F1’s loss is Mark Webber’s gain

When drivers retire from Formula One, their powers are usually on the wane. This driver, though, timed his escape from an increasingly shackling sport to perfection.

For Mark Webber, F1 had long lost its purity and its ability to enable drivers to push to the limit of their car’s capabilities before his decision to switch to endurance racing with Porsche for 2014.

He had become increasingly frustrated after Pirelli moved to F1 to manufacture the sport’s tyres in 2011. Under a brief from F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to encourage overtaking and more pit stops, Pirelli built tyres which degraded quickly – much to the abhorrence of the Australian.

Such a change forced drivers to nurse the cars lap-by-lap on race day, and Webber was among the fiercest critics of the new approach.

So much so that he once claimed qualifying to be the highlight of a race weekend – the only time when he could extract maximum pace from his car without fear of his tyres ‘falling off the cliff’.

The introduction of Pirelli, coupled with Red Bull’s mastery of the exhaust-blown diffuser in the same season made for a very disgruntled Aussie.

It seemed the tide would not turn, especially when his young team-mate Sebastian Vettel would later perfect the counter-intuitive use of the exhaust-blowing to romp to his second world title that year.

The German’s success, coming a year after Webber’s flirtation with his own world championship triumph, was particularly galling but he never relented in his persistent chase of Vettel, despite being ultimately powerless in seeing his greatest rival record his third and fourth titles in the following two campaigns.

When Webber moved to the Austrian-owned team in 2007, he had already notched his maiden podium for Williams in 2005 and scored two points for perennial backmarkers Minardi in his debut Grand Prix in Melbourne in 2002.

From the outset of his F1 career it was clear that Webber’s greatest strength was qualifying and he had already made the front row for Jaguar and Williams before taking his maiden pole position for Red Bull in 2009 at the German GP.

In an outstanding show of pace, Webber negated a drive-through penalty – given to him for a first-lap brush with Rubens Barrichello – to claim his maiden F1 win. The euphoric celebration over his in-car radio underlined just how much it meant to him.

The subsequent season was a mixture of highs and lows, and was also the beginning of his intense rivalry with Vettel.

By mid-season Webber had delivered commanding wins in Barcelona and Monte Carlo, but then came the British GP at Silverstone.

Red Bull had manufactured a new-spec front wing and fixed it to Webber’s car but, after Vettel damaged his old-spec wing in qualifying, the team took the decision to switch it to Vettel’s car instead.

The difference between having and not having the wing was only 0.1 seconds per lap, but it was the principle of the move that upset Webber the most. He was incensed by what he saw as the team’s favouritism towards Vettel.

Vettel duly took pole but Webber passed him at the start of the race and took a crushing win, delivering his infamous “not bad for a number two driver” message over the radio on the cooldown lap.

Another win in Hungary set Webber’s title charge up nicely and with three races left he was ideally placed.

But, in a wet inaugural Korean GP, disaster struck when he spun on a sodden piece of astro-turf, clattered the inside wall and was then hit by Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes.

With Vettel also retiring, Fernando Alonso took a vital win and with it the championship lead from Webber.

With five drivers going into the last race in Abu Dhabi with a chance of claiming the title, Red Bull firmly nailed their colours to the mast by deploying Webber, who had got ahead of Alonso, as a decoy.

The genius of the idea brought them into the pits at the same time, with Ferrari covering Webber’s move as Alonso’s main challenger. The pair rejoined in heavy traffic and, with overtaking seemingly impossible, Vettel took the win and the title.

Webber had been used, and he was livid.

So began his misery. The next season saw him win just one race in a campaign dominated by his team-mate, while reliability issues in 2012 thwarted his title challenge, although he registered impressive wins at Monaco and Silverstone for the second time in his career.

This season has been equally frustrating, Webber enduring further difficulties with the Pirellis and yet more reliability gremlins, but he managed to claim three pole positions before the end of the season to prove his pace over one lap still existed.

The outpouring of love and fondness for Webber from his colleagues, notably Alonso – the pair began their F1 careers together at Minardi – was a reminder of his popularity, which is reflected in his outspoken view on the sport.

Some of the most famous quotes in F1 are attributed to the Australian, and they are partly a reason for his status as a fan’s favourite.

