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.”
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.”
3: SECOND VICTORY AT SECOND HOME
– 2012 FORMULA 1, British Grand Prix
Webber has made England his home for close to 20 years and claimed his first British Grand Prix victory in 2010. But it was his second Silverstone triumph in F1 that stands out simply because it came in a straight fight with Fernando Alonso courtesy of a pass in the closing laps.
Having qualified second, Webber held position at the start but it seemed the leading Ferrari was in control. However, qualifying had been held in wet conditions so both had free choice of which compound to start on. Webber started on the soft, meaning he ran the hard tires for his final two stints. But Alonso started on the hard. When he put the softs on for the run to the flag, it quickly became clear that he was vulnerable to the charging Aussie.
Alonso pitted on lap 37 and had a four-second advantage over Webber, who'd pitted earlier. By lap 45, he was just half-a-second behind Alonso and three laps later, with the assistance of the DRS rear wing, he blasted down the outside into the Brooklands left-hander to take the lead.
“Fernando was strong in the first two stints and I was having trouble matching him,” says Webber of his chase. “On low fuel on the options, we expected he was going to be strong toward the end of the race. Then it became clear that he was having a bit of trouble with his tires, whereas we'd used our softs early in the race and that was why the gap was there.
“Closing in on someone, you get into such a trance that you're not really conscious of the laps. It was the same when I was chasing down Nico [Rosberg] at Silverstone this year; you're so busy focusing on each corner and getting the maximum from it.
“When I caught Fernando, there were a few places where I could see that he was absolutely on it. We both were. He wanted it and I knew I needed to execute the move very well. I had a few laps to line him up but it was a sweet moment passing Fernando because 1) It's a very special grand prix to win, and 2) it's special to win against someone who is arguably the best of our generation.
“Fernando and I have had some sensational wheel-to-wheel battles over the years; some I've lost, some I've won. He's a guy that makes every opportunity count.”
2: STREET MASTER
– 2010 FORMULA 1, Monaco Grand Prix
Webber has always shown an aptitude for street circuits and even got himself into contention for victory at Monaco in 2005 while driving a mediocre Williams. In 2010, riding a strong Red Bull, he was utterly imperious, and it was one of those days when he was comforably able to eclipse teammate and nemesis Sebastian Vettel.
Webber bagged pole position by three-tenths of a second ahead of the Renault of Robert Kubica. The Pole appeared to be a serious threat for the race, but a tardy start meant that it was actually Vettel who picked up the chase.
Don't pay too much heed to Webber's eventual winning margin – 0.448sec. This was, in fact, a crushing win, had it not been for four safety car periods that interrupted his progress.
“Yup, Monaco could have been a big distance of victory without the safety cars,” he agrees. “I could have been 30 seconds down the road. It would have been nice to win by a bigger margin – it was disappointing how many safety cars we had that day. But still, I remember it as being just one of those great days when it didn't matter what you did, you could drive around all day and no one would beat you.”
1: GRAND PRIX WINNER AT LAST
– 2009 FORMULA 1, German Grand Prix
It was Webber's 130th F1 start. Red Bull teammate Vettel had already won twice and many were questioning whether the Australian would ever claim his first win. The bare facts say that Webber won from pole position. But it was nothing like so simple.
From pole position, Webber made an average start, allowing Rubens Barrichello in the frequently dominant Brawn GP BGP001 to get alongside. The Brazilian F1 veteran got through into the lead but not before a clash of wheels with Webber that resulted in the Red Bull driver being punished with a pit drive-through penalty.
Webber jumped ahead of Barrichello in the first round of pit stops before serving his penalty, but he re-emerged eighth on lap 20 and knew he had to go for it. By just after half-distance, Webber was back in the lead thanks to a seriously impressive turn of speed and he went on to claim that elusive first win.
“Nurburgring '09 was a big moment – a huge relief but also good because of the way I won,” reflects Webber at the same venue four years later. “It wasn't a fluke win like a Pastor Maldonado or a Heikki Kovalainen and it wasn't a one-off. I was really happy for lots of reasons, how it happened with the drive-through and everything.
“All grand prix wins are special, but Nurburgring and the first Monaco win were super-special for different reasons.”