On a weekend of Australian Ashes triumph in his beloved sport of cricket, Mark Webber declared his own superb innings over at 215 – and walked off the F1 field with his head held high.
Second place in Brazil and fastest race lap in his 215th and final Grand Prix was a typically proud way for Webber to bow out of the sport he has graced since his headline-grabbing debut for Minardi at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit in 2002.
Let’s dispense with the statistics straight away.
In those 215 races Mark Webber finished first nine times. He was on the podium a further 33 times: 16 in second place, 17 in third. He was on pole position 13 times, a figure that matches the great Sir Jack Brabham’s. He set 19 fastest race laps, more than either Sir Jack or his fellow-World Champion Alan Jones managed. And he was ‘in the points’ on no fewer than 112 occasions.
When a man yells ‘Yes’ at the top of his voice, not once but 17 times, you can be sure something special has just happened in his life.
That was Mark’s reaction on July 12, 2009 when he claimed the first of those nine Grand Prix victories. It was, in its own way, a perfect encapsulation of the Australian’s career.
It came at Germany’s Nürburgring, a fabled circuit which Webber found to his liking over the years. One day previously he had taken pole position for the first time in F1 – but the advantage it gave him seemed to evaporate within seconds of the start.
Webber was given a stop-and-go penalty for ‘causing an avoidable collision’ when he lost sight of Brazilian Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn Mercedes and the two cars cannoned off each other on the sprint to the first corner.
The Australian kept calm, fought back brilliantly and gave vent to his relief in the cockpit on the slow-down lap. He had, after all, waited 130 races for that magical moment.
He waited only until the end of that season for a second taste of the sport’s sweetest success, winning in Brazil to round off his break-out season – at the tender age of 33. In his own words, stumbling-blocks along the way had ‘offset’ his career as a Grand Prix driver by around three years.
In 2010 he made up for lost time. Webber added two of the sport’s most coveted trophies to his burgeoning CV: those for winning in Monaco and at Silverstone. At those two utterly contrasting circuits Webber posted victories of the highest class.
Further successes in Hungary and Spain meant that he approached the closing stages of the season with the World Championship in touching distance. Sadly, so was Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes when Webber dropped a wheel off the wet Korean circuit, half-spun and collected the German. It was the moment that cost him the title.
Even though he went to Abu Dhabi still in the running, the disappointment of finishing off the podium as teammate Sebastian Vettel snatched the crown was tempered by the knowledge that the Korean moment had killed his momentum.
With Vettel’s star in the ascendant, Webber struggled to match his 2010 achievements: Brazil, again in the last race of the year, was his lone triumph in 2011. In 2012 he underlined his right to be spoken of in F1’s highest company when he again won in Monaco and Great Britain.
His ambition to reach the top was kindled by early experiences of watching F1 stars from afar – Nigel Mansell’s infamous crash at Monaco in 1984 is his first memory, while driving with his father Alan (for 14 hours) to the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide in 1987 was what lit the fuse.
“I sat on the front straight and watched pre-qualifying on the Thursday,” he recalls, “and I couldn’t believe there was actually someone sat behind the steering-wheel, they were that quick! The noise was deafening and seeing my heroes, Prost, Senna, Mansell, Berger, Piquet in front of me was something I never forgot.”
It took another 15 years and a circuitous route – Formula Ford, Formula 3, sports car racing, F3000 – before Webber would join that list of household names. When he did, there were still obstacles in his path.
Picked up by Jaguar after his fine debut year, Mark extracted more from their cars over the next two years than was reasonably possible. When Sir Frank Williams came calling in 2004, it was a relatively straightforward decision for the young Australian to make – after all, Alan Jones had won his title with the famous British outfit.
Williams, however, was no longer the team it once had been. Two years yielded a solitary podium in Monaco in 2005 and it was with visible relief that Mark parted company with them at the end of 2006.
Not for the first time he had a reputation to rebuild. When Red Bull asked him to partner David Coulthard, the fact that the fledgling team – built on the ruins of Jaguar – had also recruited star technical director Adrian Newey convinced Webber this was the way to go.
It took only two seasons for ‘DC’ to realise that Webber was the quicker man. “Thanks for making my decision to retire an easy one,” said the veteran Scot in 2008. “I couldn’t live with you.”
Mark would eventually realise what it was like to be in DC’s position. Vettel’s astonishing rise and his four world titles in a row are the stuff of legend, and the incidents and accidents between the two along the way are well documented.
Why dwell on those? Webber has, in his own recent words, made his own mark in his chosen field. More even than any of his nine Grand Prix victories, his triumph over severe injury at the end of 2008 and his gritty refusal to let it affect his 2009 F1 campaign was the hallmark of a very special sportsman.
The respect and affection he commands in the F1 paddock speaks volumes for him. His has been an extraordinary journey, one of which he – and all Australians – should be intensely proud. Now here’s to the Porsche years!