The Brazilian Grand Prix will mark the final time that Formula 1 fans will get to see Mark Webber behind the wheel in an F1 race.
In the final installment of our three-part tribute special, RichardsF1.com looks at the Australian’s long association with Red Bull Racing, which delivered some incredible highs, but also some of the biggest challenges he’s had to face…
Exit Williams, enter Red Bull Racing
After two disastrous years at Williams, Mark Webber and his manager Flavio Briatore worked hard to find a new home for the Australian.
Two years after Red Bull Racing had bought out the Jaguar Racing stable, Briatore could see that the team was readying itself to become a serious player in the Formula 1 landscape.
Its major coup was the signing of design ace Adrian Newey, who joined the team in 2006. His first full design for the Milton Keynes team, the Renault-powered RB3, would his the grid in 2007.
Added to this, Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz was a big fan of Webber, and he made the final call to hire him as teammate to the experienced David Coulthard.
Coulthard and Webber combined to make the oldest driver pairing in the field – hardly matching the young and hip image Red Bull may have wanted to portray – but the team needed the expertise of two seasoned campaigners to help develop the RB3 and turn it into a serious contender.
The RB3 didn’t quite turn out to be the frontrunner that the team had perhaps hoped, and the tightly-packaged car suffered all sorts of reliability gremlins that cost Coulthard and Webber plenty of point-scoring finishes – the complex seamless-shift gearbox proved to be the most troublesome.
He was on course for a possible victory at the rain-hit Japanese Grand Prix when he was rammed from behind by Sebastian Vettel while running under safety car conditions. He finished twelfth in the Drivers’ Championship standings, two places behind Coulthard.
Small gains in 2008
Webber and Coulthard continued together in 2008, but the season didn’t start promisingly in the new RB4, an evolution of its predecessor.
After retiring from his home race, Webber pulled together five consecutive points finishes, comprehensively outperforming Coulthard all year long.
But the RB4 was still little more than an upper-midfield contender, with the team finishing seventh in the Constructors’ Championship standings with a meagre 29 points.
Embarrassingly, its junior outfit, Scuderia Toro Rosso, claimed victory at the Italian Grand Prix in what was effectively an identical car, with the young Sebastian Vettel dominating proceedings in soaking conditions at Monza.
Coulthard opted to retire at the end of the season – having again claimed the team’s sole podium f the year in the attrition-hit Canadian Grand Prix – which paved the way for Vettel to move into the senior team.
During the off-season, Webber suffered a badly broken right leg after being hit by a car during a cycling stage of his annual Tasmanian charity event.
Winning – finally!
Red Bull Racing entered the 2009 season brimful of confidence. Equipped with a driver line-up that boasted Webber’s experience and Vettel prodigious (and largely untapped) potential, the team was confident that it could be a serious player after a very positive showing in pre-season testing.
The last-minute resurrection of the Brawn GP team (risen from the ashes of Honda’s failed F1 effort) proved to be the biggest thorn in the team’s side, with the Mercedes-powered team getting a march on its rivals courtesy of its trick ‘double diffuser’, which the rest of the grid took a while to adopt and perfect.
Vettel would win again at the British Grand Prix. To that point, Webber had himself claimed four podium finishes, but that first victory still proved elusive.
He finally did it at the German Grand Prix. Despite a poor start from pole position and a drive-through penalty for some very aggressive defence off the line, Webber had the rest of the field at arm’s length to secure his first Grand Prix victory in his 130th attempt. It remains a record for the longest time to claim a maiden Grand Prix win.
The rest of the year saw Vettel secure two more victories, while Webber won the at Brazil en route to finishing fourth in the Drivers’ Championship standings, two places behind Vettel.
Down to the wire
Red Bull Racing had finally arrived as a serious championship contender, and the 2010 season would ultimately prove to deliver the greatest highs and disappointments in Webber’s career.
The Drivers’ Championship was Webber’s for the taking, but for the man still awaiting his first championship crown since his gokarting days, he once again came away empty-handed as the title slipped through his fingers.
Five pole positions and four races wins marked the best season of his entire Formula 1 career. He led the championship standings after winning the Monaco Grand Prix, becoming the first Australian to do so since Alan Jones in 1981.
But there were a few bumps along the way as well. One race after Monaco, he and Vettel controversially collided while disputing the lead of the Turkish Grand Prix. Vettel was considered by many to be at fault, but the team’s leadership incredibly sided with their rising star. It would not be the last time that the relationship between team and driver would become a major, and unnecessary, distraction.
