This weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix will mark the last time that fans will see Mark Webber race a Formula 1 car in anger.
The Australian called time on an open-wheel career that began way back in 1994, and he will return for another crack at endurance racing glory, fronting Porsche’s return to the FIA World Endurance Championship next year.
The Australian’s ride to the pinnacle of motorsport has had many bumps along the way, and it’s relied on plenty of his trademark ‘Aussie Grit’ to come back from a multitude of setbacks.
But what is clear is that the sport will miss this lanky, straight-shooting racer, who has proudly championed Australia’s presence on the motorsport stage.
In the first of a three-part special, RichardsF1.com charts the affable Aussie’s amazing motorsport career. In Part 1, we take a look at his early years…
Mark was born on August 27 in 1976 in the town of Quenbeyan, located a stone’s throw from Australia’s capital city, Canberra.
His dad Alan was a local motorcycle dealer, and while Mark was raised on a diet of rugby league – where he continues to be an avid supporter of the Canberra Raiders team – he also developed a taste for two-wheeled machines.
Rather sensibly, his dad steered him towards karting, and he started out racing at the relatively late age of fourteen, becoming the New South Wales state champion within three years.
The next logical step was the Australian Formula Ford Championship, and Alan sank his meagre funds into buying the RF93 Van Diemen which Craig Lowndes had taken to the national title in 1993.
His first year of open-wheel racing was not particularly promising. He finished tenth in the standings without a podium finish, while Steven Richards romped to the title in a Garry Rogers Motorsport-prepared entry.
Watch Mark demolish the opposition in soaking conditions at Sandown in 1995
Year two was rather better. He finished fourth overall in the 1995 Championship standings with three pole positions and three wins (including an impressive wet-weather effort at Sandown and victory in one of the Australian Grand Prix support races).
A move to a series featuring downforce and slick tyres was in order, and the Birrana Racing squad came him two outings in their Formula Brabham Championship (the local Formula 3000 category), where he finished on the podium both times.
Webber was starting to turn a few heads, and he received an all-important invitation from Van Diemen to drive for them in the British Formula Ford Championship the following year.
Making his mark in the UK, and almost losing it…
Before moving to the UK, Mark met Ann Neal, who had previously worked as the PR Manager for the Australian Formula Ford Championship. Many years his senior, the two struck up a de-facto relationship that continues to this day.
The pair left Australia at the beginning of 1996 armed with the flimsiest bank balance, with Mark determined to crack the UK motorsport scene and carve a path to Formula 1.
The highlight was victory in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch – one of the few circuits where he had prior racing racing experience – and he etched his name as a victor alongside other F1 luminaries including Roberto Moreno (1980), Johnny Herbert (1985), Eddie Irvine (1987) and Jan Magnussen (1992).
He form in the second half of the year propelled him to runner-up in the overall championship – where he finished up with four wins – and it earned him a Formula 3 test with the Australian-owned Alan Docking Racing outfit, which had been a competitive force in the UK since the 1970s.
A move to Formula 3 would have been a major breakthrough, and given it had shown itself to be a major launchpad for many a successful racing driver, Webber needed to nail it.
But his promotion almost came unstuck before it even began. His finances were disarray and with little, if any, commercial backing coming from Australia, it took a $100,000 donation from Australian rugby great David Campese (an old friend of Mark’s father) to keep his dreams alive.
That secured his drive with ADR, and Mark went on to finish the season fourth overall, claiming one win. He also finished third in the prestigious Masters of Formula 3 at Zandvoort.
His performances saw him receive a phone call from Norbert Haug, Mercedes-Benz’s motorsport boss, asking if he would like to be a last-minute call-up to replace Alexander Wurz and partner Bernd Schneider at the Nürburgring 4 Hours round of the FIA GT Championship.
Mark declined the offer, figuring he would show poorly in an unfamiliar car with next to no testing. The offer instead went to Klaus Ludwig, and he and Schneider went on to win the race in the Silver Arrows’ CLK GTR.
Double backflips at Le Mans
Despite knocking back the Nürburgring drive, Mercedes still gave Webber a test outing in the team’s FIA GT sports car at Austria’s A1-Ring, where he performed well enough to earn a full-time drive in the series for 1998.
Finally, Webber was in a team and series where he didn’t have to bankroll his place.
Sharing the cockpit with German veteran Schneider – who had won the inaugural GT title the year before – the pair was considered to be a favourite for the 1998 championship title.
The CLK-LM Mercedes dominated the championship winning all ten rounds, although it would be the sister car of Ricardo Zonta and Klaus Ludwig that ultimately won the title, winning the final three rounds.
Such was Mercedes’ dominance of the championship, the GT1 class was cancelled in 1999 because no other manufacturer dared pit themselves again the three-pointed star.
That left Mercedes with a one-off outing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Mercedes was determined to claim victory, arriving with a revised CLR LMP-class racer in the hope of taking on Toyota’s GT1 prototypes.
Webber – paired with Jean-Marc Gounon and Marcel Tieman – looked a serious chance to challenge for victory, but the trio suffered a major setback when Webber flipped the car in Thursday qualifying at the Indianapolis corner.
The car was rapidly rebuilt, only for Webber to suffer another terrifying aerial flip in Saturday’s warm-up session, this time at the end of the Mulsanne Straight (pictured right).
The young Aussie emerged from the wreck unhurt but badly shaken. Mercedes initially believed driver error was the cause for both incidents, but when its second car piloted by Peter Dumbreck flipped into the trees moments later, it quickly became apparent that the CLR had a major design flaw. The third car, piloted by Schneider, was immediately withdrawn.
TOMORROW: FORMULA 3000 & THE EARLY FORMULA 1 YEARS
With his sports car ambitions in tatters, Mark has to face the challenge of returning to open-wheel racing, forging a crucial alliance with Aussie expat Paul Stoddart, who would ultimately give him his F1 opportunity. Make sure you visit us tomorrow for our second installment!