On his disgruntlement at the burgeoning use of “Mickey Mouse” street tracks like Valencia, Webber took the chance to say the Spanish circuit was akin to “a Tesco car park”.

Valencia, of course, would provide excitement of an unwanted kind in 2010 when he somersaulted into the air after colliding with Heikki Kovalainen on the back straight.

That he landed safely and escaped unhurt was a minor miracle but he bounced back to win the next race at Silverstone, despite the front-wing controversy.

Other famous quotes include his description of Romain Grosjean as a “first-lap nutcase” after the Lotus driver shunted into him at the start of the 2012 Japanese GP, and earlier this year in an interview on Top Gear, Webber was asked by Jeremy Clarkson if he had ever been tempted to punch arch-rival Vettel.

His reply was typically memorable: “My Dad always said you shouldn’t hit boys, mate.”

Of course, the relationship between the two had been tempestuous ever since the Malaysian GP.

A pre-race agreement, coded ‘multi-21’, was designed to protect whichever Red Bull driver held the lead after the first pit-stop.

That honour fell to Webber and, safe in the knowledge that Vettel wouldn’t challenge him, he dialled his engine down to preserve his car in the heat and humidity of Sepang.

Vettel began to close in on him though, and defied desperate team orders over the radio to pass the Australian for what would prove to be the first of his thirteen victories this season.

Webber was enraged, but had further cause for irritation when Vettel said he would do the same again during a press conference at the next race in China.

Their rivalry truly ignited in 2010 when Vettel veered across Webber’s path in the Turkish GP, while the pair had earlier been involved in a collision in 2007 when Vettel smashed into Webber at Fuji, depriving them both of podium positions in horribly wet conditions.

The incident provoked more memorable remarks from the New South Wales- born veteran who, in reference to Vettel’s inexperience, stated that, “It’s kids isn’t it…you do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

Webber will be remembered not only for his straight-talking ways, but his infamous lack of luck and recent poor getaways off the line.

Despite those setbacks, Webber has a glittering set of statistics to look back on his time in the sport ahead of his new career with Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.

He triumphed with nine victories, claimed 42 podiums – the last coming in his final race in Brazil – and secured 13 pole positions in his 215-race career, amassing 1047.5 points and setting 19 fastest laps.

Webber is not the type to fuss about such things, but at the time of his exit from F1 he was placed in the top twenty drivers of all time. “Not bad for a number two driver.”

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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Sebastian Vettel – A true F1 ‘great’?

Formula One drivers come and go. Some may win races but most won’t. Others shrink into obscurity after a career spent hidden in the midfield. But there are an elite few, those who are recognised as ‘greats’.

Undeniably, after clinching a fourth consecutive title following victory at the Indian GP – his third in succession – Sebastian Vettel now joins a pantheonic group of F1 drivers who are freely regarded as ‘great’.

But sadly this historic achievement, for a significant proportion of F1 fans throughout the world, is being devalued with claims that he has had it all too easy during his short but illustrious career.

True, the 26-year-old has benefitted from an Adrian Newey-inspired Red Bull car for the past four seasons.

Red Bull’s rise from midfield runners to all-conquering world champions has coincided with a change in regulations in 2009 that mixed the ‘normal’ grid up.

The struggling Honda effectively forfeited their 2008 season, concentrating on the 2009 regulations and inventing the ingenious double diffuser.

Despite knowing the potential of their cars, the Japanese giant pulled out of the sport citing high costs and sold their operation to Ross Brawn, who promptly guided the rebranded ‘Brawn GP’ to a world championship double, with Jenson Button taking the drivers’ championship.

Since then, Newey has worked his magic, developing the Red Bull cars into a force so strong they have swept away all before them. It has been a Vettel stampede across the subsequent four championships.

To undermine Vettel’s ability during this period though, is to flirt with grave ignorance.

F1 bosses had long been aware of the German’s potential ever since an astonishing performance in 2004, when driving for Mücke Motorsport in the German branch of Formula BMW.

His team was not the fastest in the championship, but that did not stop the immensely talented Vettel winning 18 out of 20 races. To underline his brilliance he finished second and third in the two races he didn’t manage to win, amassing a staggering 20 podiums.

In fact, that title remains the last drivers’ title that Mücke won, further illustrating just how special Vettel is.

