A bull sees red

Mark Webber... enough of F1.-AP

Even if the suddenness of Mark Webber’s decision to quit F1 at the end of the season took everybody by surprise, the Aussie’s statements while making the announcement somehow lacked his characteristic punch, writes G. Raghunath.

He would denounce his one-time good friend Lance Armstrong as “one who wasn’t all I hoped to be” after the professional road racing cyclist and winner of a record seven consecutive Tour de France titles is banned for doping offences; he wouldn’t think twice before raising the hackles of his Formula One team, Red Bull Racing, with a terse comment, “That’s not bad for a No. 2 driver”, after beating team-mate Sebastian Vettel to the finish in the British Grand Prix of 2010; he would even take a mighty swipe at the FIA decision to introduce moveable rear wings in 2011 (“It is good for the PlayStation I think, but I don’t know how well it is going to work in F1.”); he would also berate Pirelli for its extremely degrading tyres (“It will all look good in the first five or six laps, having everyone fighting, but it’s a little bit WWF at the moment.”). Mark Webber is not the one to pull his punches.

But for once, the 36-year-old Red Bull driver restrained himself and that too after having made up his mind that 2013 would be his final season in F1. Even if the suddenness of his decision took everybody by surprise, the Aussie’s statements while making the announcement somehow lacked his characteristic punch.

The decision (to quit F1), Webber said, was forced not by a single reason but a combination of factors such as his advancing years and the changes that the sport is set to undergo next season. “There’s a lot of reasons that come into the pot when any sportsman or woman comes to that time in their career when they want to call it a day. That’s another small ingredient,” he explained while informing the media of his decision to shift his allegiance to sportscar racing with Porsche, which is returning to Le Mans (24-hour event) after a 16-year break.

Webber’s decision to go back to Le Mans, an event he swore he would never compete in again following a horrific pre-race crash in 1999, belies an underlying frustration of being overwhelmed, ever so often, by a team-mate who enjoys a very, very special status at Red Bull.

That his bitter experience in the Malaysian Grand Prix earlier this year was at the core of Webber’s decision to walk away from F1 by the end of this season is beyond doubt. He resented Vettel defying team orders and passing him with impunity. “In the end, Sebastian made his own decisions today and will have protection as usual. I was disappointed with the outcome,” said the Aussie after being beaten by the three-time world champion into the second place.

AP

The hostility between Webber and Vettel, which took root in 2010 when the two Red Bull drivers were involved in not too infrequent run-ins and that was as much damaging as it was embarrassing to the Milton Keynes based team, exacerbated with each passing race. A feeling of alienation seemed to stalk Webber after he was forced to sacrifice his new front wing for Vettel’s damaged car in the 2010 British Grand Prix. This, in fact, marked the point of no return in the relationship between the two drivers. “We’ll probably have a difference of opinion until we go to our graves,” Webber had remarked then, disdainfully.

In a way, it is wacky that the Webber narrative tends to focus more on his anxiety-ridden sojourn at Red Bull than his performance on the track. In what should easily be the best season of his career so far, Webber’s run in 2010 with one of the fastest cars on the circuit — the other was Vettel’s ‘Luscious Liz’ — was simply breathtaking. With four victories under his belt, Webber led the championship race for most of the season until the wheels of his challenge came apart in the Korean Grand Prix. An eighth-place finish in the final race of the season at Interlagos, Brazil, meant he ended up third behind the championship winner Vettel and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.

Being in the wrong team at the wrong time; or, if you may choose, not being in the right team at the right time is a recurrent theme in the Webber narrative. If his move from Minardi to the under-performing Jaguar Racing in 2003 was ill-timed, Webber’s switch to Williams, a champion team in the 1980s and 90s but now in remission, in 2005 was a disaster. An absolute blow-out one might say in hindsight since he had spurned an offer from Renault then. While Webber finished 10th in the championship in 2005, Fernando Alonso landed his first world title with Renault. In his second year with Williams, Webber once again was left sipping wormwood, this time in 14th place, as Alonso went on to retain his World Championship with Renault.

The chance to sit in the cockpit of the fastest car on the circuit perhaps came a bit late in Webber’s career. And as is the case in most top teams in F1, the battle for the World Championship begins at home. So, Webber’s move to Red Bull in 2007 meant that the most successful Australian F1 driver since Alan Jones (active years: 1975-86) often remained in the shadow of his tough-as-nails team-mate, who would go on to win three successive world titles.

Nine Grands Prix victories, 37 podiums and 11 pole positions are too modest an achievement for a driver who once was seen as a potential world champion. But with 11 races remaining in the season and 275 points to be had, Webber, lying fifth in the championship race, could still have a shot at glory.