There is a select group of supremely talented grand prix drivers who never achieved the results they deserved at the top level. Is Mark Webber in danger of becoming the next on the list?
Arthur Duray, André Boillot, Kenelm Lee Guinness, Giulio Masetti, Raymond Sommer, Archie Scott Brown, Chris Amon, Tom Pryce, Pierluigi Martini. Just a chronological list off the top of my head of drivers who showed enough to suggest that their grand prix scorecard vastly undersold their ability. Guys who never got in the right car at the right time for sustained success, but whose regular flashes of brilliance tell you all you need to know about what they could have achieved.
Duray took an unfashionable Lorraine-Dietrich to the front of the 1907 French Grand Prix, ahead of Felice Nazzaro’s ‘unbeatable’ Fiat, until the gearbox cried enough. He also took a brilliant second on his first visit to Indy – in a 3-litre car among a field of 4.5s. Boillot’s performance in the 1919 Targa Florio suggested he could have emulated his late brother Georges, but this was in the days of factory-employed drivers and his factory, Peugeot, was no longer much interested in GP racing.
Into the 1920s Kenelm Lee Guinness had a wicked combination of searing pace and a silky touch that took so little out of his cars. But he crashed down a ravine in the 1924 San Sebastian GP, killing his riding mechanic. After that, he wanted nothing more to do with race driving and some years later took his own life after suffering depression said to relate back to the accident. Masetti was a gifted amateur – yet on the few occasions he ran with the works team pros, he was invariably faster.
Sommer resolutely drove on his own terms, but twice – at Miramas in 1933 and Spa 1950 – his privateer efforts in inferior kit terrified the works Alfa team. Scott Brown – a man who wowed Fangio with his supernatural car control – never got a proper crack at Formula 1 because his physical disability meant difficulties acquiring an international race licence. But in a couple of non-championship events in 1955 and 1956 he was utterly sensational.
In the period 1968-1972 only Jackie Stewart produced as many virtuoso GP performances as Chris Amon, yet Chris never won a race. Tom Pryce had talent dripping from his fingers yet even had he lived might never have got in the right car. Martini may not have been quite so blessed, but he regularly transcended his Minardi in the late 1980s/early 1990s and blew away all his team-mates.
Lots of worthy F1 drivers never get into winning cars. But occasionally, frustratingly, drivers beyond mere worthiness remain in the also-ran category until their time in F1 is over. It may be happening right at this moment.
Mark Webber has done everything that could reasonably have been asked, given the machinery he’s had, but is now entering his sixth season of F1. At 30, with only a single podium under his belt, his career clock is definitely beginning to tick louder.
This is a man who has had seven F1 team-mates, and over a season has been quicker than every one of them. It’s a guy who put a Jaguar on the front row of a grand prix, who drove his below-par 2005 Williams around the Nürburgring faster than Alonso’s Renault or Raikkonen’s McLaren – or anyone else, for that matter, once you weight-adjusted everyone’s times for fuel loads.
There was a suggestion of a few too many race errors in 2005, but that was well and truly nailed last year. His most eye-catching performance was probably at Monaco where in another substandard Williams he was apparently fighting for the victory with Alonso and Raikkonen before coming up to lap Fisichella. Fisi mistook Webber for the other Williams of Nico Rosberg with which he was fighting, and blocked him for several laps – and the marshals, possibly not believing a Williams could be fighting with the leaders either, failed to show Fisichella blue flags. By the time Webber got through, the leading duo were six seconds clear. The day before, only Schumacher’s parking stunt had prevented Webber from sticking the Williams on the front row.
There was another remarkable race performance at Hockenheim where he passed both Renaults and engaged Raikkonen in a fight for a podium place. As he approached his first pit stop, he needed to pull out the stops to leapfrog Alonso. He unleashed a searing sequence of qualifying-style laps, one personal best after another – each a tiny bit faster than the previous one as the fuel load came down. He did this for seven consecutive laps, something very rarely seen. He duly came out of the pits with the champion’s Renault behind him, Fisichella next in his sights. It all came to nothing, thanks to a broken water hose. Just as broken exhaust primaries had cost him the Monaco podium.
So he got no points in either of his best races last year, but the point he made was huge: outside the established title-contenders, it’s difficult to conceive of another driver on the grid who could have wrung that sort of performance from what he had to work with.
His manager Flavio Briatore had wanted him to join Renault for 2005, but Webber was convinced the place to be was Williams. Webber now accepts that Briatore was absolutely right and he was wrong. With his star no longer in the ascendant, his chances of getting another Renault offer for 2007 were less firm.
So now, Webber’s very future in F1 probably hangs on the quality of Adrian Newey’s Red Bull RB3. If Newey can work his magic, there could yet be a fairy tale ending to this story. But if not, we can probably add Webber to that list at the top of the page.