6: MAKING HIS NAME IN EUROPE
– 1996 FORMULA FORD FESTIVAL, Brands Hatch
The Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch has lost its luster in recent years, but back in 1996 when Webber won it, it was still a seriously big deal.
In '95, off the back of finishing fourth in the Australian series, which still used the old “Kent” 1600cc unit, he was invited to test a state-of-the-art Zetec-engined machine in the UK. That led to him being invited to race for the works Van Diemen team, run by the legendary Ralph Firman, in that year's Festival. He caused a stir by finishing third, which earned him a full season with Van Diemen (at Knockhill, LEFT). By the end of the '96 season, he was classified second in the points to teammate Kristian Kolby, but in October's FF Festival, Webber was the class of the field in a rain-hit event.
Having won his semi-final, Webber slipped behind Mygale driver Jacky van der Ende off the start. After backing out of one pass at Paddock Hill Bend because of a yellow flag, he dispatched van der Ende the next lap. A red flag led to a restart and a race result that would be calculated on aggregate. Again, Webber lost the lead, this time to future podium-loving but victory-averse IndyCar racer Vitor Meira. Mark bided his time and Vitor overdid it under braking at Druids Hairpin, handing the Australian a clear run to victory.
“Winning the Formula Ford Festival was a pretty big moment,” recalls Webber. “I had finished third there the year before and we were probably the favorite for 1996. Putting the whole weekend together there is quite tricky and there was the red flag in the race so I had to regroup after that.
“It was a very, very special and important race. Not one of the hardest, to be honest, because I was very strong at Brands Hatch and had a good car but in terms of executing for the whole week, it was good to get it done.
“The two Festivals put me on the map in Europe…but it didn't help attract attention in Australia at all. It didn't mean anything to people there. But after that, I got some F3 tests, free tests, which was a good thing for me because we didn't have a budget. Those Festival results certainly helped me step up the ladder, because I could get free mileage in different categories.”
5: BACK TO OPEN-WHEELS IN STYLE
– 2000 FORMULA 3000, Imola
Webber spent 1998 and '99 as an official junior driver for Mercedes-Benz, racing in sports cars (although in the second of those, his outing at Le Mans came to an end after two airborne accidents). Webber knew he'd have to make a big impression when he returned to open-wheel cars but, for 2000, he signed for compatriot Paul Stoddart's unfancied European Arrows squad. The season-opening race at Imola was his first outing in an open-wheeler since the 1997 Macau Grand Prix.
The details of the race are relatively mundane. Webber qualified third, 0.234sec behind polesitter Bruno Junqueira and only 0.001sec off Nicolas Minassian's time. While Minassian jumped into the lead at the start, Webber hounded Junqueira throughout and claimed a podium finish on his return to formula cars.
“Because I hadn't raced open-wheel for 14 months, there were a lot of demons I had to get over in my first F3000 race,” admits Webber. “I remember doing 12-mile sessions on the rowing machine to get myself ready. Those cars were quite physical and you used to get big blisters on your hands. And being new to F3000, just the cars themselves were a new experience for me, but I knew it was a situation where I needed to perform.
“Paul Stoddart's team had only just qualified for the championship that year so I was in what some people thought was a dog of a team and a dog of a car, but we managed some good results. It was nice, on my return, to be on the podium.”
And it would get better still. Later that month, he claimed his first F3000 victory at Silverstone after passing Darren Manning with a maneuver that would best be described as robust.
“I remember closing in on him and he was using some pretty bad lines in the wet,” says Webber. “I thought, ‘I'll try and pass him on my dry lines, then when I get far enough away, I'll use my wet lines again.' That worked out.”
4: FLOGGING A JAGUAR
– 2003 FORMULA 1, Hungarian Grand Prix
The early years of Webber's F1 career are full of impressive showings in under-par cars, and usually it is his great debut – fifth place in a Minardi in Melbourne – that is cited as the apex of his overachievement during this period. Yet, good as that drive was, it wasn't the best example of Mark punching above his weight.
For 2003, he moved to Jaguar and in the third race of the season, at Interlagos, he qualified third. He followed it up with fifth on the grid at Imola, yet all Webber had to show for some strong qualifying performances was a batch of sixth- and seventh-place finishes.
In Hungary, he once again stuck the Jaguar third on the grid. The Jaguar R4 overworked its tires, which meant it had a grip advantage in qualifying but come the race it inevitably faded dramatically. But Webber extracted everything he could from it to run second in the early stages and come home sixth.
“My first race with Minardi was special for lots of different reasons,” reflects Webber, “because fifth shouldn't have happened in the Minardi and it turned my three-race contract into a bit more of a career. But some of my drives with Jaguar were good, even though you look back and they weren't massive results.
“It was a bit like Mercedes had early this year – a car that was very good in qualifying, but would kill its tires in the race. I remember how everyone said I couldn't drive on Sundays and was slow in the race, but it was because that car was absolutely murdering its tires. In fact, I'd say that window, and the first part of my time here at Red Bull, were the two eras when I was probably driving at my best.”
That race marked the first victory for his friend and rival Fernando Alonso, but Mark jokes that the Spaniard owes him one, having held up other potential victors throughout his first stint.
“Yeah, I still haven't sent Fernando the invoice for that race; I held up the pack quite well for him. But at any rate, that race was a big deal for me.”