With a long-term Porsche sports car contract in his back pocket, 36-year-old Mark Webber will be a major player at the top of motorsport for a good few years, albeit once again with a roof over his head. But with the Australian announcing earlier this month that he was calling time on his 12-year term in Formula 1, it seemed a great excuse for us to look back over his career to date and pick out his 10 greatest drives – with some thoughts from the man himself.
What follows is not Webber's ranking (save for him suggesting the top two), while the selections are based both on the quality of the performance and their significance for the Australian's career.
10: WEBBER'S “SENNA MOMENT”
– 1995 FORMULA FORD 1600, Phillip Island
Webber was just a lanky 18-year-old, albeit one who had already scored his first victory, when he lined his Yellow Pages-backed Van Diemen RF95 up in eighth position on the grid in the fourth round of the championship at Phillip Island. While he had established himself as a front-runner already on a packed grid that included future Bathurst 1000 winners – Jasons Bright and Bargwanna – this win remains etched in the memory of all who saw it.
Like Ayrton Senna in the European Grand Prix at Donington Park two years earlier (he also started eighth), conditions were treacherous and visibility was at a premium. Webber's solution was simply to drive past everyone on the first lap and pull away to take a dominant victory.
A great start got him up to fourth place immediately and by the time he got to the final corner – a very quick left-hander – he seemed to have twice the grip of Con Toparis and passed him for the lead.
“We had a problem with the battery in qualifying and we qualified eighth and I led at the end of the first lap,” recalls Webber. “I remember just picking people off and felt comfortable in the conditions. It was one of those days where you are wondering what everyone else is doing. They are nice when they happen.”
9: JUSTIFYING THE INVESTMENT
– 1997 BRITISH FORMULA 3, Brands Hatch
During his formative years in Europe, Webber was on very shaky ground in terms of funding. After his success in Formula Ford, he stepped up to the ultra-competitive British F3 championship driving for compatriot Alan Docking's team.
He finished fourth in the points, winning only once, but in the circumstances, it was a fine return. Even completing the season was remarkable, something he achieved partly down to financial support from Australian rugby legend David Campese. Crucially, Webber had also caught the eye of Mercedes.
At Brands Hatch, he was utterly dominant and certainly shocked his rivals. He claimed pole position by six-tenths of a second and, with conditions meaning nobody was able to scrub their starting tires, Webber decided to go on the attack in the first few laps while others were being careful with their rubber.
Second-placed Peter Dumbreck couldn't live with him and Webber rapidly established the two-second margin he would carry to the finish.
“There were lots of races where I finished on the podium in F3,” said Webber. “With Alan Docking, we were up against Paul Stewart Racing and also the Renault engine was very strong that year. The [Mugen] Honda was a bit off and I was probably getting third- or fourth-level engines because the best Hondas were going to Stewart's team. I was the first Honda home at Macau [fourth] and the Masters [third].
“But I loved the F3 car, it was beautiful to drive and I learned a lot that year. I had to, because we'd didn't have the money to say, “Let's do Formula Vauxhall Lotus or Formula Renault and then F3. It was really touch and go to get through the season at all financially.”
8: TAKING THE HEAT
– 1998 FIA GT Championship, Suzuka
After his season in F3, Webber switched to the Mercedes sports car program, sharing an AMG-run CLK-LM coupe (pictured here demonstrating to his home fans in Melbourne) with no less a name than marque legend Bernd Schneider.
It was a successful season, with the pair claiming their first win at Silverstone, then adding a second at Hockenheim despite losing third gear. In fact, this pair won five of the 10 races, only to miss out on the championship to the sister car of Klaus Ludwig and Ricardo Zonta. But it was at Suzuka that Webber excelled.
In itself, the race victory was straightforward. Zonta hit the Porsche of Allan McNish early on, leading to Webber's main challengers losing a heap of time. This meant that Schneider and Webber led all 171 laps of the near-six hour race. Webber again showed his aptitude for fast corners and turned in an accomplished drive on his maiden outing at Suzuka, although dehydration did force him to curtail a stint a few laps early.
“Suzuka was a brutal race,” says Webber. “The conditions were horrible, it was very very hot and I was a relatively inexperienced young driver. For me to be thrown into that in my third year in Europe was like being a rabbit in the headlights! Only a year-and-a-half before that, I was driving a Formula Ford!
“I finished the race, which was nice with fireworks and it was a big win. It was a good race.”
7: THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
– 2006 AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX, Melbourne
Webber will walk away from Formula 1 never having won or even finished on the podium in his home grand prix. There have been some bad days for him in Melbourne (on one occasion he spun in the pit lane) but driving for Williams in 2006 he was in a strong position when the gearbox gave out.
The Williams-Cosworth FW28 won't be fondly remembered by anyone on the team that year, but Webber traditionally overperformed. Having started the race on a relatively heavy fuel load, Webber picked up the lead as others pitted. But on lap 23, he suffered a mechanical failure while holding P1. Had he finished, he had every chance of finishing in the top three – impressive, given his machinery.
“That was the biggest one that got away,” claims Webber. “We were leading, we were running very, very long and the gearbox went. I don't think we could have won, but it should have been a podium – easily. The car was quick, I was quick, we had good fuel and everything was great. That was going to be a top result.
“I've been on the podium in most places, but never in Australia. On the other hand, you've got Silverstone, where I've been top three for the last five years, whereas Jenson has never been on the podium in his home grand prix. That's just how the stars aligned.”