When Mark Webber secured a late deal to start his home race in 2002, few would have anticipated that, eleven years later, the Australian would be preparing to bow out of Formula 1 having started over 200 races and won nine of them.
Webber’s short-term deal with Minardi came off the back of years of sacrifices and hard work and he’d finally made it, although with little scope to survive in the sport. But that all changed in his debut race, when he picked his way through the opening lap carnage and raced to fifth place. It was such a shock that Webber and team boss Paul Stoddart were given their own podium ceremony in front of the adoring home crowd.
Over the next six years Webber established himself as a credible midfield runner, having raced for Jaguar, Williams and Red Bull. A couple of seasons at Jaguar yielded very little, except for his stunning qualifying lap in Malaysia in 2004 while he joined Williams just as their decline began. If 2005 was unrewarding – even if he did claim a maiden podium – then 2006 was a disaster; points were few and far between during a season blighted by unreliability. As the years progressed, there was a fear that Webber would never be able to display his talent in a competitive car. It’s quite simple to divide Webber’s Formula 1 career in two, with the turning point being the winter of 2008/9.
Up until that point, Webber had beaten every team-mate and put cars into positions where they had no right to be. Once he was given a competitive car, he then had the misfortune of coming up against Sebastian Vettel, who will ultimately be remembered as one of the greatest drivers in Formula 1 history. Oh, and he came into 2009 having broken his leg in a charity event.
But even against Vettel, Webber has shown himself to be no slouch. Think back to that weekend in Germany four years ago when Webber finally claimed his maiden race victory. After storming to pole position, he was given a drive through penalty for swiping across at Rubens Barrichello off the line. In spite of that transgression, he fought back to win the race. Fast forward to Monaco in 2010; that weekend he was utterly untouchable. He also won the race in 2012 and nobody wins Monaco twice without having a huge amount of talent.
The statistics show that in their time together, Vettel will have won three – possibly four – titles while Webber has none. His best chance came in 2010 but everything crumbled in the wet conditions in Korea. After several false starts, the race eventually got underway and leader Vettel romped away. Webber tried to react to the pace of his team-mate but dipped a wheel onto the wet kerb, lost control of the car and hit the wall, taking Nico Rosberg with him as he went. It wasn’t the end of his title challenge, but he went from being the championship leader to challenger and he couldn’t respond across the next two races.
Webber’s post-Korea hangover lingered into a 2011 season in which he never got on with the blown-diffuser spec-RB7 while, although there was a brief resurrection in 2012, he’s never shown the sort of performance level he achieved in 2010. Part of that can be put down to the improvements Vettel has made over the past three years, but Webber has probably realised that now is a good time to exit the sport.
Webber’s also a racer and he will be missed for his on track determination; few will forget that move on Fernando Alonso into Eau Rouge two years ago. Off-track, Webber’s no-nonsense personality will also be missed in the paddock.
Webber’s fortunate to be in a position to exit the sport while still with a world championship winning team and to do so on his own terms. After all, a Porsche drive in the World Endurance Championship is hardly a bad deal. Webber was repeatedly an outspoken critic of Pirelli and has never expressed enthusiasm for the 2014 regulations. His decision to retire therefore leaves a vacancy on the grid next season, allowing another driver to have a chance in a sport with few openings.
So Webber will be missed, even if in brutal honesty he lacked those final couple of tenths to elevate him to the status of a world champion. Over 200 races, nine wins and three – potentially four – Constructors titles; it’s 'not bad for a number two driver' considering how he entered the sport…