The Nearly Men: Mark Webber

Date published: January 21 2021 - Finley Crebolder

In the next instalment of our series, we take a look at Mark Webber’s ultimately unsuccessful quest to become a World Champion.

The year is 2010 and on a warm November night in Abu Dhabi, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull are celebrating the German’s shock title triumph following a win that moved him to the top of the standings for the first time all season.

Away from all the cheering and champagne spraying though, there is one member of the team sat sombrely with his parents in his room in the Red Bull motorhome, in no mood to join in.

Mark Webber did his best to put on a brave face in front of the cameras, but it was clear he was hurting, and who could blame him? He had just lost out on a World Championship that for so long that year had looked like it was his to lose.

It was the end of a title challenge – ultimately the only one of his career – that had started six months earlier on the sun-drenched streets of Monte Carlo.

At the previous round in Barcelona, he had taken his first win of the year after a difficult opening four races in which he picked up two P8 finishes and crossed the line in P9 in his home Australian Grand Prix. Another victory would put him firmly back into the title fight.

After taking pole position in Monaco with a stunning lap, he never looked in danger of failing to convert it into a win on race day, leading from start to finish, despite numerous Safety Cars erasing the leads he built, to become the first Australian since Alan Jones in 1981 to lead the World Championship.

“It’s absolutely incredible. It’s the greatest day of my life today. To win here is very, very special,” he said after the race.

With Vettel coming home in P2 and the duo occupying the top two places in the standings, spirits were sky high at Red Bull with the team presenting a happy and united front in their celebrations. Just two weeks later though, that all changed.

Running in P2 and P3 in Turkey, Webber left the door open on the inside and Vettel tried to pass him, but drifted too far to the right and hit his team-mate, ending his race and forcing the Aussie to pit, ending his hopes of victory.

Perhaps it was a racing incident, perhaps a mistake from Vettel, but it certainly was not Webber’s fault. Nevertheless, Helmut Marko quickly placed the blame on him, and Christian Horner did not defend him either. With both drivers locked in a five-way fight for the title, Red Bull had well and truly picked their side.

From that point onwards, Webber had to fight not only against his rival drivers but also his own team, as he said in his autobiography.

“After Turkey, as much as the team denied it, it became slowly but painfully evident that Marko was pulling the strings. More than that: there was an agenda – his.”

Nevertheless, he had no intention of quietly backing down and settling into a role supporting Vettel, as he showed at Silverstone.

That the team were giving favourable treatment to Vettel became clearer than ever on the Saturday of that race weekend when, after his updated front wing broke, he was given Webber’s for qualifying and subsequently beat him to pole by just over a tenth.

The Aussie was furious, and channelled that rage to pass his team-mate at the start of the race and cruise to victory with a flawless performance, topping it all off with one of the sport’s most iconic team radio messages after the chequered flag.

After finishing in the top six in the next six races, bagging one win, earning three further podiums and making precious few mistakes, he led Vettel and Fernando Alonso by 14 points with just three rounds to go. He did not quite have one hand on the title, but he was not far off. And then it all went wrong.

Every F1 driver has ‘what if?’ moments in their career, moments they look back on and wonder what might have been if they had gone differently. Arguably Webber’s biggest came that year in Korea.

With the rain pouring down, the race started under the Safety Car and conditions were so treacherous it was suspended only three laps in.

Once it finally got under way again, the Safety Car led the field until lap 17 when the real racing finally got under way and Webber made perhaps the biggest mistake of his F1 career.

Running too wide, he went onto the slippery kerbs and spun into the wall, ending his race and, with Vettel retiring soon afterwards, handing the Championship lead to Alonso.

He spent the next race, in Brazil, running in P2 behind his team-mate. With Webber ahead of Vettel by a sizeable gap in the standings, many expected the order to come through for the two to swap places to give the team the best possible chance of beating Alonso to the title, but it never did. It is difficult to imagine that would have been the case if the roles had been reversed.

“Fernando got some points at Hockenheim [where Felipe Massa was asked to move aside] which happened in the past and will happen in the future,” Webber said post-race.

“Everyone has different ideas and that’s how it is. I still have a good chance and will go to Abu Dhabi and do my best.”

Regardless, there was no time to dwell on that. With one race to go, Webber was just eight points behind the Ferrari driver and seven clear of Vettel. World Champion status was still well within reach.

But there was never really a point in the final round when he looked like triumphing. Red Bull opted to pit him early, dropping him back into traffic at an Abu Dhabi circuit where it was near-impossible to overtake in the days before DRS.

While it was a terrible strategy for him, it worked perfectly for the team. Alonso pitted to cover Webber and he too got stuck behind Vitaly Petrov, allowing Vettel to claim victory and the drivers’  Championship.

Webber would not get another shot at the title in his three remaining seasons on the grid as he struggled with regulation changes and Red Bull put their support firmly behind Vettel, as shown once more by the famous Multi-21 debacle.

With the strategy producing three more consecutive Championship doubles, it was certainly successful and perhaps understandable as the gulf in quality between the two drivers grew, as the Aussie admitted in his book.

“I can say with absolute honesty that he is a better all-round F1 driver than I ever was,” he wrote.

“Seb was just as much a pawn in the game as I had been, and the pressure on him to deliver must have been intense.”

Even so, looking back at some of Webber’s performances in 2010 – particularly the dominant drives in Barcelona, Monaco and Silverstone – you cannot help but wish he had been given equal treatment and a fair shot at the title that year at the very least.

The fact he managed to get close to becoming a World Champion while driving for a team that did not give him much support, if any, is a testament to his abilities.

As he said himself, not bad for a number two driver…

Finley Crebolder

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