Will he stay or will he go?

By on Monday, August 8, 2011

The 2012 Silly Season hinges on the futures of several drivers, including Australian Red Bull driver Mark Webber. Webber, 34, is out of contract at the end of the season and has yet to fully commit to a future in Formula One beyond the Brazilian Grand Prix at the end of November.

By the time the Belgian Grand Prix gets underway, Mark Webber will have celebrated his 35th birthday. That isn’t young in Formula One terms, but several drivers continue to race at an older age: Jarno Trulli is 37; Rubens Barrichello turns 40 in May next year, whilst Michael Schumacher is into his 43rd year.

But age isn’t an issue for Webber at the moment; it appears to be a lack of motivation.

Webber took 4 victories in 2010. He has yet to win in 2011

Recently, when appearing on Austrian TV, Webber was asked about his future. It has been a talking point for a couple of months, with several young drivers waiting in the wings. Helmut Marko said that Webber will go this year, now he’s backtracked and said he won’t. Christian Horner has talked about his willingness to have Webber at Red Bull for several more seasons. But only the man himself can decide whether he wants to continue at the top level of motorsport. When asked about wanting to continue in 2012, Webber did not give a straight answer, saying that he’s going to think about it over the summer. When asked what will be the deciding factor, he replied ‘motivation’.

It’s easy to see why Webber’s motivation might be flagging. After spending two years as a test driver, Webber got his chance with Minardi in 2002, famously finishing his debut race in 5th place. There were a few stuttering years until he finally graced the podium in 2005 and by the end of 2008, his career can best have been described as ‘indifferent’. Many in the paddock knew just how good he was. He’d beaten his team mates into submission – he crushed Yoong, Pizzonia and Klien, whilst Heidfeld, Rosberg and Coulthard were also overcome. But he still didn’t have anything to show for it, but for two third placed trophies in over one hundred starts.

Then with the new rules coming and the potential for the order to be shaken up came a huge blow. During his charity event in the winter of 2008, Webber collided with a car whilst on his push bike and broke his leg. Suddenly, new boy Sebastian Vettel had to lead the team – in spite of Webber not missing much testing – and gained the upper hand in early 2009 whilst Webber was still recovering from his injuries. But nevertheless, Webber picked himself back up, taking his maiden victory at last before mounting a title challenge last year that crumbled during the final few races.

So – the motivation. Throughout 2010, there seemed to be an air of invincibility about Webber. He wasn’t the fastest driver, yet he’d led the championship. He’d made no mistakes, whilst at last, he had a car that didn’t break down every other race. This was his chance. And then one wheel dropped on a slippery kerb in Korea shattered his dream. That chance slipped through his fingers. Has his confidence ever returned?

The statistics provide a damning indictment. Webber has not won a grand prix since Hungary last season and has outqualified Vettel just four times. He failed to lead a lap until the German Grand Prix this year and Vettel leads him by 85 points in the championship. To be brutally honest, Webber appears to lack that final tenth that took him so close to the title in 2010.

And from Webber’s point of view, what has he got to expect from the future? Maybe he will win again – he should – but reaching the heights of 2010 again? In a car as dominant as the RB6 and early season RB7, he didn’t capitalise on the problems of others or his own pace. If the RB8 is another supreme car, then he has a chance. But if the RB8 is as good as the RB6 and 7, then Vettel will be the man once again. Webber had to beat Vettel whilst he was still maturing over the past two seasons and he didn’t. Vettel won’t make the same mistakes as he has done up to this point and over a twenty race season, you wouldn’t place money on Webber ending up ahead of Vettel in the championship. Then you have to factor in Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso, all of whom are making Webber’s life difficult.

Webber has to contend with Hamilton, Alonso and Button as well as Vettel. Is Hamilton eyeing his seat as well?

In terms of contracts, there’s wrangling inside Red Bull as to who should go where. Vettel is safe at Red Bull, but Helmut Marko has never seen eye-to-eye with Mark Webber and Marko has an influence at the team. Webber is the only Red Bull driver who has come from outside of their driver system and you get the impression that Marko is desperate to see four of his protégés in four Red Bull backed seats. There’s currently a surplus of drivers with Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari and Daniel Ricciardo attempting to be at Toro Rosso next year, whilst currently World Series by Renault leader Jean Eric Vergne has reportedly been promised an F1 seat by Marko should he wrap up that championship. Therefore there is the real possibility that Webber could be pushed rather than walking himself, although that seems unlikely. At the moment, Red Bull have the perfect balance: Vettel wins races and the championship, whilst Webber is fast enough to claim valuable points for the Constructors Championship but not fast enough to beat Vettel regularly and give the team headaches.

Sticking with Red Bull for 2012 seems likely, but would it be his last team? The dream of Ferrari continues and whilst Felipe Massa continues to disappoint, the door for 2013 stays open. Stefano Domenicalli has spoken of Ferrari’s desire to promote from within their own academy (a Red Bull style programme developed after their 2009 problems) and that means that eyes are fixed on either Sergio Perez or Jules Bianchi to drive for the Scuderia in 2013. But Webber is proven at the top level and could be seen as a suitable team mate to Alonso as the Australian enters the twilight of his career.

Webber also has distractions outside of his Formula One. He currently runs his own GP3 team with Christian Horner’s Arden outfit (MW Arden) and spends a lot of time each weekend helping the team, finding out if anything’s gone wrong – and how to fix it – whilst he has his own protégé in the form of super fast Kiwi Mitch Evans, who has shown great talent in GP3 at the tender age of 17.

Only Webber himself knows whether he will continue into 2012. But it’d be a shame if he hung up his helmet whilst he’s still near the front of the grid, having tried so long before 2009 to get there.


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