whether he continues to race in another format or not. While Bahrain 2013 was ultimately disappointing, with Webber’s tyres disappearing beneath him and condemning him to seventh place, it did at least provide another milestone on his 200-race F1 journey: it was the 100th time that he had finished ‘in the points’.
Only the third Grand Prix winner in Australian history, Webber is a member of an elite club now. Of the hundreds of drivers who have tried their hand at Formula 1, he is only the 13th to pass 200 race starts.
“I used up a lot of luck on my first one!” he said after that memorable Melbourne debut 11 years ago. With a little more luck on his side Mark Webber would surely have been the third Australian to wear the sport’s most coveted crown.