A difference of opinions over who was at fault at the Turkish Grand Prix…
Webber also had a huge accident at the European Grand Prix in Valencia, mirroring his Le Mans-style acrobatics after being launched over the back of Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus – he was lucky to emerge without serious injuries.
His win at the British Grand Prix proved to be equally controversial, as it once again highlighted the rift between Webber, Vettel and the team’s leadership who clearly favoured the young German. Despite having a new-spec front wing taken off him before qualifying, Webber took victory on the Sunday, declaring the result was “not bad for a number-two driver” over the team radio.
Still, he continued to lead the championship standings right up to the Korean Grand Prix, which ultimately marked the derailment of his championship campaign. He retired after a hefty accident early in the race, which allowed Vettel, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to close the points’ deficit and set an unprecedented four-way scrap for the title at the season finale at Abu Dhabi.
Webber could still win the title if he won the race and Alonso finished off the podium. But the Australian finished eighth after a poor strategic call for an early pit stop, while an incredulous Vettel skipped through to win the race and his first championship crown.
Unable to live with Sebastian
The 2011 season was all about Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing. The team’s all-conquering RB7 won 12 of the year’s 19 races (Vettel claimed an unprecedented 11 wins) to allow driver and team to romp to a successful defence of both championship titles.
Webber, like the rest of the field, was rarely able to live with Vettel’s incredible pace and consistency. While the Australian usually qualified well, he suffered a number of KERS-related issues and his habit for appalling starts made an unwelcome return.
Nevertheless, there were still some impressive performances. He made up fifteen places to finish on the podium at the Chinese Grand Prix, and claimed a fine second at Turkey after battling for the lead with Fernando Alonso.
His sole race win came at the season-ending Grand Prix in Brazil, which came about after Vettel had to surrender the lead with an intermittent gearbox issue. The win allowed him to leapfrog Fernando Alonso in the Drivers’ Championship standings, equalling the career-best third place he had managed the year before.
More of the same
The 2012 season saw Webber make small in-roads on Vettel’s dominance of the championship, although the success the pair enjoyed was continually dogged by suggestions that the RB8 design stretched (or broke) the sport’s technical regulations.
Webber’s season started with four consecutive fourth-placed finishes, and it took until the Monaco Grand Prix before he visited the podium, which came with another fine drive to victory after inheriting pole position courtesy of a grid penalty for Michael Schumacher. In a close race, the top-four finishers were covered by just 1.3 seconds.
His second victory in Monaco was backed up with his second British Grand Prix win a few months later, with the veteran passing Fernando Alonso for the lead in the closing laps.
The success saw him almost immediately agree to a one-year extension of his contract with the team, but from that point his season seemed to completely unravel. It took until the Korean and Indian Grands Prix for him to return to the podium, finishing behind Vettel on both occasions where the RB8s were utterly dominant.
Calling it quits
After a poor second-half of 2012, speculation began to mount before the 2013 season even began that Webber was considering his future in Formula 1.
Rumours consistently swirled that Webber had signed a deal to front Porsche’s return to endurance racing’s LMP1 class, and that was finally confirmed in June.
The 2013 season will, sadly, be remembered for an almost complete breakdown in the already tenuous relationship between Webber, Vettel and the team’s hierarchy.
Even before the season kicked off, Webber was sounding off to the press about Vettel being the blue-eyed boy in the team, and the damage was well and truly done at the second Grand Prix in Malaysia.
Webber leads Vettel in Malaysia… but not for long! (Image © The Cahier Archive)
With victory seemingly in the bag, Webber was instructed to turn down his engine and finish the race, but second-placed Vettel had other ideas – the German blatantly ignored team instructions to hold station and overtook a disbelieving Webber in an ultimate act of defiance and betrayal.
The was the second of what was a tally of eleven victories for the German, which saw him wrap up a fourth consecutive Drivers’ Championship title.
A perhaps increasingly demotivated Webber was again comprehensively thumped by Vettel, with the most glaring statistic coming in qualifying – an area where Webber had historically performed well.
It took until the Japanese Grand Prix before Webber finally outqualified Vettel to claim pole position, only to again be denied victory with a questionable three-stop strategy – Vettel stopped only twice and won for the fifth time on the trot.
Two rounds later, Webber landed pole position at Abu Dhabi with one of the finest qualifying laps of his career, proving that the elder statesman of the grid still had plenty of ticker. Once again, a poor start consigned him to second place behind Vettel.