Mark Webber’s gesture of taking off his helmet after the Brazilian grand prix was a perfect summary of his reputation in his sport.
He stated the intention of the gesture was to show to human side to his sport. And of all the Formula One drivers of recent times, Webber has always seemed one of the most human; honest, direct and charming. Always putting the individual over the corporate, while also remaining popular and likeable.
Ever since his debut at his home grand prix in 2002, Webber has stuck to these values and the respect for his talent from his peers has only increased as his career has progressed.
His career began with a three race contract for perennial strugglers Minardi. With minimal backing and without a sparkling junior career, Webber’s prospects for a future in Formula One weren’t strong. So it’s arguable that his extraordinary fifth place finish in his debut race, helped by a heap of good fortune with at least eight faster cars retiring early, was the sole reason Webber lasted more than a season in the sport.
Yet, however fortuitous Webber got in that debut race, for the rest of his career he had to work for every single thing he achieved. From qualifying third at the 2003 Hungarian grand prix for the poor Jaguar team, getting his first win after a drive through penalty at the Nurburgring in 2009; to finishing third in the drivers’ championship three times – 2010, 2011 and 2013.
For his first seven seasons, Webber toiled in the midfield for Minardi, Jaguar, Williams and Red Bull. Occasionally, his unique blend of hard graft and raw talent allowed him to shine. Times such as the 2006 Monaco grand prix where a probable podium finish was snatched away by a mechanical failure. Or the 2007 Japanese grand prix at the sodden Fuji racetrack, when another likely podium slipped away when a young rookie in another midfield car smashed into him.
It was unknown to everyone at the time, but this rookie would end up becoming an integral part of the Webber story, for it was Sebastian Vettel.
From 2009-2013 Webber had five seasons in a car capable of regularly winning races. And for those five seasons he was partnered in the Red Bull team by Vettel.
In 2009 and 2010 Webber and Vettel were quite even over the course of the seasons with Vettel taking eight wins to Webber’s six. Vettel seemed faster but was prone to crashes and rookie mistakes.
The record from 2011 onwards is less kind to Webber, as Vettel began to dominate the whole sport by utilising the unique aerodynamics of the Red Bull much more effectively, with the win ratio for 2011-2013 ending up as 28 for Vettel and only three for Webber.
This makes the first conclusion of Webber’s career as a good but not great driver. Yet, if Vettel really is as good as some claim, then Webber must go down as one of the best “B-level” drivers along with Rubens Barrichello, Gerhard Berger and Riccardo Patrese. And that’s something that a poor kid from the middle of New South Wales should be very, very proud of.