These are not the achievements of a man who has zero ability, or who would later rely on a superior car to win four F1 world championships. Moreover, it was a telling sign of the domination that was to come.

After progressing to Formula Three in 2005, he drove a so-called inferior car to fifth place in the standings, before earning the F1 test driver role with BMW Sauber in 2006.

The following season, Vettel was leading the Formula Renault 3.5 Series – a platform to F1 – when BMW driver Robert Kubica suffered a huge crash at the Canadian GP, sustaining concussion and forcing BMW to promote him to a race seat in the next race.

In another sign of his talent, Vettel qualified seventh and finished eighth, scoring his maiden point in F1 at the first attempt.

Four races later he replaced Scott Speed at Toro Rosso. The Italians, Red Bull’s sister team, were perennial backmarkers but Vettel took an outstanding fourth place finish at the Chinese GP.

This convinced Red Bull enough to place him in a full race seat with Toro Rosso in 2008, where he again surpassed expectations.

Bouncing back from four retirements in the opening four races, he took the slow Toro Rosso to five points finishes before a breakthrough moment set his career on a fast upward curve.

A wet Monza qualifying session was the stage on which Vettel needed no second invitation to demonstrate his capabilities. He surged to pole position – the first of his career and, to date, the only one during Toro Rosso’s short time in F1.

On race day, his achievements rocketed even higher. Despite his lack of experience and a wet start to the Grand Prix, he showed extraordinary skill to guide his Toro Rosso to victory.

It was the type of lights-to-flag win that would become gut-wrenchingly familiar to his opponents over the next five seasons.

He went on to finish eighth in the 2008 championship, ahead of established names such as Rubens Barrichello and Jarno Trulli.

Red Bull came calling after the retirement of David Coulthard, and suddenly Vettel was winning races again.

In a season where Brawn were dominant, Vettel managed to outperform team-mate Mark Webber to take second in the championship behind Button. He took four victories in amongst a total of eight podiums.

His record since then is scary.

He has won 31 times more, taking his career race win tally to 36 – the fourth-highest ever.

With 43 pole positions, he has started over a third of the races in his career from the front.

He has also been on the podium 50 times in his four title-winning seasons, recording 59 in total.

That means that of the 117 races he has started in F1, he has been on the podium in 50.43% of them – a mind-boggling display. Additionally, over 30% of those races have been victories – hardly an example of a driver who relies solely on his car.

These are the kind of statistics that remain unchallenged in modern F1. Nobody even comes close to the achievements that Vettel has carved out.

His meticulous approach to everything F1, including a unique visit to the Pirelli tyre factory, is a trait of a winner, a champion with a fierce desire for success – and success he has grasped.

It is clear that his unpopularity this season largely stems from the ‘multi-21’ incident with Webber in Malaysia. The team had instructed the drivers to respect track position after the first pit stop, but Vettel relentlessly chased the Australian – who had dialled his engine power down – before passing him for victory.

Webber, himself a popular figure in the paddock and with fans around the world, was incensed. Nevertheless Vettel, although sheepish in victory, displayed a ruthless streak compatible only with that of a champion.

He has since been booed on the podium during victory, something which has been on the wane in recent races – particularly in India where it was perhaps non-existent and if not, inaudible.

Unfortunately, the fans have also attacked the sport because of his dominance, claiming it to be boring – whether that would be the case if ‘greats’ Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton were to have been as dominant is extremely unlikely.

His driving style may be win at all costs and some may frown upon that, but out of the cockpit he is as personable and friendly as they come. His cheeky and fun personality is always engaging and makes him a wonderful ambassador for the sport.

It is doubtful too whether the steadfast Alonso or the cocksure Hamilton would show as much humility as Vettel has done in the wake of four consecutive world championship triumphs – if they even get there.

Vettel’s record alone is worthy of the ‘greatness’ tag. Add to that his almost limitless talent and ability – displayed with crushing victories in junior and senior formulae – and you have a driver who should unquestionably be lauded as a true F1 ‘great’, joining names of the calibre of Schumacher, Fangio and Senna.

He really is that good – and the scary part for his opposition is that he is improving all the time. Are title numbers five, six, seven and eight feasible? For Vettel, anything is possible – and with the talent at his disposal, it is entirely probable.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89