Mark Webber's road to Formula 1


Helmets off to Mark Webber on an excellent Grand Prix career.

There was a time when it seemed he might become the best since Amon not to win one. That he should conclude with nine GP victories while hardly blessed with the kindest of Formula 1 luck – not even star-crossed Chris suffered a tram-related retirement! – and ranged against a super-talented, favoured team-mate is indicative of AussieGrit’s ability and stick-ability.

Plus luck.

Much has been made of his being the last of a straight-talking breed; a man, as opposed to teen sensation, with a view beyond the next apex and interests other than gear ratios and tyre pressures.

As F1 increasingly proves itself a (rich or well-funded) young man’s game, how likely is it that another 37-year-old from a down-to-earth background will be sufficiently fast, fit and focused to occupy a top seat?

Not very, judging by the many unlikely alignments that allowed Webber to wriggle through the ranks without the impetus of a vast pot of money or a string of junior formulae titles.

The road less travelled

How much easier it would have been for him to fall back onto that well-worn safety net – should that be blanket? – provided by Australian touring cars. That’s what Russell Ingall, the 1993 British Formula Ford champion, did. It’s what Jason Bright, who by some margin beat Webber to the ’95 Australian FFord title, did. It’s what Craig Lowndes did after a disappointing ’97 with Helmut Marko’s Formula 3000 team. And it’s what James Courtney, runaway winner of British FFord in 2000, did.

Webber leads at Knockhill in 1996, the year of his Festival victory

The latter, a world karting champion, won his first British Formula 3 race, too, and was leading the following year’s championship with top team Carlin when he suffered a huge shunt while testing an F1 Jaguar at Monza; its rear wing had parted company. He missed an F3 round because of his injuries and was hampered by them for months and so finished second to Robbie Kerr in the final analysis.

“James is as talented as you like,” says MSA Chairman Alan Gow, Courtney’s long-term manager. “But he has the attitude that many Australian drivers have now. More than anything, he wants to be a professional driver with a good team, winning races and titles. He would have gone to IndyCar or NASCAR, whatever it took. He wasn’t happy with the way he was being treated by F1 and Monza was the end of it.”

Though Courtney won the 2003 Japanese F3 Championship with TOM’S, he began two years later a V8 Supercar connection that lasts to this day and which includes the 2010 title. At 33, he can reasonably expect another 10 years of gainful and successful employment there.

“Australia has a very strong and lucrative domestic series,” says Gow. “Why would you spend £5-10 million trying to get into F1 when you can make a very good living in touring cars? Do you really want to camp in the back of a Transit van in England to make your way in the sport? Fewer and fewer Australian drivers are bothering to try.

Webber with Mercedes, 1998

“It’s not necessarily a healthy situation, but it’s how it is. Like all championships, Aussie V8 is not immune to booms and slumps, but it helps that it’s part of the fabric of its country.”

Had it not been for Webber’s Mansell-esque stubbornness and knack for catching a sponsor’s eye with a stellar drive or three, surely he would have pounded the same spectacular but insular Mount Panorama beat.

Making an impact in Britain

Instead, he arrived in the UK in October 1995, with support from Australian Yellow Pages, to scope the British FFord scene. He froze his nuts off in the Paddock Hill Bend grandstand at Brands Hatch before, much to his surprise, racing a works Van Diemen at the prestigious Festival there a couple of weeks later; he finished fourth before being elevated by the disqualification of Giorgio Vinella.

He then returned home and won a GP support race at Adelaide.

Contesting in its entirety the 1996 British FFord Championship, and initially homesick, Webber played second fiddle to a younger, apparently faster and more mature team-mate – Denmark’s Kristian Kolby. Vitally, however, he won the Festival to cap a stronger second half of the season.

He was clinging on. Kolby would retire in 2003, aged 25, because of a lack of funds.

Webber’s skipping of Formula Renault was a gamble. Time and money was against him, however. Plus respected F3 team owner Alan Docking, inevitably ‘Docko’, was an Aussie with a heart. Even so, had not Webber family friend David Campese, the world’s greatest rugby winger, dobbed in £50k at an opportune moment, all momentum would have been lost.

