Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Driver File: Mark Webber

Billed as the next Australian star in the mold of Alan Jones or Sir Jack Brabham as a youngster, Red Bull Racing's Mark Webber had a lot to live up to. Although he has not lived up to those comparisons in terms of results, he has demonstrated skill, speed and a gruffness that makes him a fan favorite as well as a spokesman. In addition to being a real professional, he is a driver who is down to earth and the kind of guy you want to share a beer with.

Before going into the higher levels of single seater racing, Mark Webber is probably most noted for his development stint in the Mercedes Benz Sportscar Program which can be compared to the development stints of Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger. In 1999, he was one of the drivers that infamously had his Mercedes-Benz CLR do two backward somersaults during the weekend of 24 Hours of LeMans. After his stint with Mercedes he was named official test driver with Arrows F1 in 2000 and ran with the European Arrows F3000 team. For 2001, he signed with Benetton Renault to do some testing. Webber impressed in testing and in F3000 and as a consequence, landed a drive with Minardi for 2002.

He drove masterfully to a 5th place finish in his first F1 race which happened to be his home grand prix. He also drove well during the season in less than stellar equipment where he was consistently in the midfield when the car was reliable; and reliability became a major theme for Webber in terms of his glide path to recognition, or lack thereof, as a top driver.

Mark Webber was in high demand as his performance at Minardi demonstrated clear potential as a top level driver and he eventually signed with Jaguar Racing for 2003. However, prospects of being a regular race winner or podium finisher with Jaguar were dashed by poor leadership and leadership instability as well as financial mismanagement by Jaguar's parent company, Ford. Nevertheless, he continued to demonstrated the ability of a front line driver but the reoccurring theme of reliability and sub-par equipment at Jaguar in 2003 and 2004 seemed to stymie him. He was signed with Jaguar through 2005, but his talent and Ford's lack of money in addition to performance clauses in the contract, the widely sought Mark Webber signed up with Williams-BMW for the 2005 season. Not too long after Webber's announcement was made, Ford announced that they were pulling out of F1 and that Jaguar was being sold. The Jaguar racing operation was bought by energy drink company, Red Bull.

Mark Webber and team principal Sir Frank Williams thought they had a winning combination on their hands, but as was the case at Minardi and Jaguar, reliability was Mark Webber's problem during his stint at Williams. Although Webber scored his first podium and scored 36 points, it was clear that Williams was not the same team it has been in its great past. He struggled to be consistent and again suffered from reliability issues. However, what was more disappointing was he was generally outperformed by teammate Nick Heidfeld until Heidfeld suffered an injury. What was also disappointing was that Webber and Williams were losing BMW engines in 2006. He scored only 7 points at Williams in 2006 and again suffered from reliability issues. Also, he was only marginally better than rookie teammate Nico Rosberg. After much promise, even though his equipment was not the best, the shine came off of Mark Webber in terms of his potential as a top level driver.

For the 2007 season, Webber went to Red Bull Racing, which was his old Jaguar team. Many of the personnel were the same and had worked with Webber previously but had some technical staff additions and had engine power from Renault, who just came off of winning two consecutive constructor titles and was renown for its reliability. He again demonstrated the speed of a front line driver, getting back on the podium at the Nurburgring even though there were some reliability problem, but the light was at the end of the tunnel. As the car became more reliable we again saw the speed and skill that makes Webber a worthy F1 driver. In 2008, the car has been reliable but the once mighty Renault engine is down on power to its rivals and is putting Webber in position to where he needs to overdrive. In the first eight races, he scored points in six of them. In the last seven races he has only scored twice and the car has suffered in terms of reliability.

However, Webber is more than just a driver. He has been a vocal member of the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GPDA) and one of it's directors since 2003; although he briefly was not a director from 2005 to 2006. He does not pull punches and has been a real advocate for safety backing ideas such as improved emergency response crews at tests as well as letting teams know that the GPDA is watching the development of the KERS systems in light of some safety issues. He is someone that will call it like he sees it and presents as a free spirit.

Mark Webber still has the ability to be at the front of grid provided he has the equipment that will not let him down and as this season winds down, he can still score some points but I think he is looking forward to 2009 and will be ready to cash in on a more successful season.

No comments: