F1 » Mark Webber
Australian Mark Webber can claim to truly be one of those drivers to have reached Formula One on the strength of his driving ability as, like many of his countrymen before him, he received little financial support for his career at any stage.
Being born in the country outside Canberra, Webber's first attraction was to motorbikes – a hobby helped by his father's position as the local dealer – before he turned his attention to four wheels with a spell in karting. It wasn't for a few years, however, that the bug began to strike. Then, having won the state kart title, he moved immediately into Formula Ford, taking fourth overall in a strong category in Australia, before taking the big step to Europe.
Having proved good enough to be offered a works Van Dieman for the annual FFord Festival in 1995, he was then retained by the manufacturer to spearhead its challenge for the full 1996 championship. The likes of Kristian Kolby and Darren Malkin provided stiff opposition in the regular season, but Webber, second overall in the championship, came good on his return to the Festival event, taking the title in front of a competitive field. He then returned to Australia for a brief crack at Formula Holden before flying back to Britain for the following season.
Skipping Formula Renault, the Australian teamed up with compatriot Alan Docking in Formula Three but, without the Duckhams backing that the Van Dieman team had enjoyed, the year proved to be a financial struggle. Webber soldiered on, however, letting his driving do the talking and eventually winning a round of the series at Brands Hatch before going on to take fourth overall. He recorded a similar result in the end-of-year Macau Grand Prix.
His results had not gone unnoticed, and Webber was approached by Mercedes-Benz to join its band of young guns in the 1998 FIA GT Sportscar Championship. Not having to provide sponsorship to land the seat, Webber agreed, and was paired with Germany's Bernd Schneider in the CLK GT machine. The first season past off without incident – and included five race wins - but returning to Mercedes fold for 1999 almost proved Webber's undoing as he endured two harrowing moments during the build-up to the annual Le Mans 24 Hours after the car's aerodynamics caused it to flip on the flat-out Mulsanne Straight. He decided there and then that sportscars was not where his immediate future lay.
By this stage, however, he had already picked up the occasional test outing with the Arrows team in Formula One and attracted the backing of wealthy ex-pat Paul Stoddart, who was looking to break into motorsport on the back of his lucrative airline parts business.
The pair hit it off immediately, with Webber becoming a key part of Stoddart's fledgling FIA F3000 team for 2000. Despite the general inexperience, Webber managed to finish third overall that year, winning at Silverstone but losing out to Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian in the final reckoning.
His performance was enough for him to be snapped up by the crack Super Nova team for 2001, although all of David Sears previous championship winning form could not prevent Webber being beaten to the title by Justin Wilson, despite wins at Imola and Magny-Cours.
His Formula One experience had also grown by season's end, having been snapped up by Flavio Briatore and the Benetton team to add to its testing strength, and his performances there made him an obvious target for Stoddart who, by now, had taken charge of the Minardi team for 2002.
The pair made an emotional debut together in Melbourne, with Webber - the first Australian in F1 since David Brabham in 1994 - benefiting from a mass pile-up at the start to bring his car home in fifth place, scoring rare points for Minardi and joining an elite band of drivers to have scored on their F1 debut. There was never any chance of repeating the result, eighth in France being the closest Webber got, but his ability had been noticed by others further up the pit-lane.
With Eddie Irvine announcing his retirement from the sport, Webber was snapped up by the Ford-owned Jaguar Racing team for 2003, partnered initially by rising Brazilian star Antonio Pizzonia, who had made his mark in testing with Williams-BMW. Despite a largely frustrating season, a revised scoring system allowed Webber to rack up 17 points for tenth in the championship – and a reputation for seeing off talented team-mates as Pizzonia was replaced mid-season by former F3000 rival Wilson, who fared little better against the more settled Aussie.
Webber continued with Jaguar in 2004, now ranged against unproven rookie Christian Klien. Again, the campaign proved to be a frustrating one as, despite the might of Ford being behind the team, the Blue Oval's budget was being strangled. Webber managed seven points all year, good enough for 13th overall, but his fighting displays – and a front row start in Malaysia – were sufficient to mark him out to a team used to tough Aussie battlers.
With the future of Jaguar Racing uncertain beyond the end of the season, Webber gratefully accepted an offer to join Williams, which had taken another bluff Australian, Alan Jones, to the world title in 1980.
Webber joined Williams though at a time when their relationship with engine partner, BMW hit an all time low, Williams and BMW opting to go their separate ways at the end of the season.
Webber had hoped he would be able to fight for wins during '05 but that never happened, although he did manage his first F1 podium finish at the Monaco GP, when he came home third behind team-mate, Nick Heidfeld. Webber finished the year tenth in the drivers' championship, having scored 36 points.
With a patchy first season with Williams over with, a second year beckoned for Webber, but with the team having now divorced from BMW, the loss of major backing began to have a damning effect on the team and their results subsequently suffered.
Indeed, Webber was not lacking in determination, hauling his Cosworth-powered car inside the top ten in qualifying for the first four races, including a fourth place starting position at Sepang. A sixth place finish at the Bahrain season opener also appeared to suggest a competitive season was in store.
In reality though, Webber's flashes of speed, in Melbourne, Monaco and Hockenheim especially, were peppered by abysmal reliability that saw him fail to finish a total of eleven races. Points went wanting too, with Webber scoring in just three races to finish the season with seven points to his name and 14th in the standings.
With Williams' fortunes waning, Webber took the opportunity to jump ship midway through the season by announcing he would switch to Red Bull Racing for 2007, a team he felt had arguably better prospects than the ailing Grove outfit. With David Coulthard alongside, the pairing hardly had youth on their side - or Red Bull credentials - but, with Adrian Newey penning the RB3, Webber was quickly to predict podiums.