It helped, too, that Webber won only his fourth F3 race: a dominant drive in the rain from a pole position taken by almost a second on a set of knackered wets. That also he made measured capital, rather than moan to all and sundry, from the fact that his engine was a spec’ older than those of his rivals was another gain.

Even so, his single-seater path was interrupted – and his career flourished.

A diversion to sports cars

Having had the gumption to introduce himself to Norbert Haug, boss of Mercedes-Benz motorsport, and had the balls to then refuse his offer of an FIA GT one-off, Webber finally put a roof over his head in 1998.

As had Michael Schumacher in Mercedes’ Group C programme, he polished his reputation and professionalism during the thousands of miles allowed him by this well-funded, experienced manufacturer and its complex yet reliable CLK-GTR. His back-to-back back flips at Le Mans in 1999 are what most remember, but there were also five wins – but no title – alongside the estimable Bernd Schneider in ’98.

Webber’s winning Monaco F3000 drive, 2001

Enter another Aussie with a heart and a (relatively unproven) team, plus a budget: Paul Stoddart, who supported Webber’s single-seater return in F3000 in 2000. An early-season victory at Silverstone was a highlight, and an albeit distant third place in the championship behind Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian was sufficient to earn him an F1 assessment with Renault.

There, he impressed Flavio Briatore and, more importantly, stayed in his good books; hardly, if other drivers are to be believed, the most straightforward of processes.

Another season of F3000, this time with front-running Super Nova, resulted in three wins, including the prestigious Monaco GP support; there’s that handy knack again. Regular access to GP machinery as Renault’s tester had, however, spoiled Webber in a bad way, as well as good. His resultant tendency to overestimate the F3000 Lola’s grip level as he hopped from F1 caused him to be beaten to the title by the more consistent Justin Wilson.

No matter, the testing gig was more relevant.

The F1 debut

His GP debut came in Australia in 2002. The points he scored that day for Stoddart’s Minardi – the team’s first since the fag end of 1999 – were occasioned by a memorable visit to the podium once the ‘sideshow’ of Schumacher, Montoya and Räikkönen – 1-2-3 – had vacated it. Webber had arrived, albeit via a tortuous route, and already looked set to stay.

He did so via two difficult seasons in lame Jaguars that occasionally sprang to prominence in qualifying – that front-row slot in Malaysia 2004, for instance – and two more with a Williams about to lose its BMW link and begin its long slide.

His 2007 switch to Red Bull was at the advice of Briatore rather than, as had been the case with Williams, against it. Even so, it was not a guaranteed passport to success despite that year’s RB3 being the team’s first design led by Adrian Newey.

The struggles continued until the middle of 2009 and the arrival of RB5’s second iteration double diffuser. Webber immediately scotched the comparison with Amon by winning, despite a drive-though penalty, at the Nürburgring in July.

He was finally back in full training, too, after a long, brave and painful recovery from a leg broken the previous winter in a cycling accident in Tasmania.

Trouble was, new team-mate Sebastian Vettel had already taken the opportunity to confirm himself as the golden boy. And so Webber would score nine GP wins not 39 (and counting), register 13 poles not 45, and set 19 not 22 fastest laps.

Silverstone 2012: Webber’s last win

Still, “Not bad for a number two.”

Yes, it could have been better. Not Vettel better, but better. It could, however, been much worse. Webber’s chances of reaching F1 were long. That he overcame those odds made him stronger once he got there.

He could have been, with respect, another Gavin Youl, prior to trading Ford and Holden war paint for years with Messrs Ingall, Lowndes, Bright and Courtney. Instead, it would have taken very little more for him to be another Alan Jones. Or better.

‘Jonesy’ had to duck and dive, too, and arrived in F1 without a title to his name. No golden holding-of-hands there either.

More on Formula 1
The real Vettel
The teenagers are coming
Ricciardo vs Vergne
Räikkönen’s second stint at Ferrari

Webber has proved that there is more to life than F1 and that there should be more to F1 than money and titles.

Will he be the final driver of this ilk to earn such an extended opportunity?

Probably. Grit, Aussie or otherwise, is an increasingly undervalued commodity.

Yet it’s potent when mixed with Red Bull. If bubbly Daniel Ricciardo, the 2009 British F3 champion, possesses as much of it as does his predecessor, the world could be his oyster.

That, though, is a tough ask even before factoring Vettel into the equation.

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