2am, March 3rd 2002. My 11 year-old self is awoken by my Uncle with news that the Australian Grand Prix is about to start. It was new to me, this; not only was getting up at 2am an unwelcome novelty but this was to be the very first Grand Prix I was to witness in full – the 3rd of March 2002 was the day it all began.
Within seconds of the red lights extinguishing, as Ralf Schumacher launched his BMW-Williams over the back of Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari and a home-grown Aussie made his first Grand Prix start, I was hooked.
That home-grown Aussie, aboard a black Minardi-Asiatech, was one Mark Webber, a former sportscar star whose appearance on the Formula One grid for the very first time was of far greater consequence than my debut appearance as a television viewer. Webber would leave an indelible mark on not only myself but the entire Formula One paddock.
Michael Schumacher may have taken victory that day but Webber was the undisputed star, having finished fifth for the fledgling Minardi team in his very first race on home soil. So extraordinary was his performance that the race organisers allowed Mark and Minardi team-owner Paul Stoddart – also an Aussie – to complete their own podium ceremony before an ecstatic crowd.
Webber had made an instant mark on F1 and F1 had left its mark on me; 215 races later, I’m going strong but Mark Webber has called it a day. Since that Australian Grand Prix almost twelve years ago, Webber has proved himself as one of motor racing’s hard-chargers and forged a legacy that won’t be forgotten any time soon, thanks to his attitude toward all aspects of racing and supreme talent behind the wheel.
After that astonishing fifth place finish at the first time of asking, Webber was earmarked as a future winner, yet it took seven-and-a-half seasons for Advance Australia Fair to ring out over a Grand Prix paddock, at the German Grand Prix of 2009. Since then there has been 8 more victories; two at Interlagos, Monaco and Silverstone plus wins in Spain and Hungary.
Webber’s victories at Monaco and Silverstone were particularly impressive, so much so that the great commentator and pundit Murray Walker described Mark’s performances as ‘Senna-esque’. Praise doesn’t come much higher than that. But more than the victories it was Mark’s rugged, Aussie-grit personality and his say-it-like-it-is attitude that enamoured him to so many fans. Who could forget “not bad for a number two driver?”, the Multi-21 saga or Mark’s willingness to answer any probing questions with a refreshing honesty. Fair dinkum, mate.
Webber’s is the first ‘full’ career to span the length of my own passion for the sport and it’s with sadness that I see him walk away from Formula One; I smiled along with him in the early hours of March 3rd 2002; winced when he crashed his Jaguar into the concrete wall at Interlagos in 2003; applauded his first podium at Monaco 2005 and read in horror of how he had been severely injured when hit by a car during the 2007/8 off-season. The fact that he came back from injury to race at the first Grand Prix of the year served as testament to his strength of mind and determined character.
I jumped for joy when he took victory at the Nurburgring in 2009, despite a drive-through penalty. I willed him to win the 2010 World Championship, his best shot that wasn’t to be; feared for his life as his Red Bull RB6 somersaulted through the air in Valencia 2010; watched in amazement as he approached the daunting Eau Rouge high-rise wheel-to-wheel with Fernando Alonso and came out ahead; and for the last time, I witnessed Mark Webber cross the finish line at Interlagos before removing his helmet to feel the wind in his hair.
To my mind, Webber becomes a member of an exclusive club: he may have been the perennial bridesmaid, constantly overshadowed by team-mate Sebastian Vettel during Red Bull’s glory years but with his undoubted talent it’s possible that Mark Webber stands with the likes of Stirling Moss, Gilles Villeneuve and Ronnie Peterson as one of the very best drivers to have never claimed the World Championship. The fact that he never did only serves to further devalue to title itself.
Let’s hope Mark Webber is remembered as the great driver he was, for the wins and the grit, rather than for falling over during his final podium appearance.