Top threes did come, but slowly, and always looked more likely to go Coulthard's way rather than the Australian's, as Webber suffered the brunt of the car's reliability woes. In all, Webber DNF'd in seven of the 17 events, and finished another seven outside the points. often in ninth spot.
The highlight of the year came with third place in the weather-affected European GP, as he managed to keep his head while all around were losing theirs, but, added to a pair of sevenths, restricted the free-speaking Aussie to a lowly twelfth overall, belying qualifying pace that saw him break into the final phase shoot-out more often than not.
Despite rumours that either he or Coulthard could be displaced by Fernando Alonso for 2008, RBR's veteran combination remained in place for another season together, but Newey's next slippery design was again beset by reliability problems and a lack of pace from the Renault engine the team fought hard to secure, believing it to be better than its Ferrari powerplant.
Early races were marked by a string of points-paying finishes, highlighted by fourth place on the streets of Monaco, but the remainder of the season failed to live up to its billing, with just six points coming from the remaining dozen races of the season. Of particular disappointment to Webber was the waste of a front row start at Silverstone - where he spun on the opening lap and trailed home tenth at a track that looked well-suited to the RB4 – and Singapore, where a potential podium was allegedly derailed by static from a passing underground train that fried his gearbox.
With DC departing to retirement at the end of the year, Webber was faced with the youth – and momentum – of Sebastian Vettel as his team-mate for 2009. The German had already made his acquaintance with Webber in the 2007 Japanese GP, when he rear-ended him out of the race under a safety car, but arrived at Milton Keynes having helped Scuderia Toro Rosso finish ahead of RBR in 2008 and beaten Webber to the honour of claiming a maiden F1 win, at the ’08 Italian GP.
Webber’s preparations for 2009 were further hampered by a road accident while competing in the Australian’s Pure Tasmania adventure race that left him with a badly broken leg and collar bone. While some wrote him off, however, Webber was back in harness for pre-season testing, and happy to get his hands on Newey’s RB5 design, which appeared the pick of the bunch in the run-up to Melbourne. With ‘Baby Schumi’ as his team-mate, however, the Aussie needed to turn early-season promise into victory.
Second place, behind Vettel, third time out hinted at the potential of the RBR package, and further podiums followed in Spain, Turkey and Britain before Webber finally made his breakthrough, in dramatic fashion, at the Nurburgring. Having received a drive-through penalty for a robust approach to turn one, the Aussie did enough on track to ensure that he emerged in front when it mattered - and the weight lifted from him was audible to all!
Any thoughts of a potential title challenge - Webber was Jenson Button's closest rival after Hungary - crumbled, however, when he went five races without scoring, although first and second places in the final two rounds hinted at what might have been, and what could be in store for 2010.
The Australian eventually wound up fourth overall in the standings, but headed into the new season in one of the few unchanged line-ups and with an evolution of the race-winning RB5 at his disposal.
With his own hoodoo lifted, Webber knew that he could - and should - challenge again, but his year started slowly, with only second place, from pole, in Malaysia his only podium visit during the four 'flyaway' races that opened the campaign. Once back in Europe, however, the Australian took control by winning comfortably in Spain and Monaco and salvaging third in a controversial Turkish GP after colliding with team-mate Vettel as they attempted to fend off Lewis Hamilton's faster McLaren. A spectacular aerial accident in Valencia, where he misjudged the speed of Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus, could have ended Webber's season, but the bruised Aussie bounced back to win next time out, at Silverstone, albeit not without further controversy after his version of the latest RB6 front wing was handed to Vettel.
Having celebrated by claiming that victory was 'not bad for a number two driver', Webber continued to strengthen his title claim with another win in Hungary, and headed into the final three rounds as the points leader. However, attempting to keep up with a resurgent Vettel in a rain-soaked Korean GP resulted in only his second DNF of the year, and it proved costly as the Australian's bid subsided, despite second place in Brazil. He later revealed that he had been driving the closing races with a fractured shoulder - the legacy of another cycling accident - and that would have done little to lessen the pain of seeing Vettel emerge as champion in Abu Dhabi.
Red Bull had already claimed the constructors' title by that point, and retained an unchanged line-up for 2011, despite suggestions that Webber may move on prior to signing a one-year extension to his contract.
Insisting that the mood within the team had eased, the Australian believed that he could again chase the title, but there was to be no repeat of 2010 for anyone but his team-mate, as Vettel romped to a second straight crown. Instead of going head-to-head with the young German, Webber stuggled to get the best out of the new Pirelli tyres, especially in qualifying, and claimed just one win, in the Brazilian season finale, to go with a meagre three poles. His pace on race day, however, was never in doubt, as seven fastest laps attested, but, by then, the damage was all to often already done.
Such was Vettel's dominance that the issue of team orders raised its head just once, when Webber was prevented from challenging his team-mate for second at Silverstone, but again the rumours that he may move on started to circulate. With seemingly few options of a similar calibre on offer for 2012, however, he opted for another one-year extension with RBR, taking the partnership with Vettel into a fourth season.
Although Newey's RB8 design had to take into account several rule changes, Red Bull again proved to be a frontrunner, but Webber once again found himself in the shadow of his Red Bull team-mate. The points table fails to tell the story of a better year for the Australian, however, as he frequently swapped championship positions with Vettel through the early part of the campaign.
Four straight fourth place finishes to open the season proved a little frustrating, but Webber eventually broke through with victory in Monaco, and added a second win at Silverstone for good measure. Save for back-to-back podiums in Korea and India, however, the run-in was disappointing as his side of the garage again seemed to attract most of the bad luck that was going around at RBR. DNFs in Abu Dhabi and the USA dropped Webber back into the clutches of the McLaren drivers and he eventually ended the year sixth overall, albeit with another one-year contract extension tucked safely in his pocket.