He leaves behind many great memories of his 12 years in F1: that fairytale fifth place for Minardi on his debut, the giant-killing qualifying performances for Jaguar, and the maiden win scored despite taking a drive-through penalty are just a few of them.
But Webber will also be missed because of the refreshing frankness with which he addressed the sport. Not for him the mealy-mouthed kowtowing to corporate sensitivities practised by his peers.
Webber possesses both the perspective to see beyond the Formula One bubble and the courage to give voice to his views. While his contemporaries mumble their “for sures” and try not to upset anyone, he gives his own views plain and unvarnished.
One of those days when Webber stood tall was when he told the watching world “there should be no real celebrations today” following the dismal spectacle of F1 returning to Bahrain in 2012. “We can leave. We saw the size of the crowd today,” he said after the race concluded in front of a meagre audience in a country in a state of near martial law
Nor did he hold back his views on the kind of rubbish which passes for a 21st century Grand Prix circuit. He memorably derided Valencia’s woeful excuse for a racing track as being like driving in a supermarket car park – this was before his infamous aerial acrobatics at the circuit in 2010.
The Vettel rivalry
One year earlier he’d been fortunate to make the start of the season after breaking a leg in a gruelling bike race of his own devising. He was clearly still in pain as he started the new season with a new team mate – Sebastian Vettel. The pair has crossed paths two years earlier when Vettel clumsily drove into Webber behind the Safety Car in Japan.
Webber recovered from his cycling injury to score his first F1 victory in Germany that year, though it came after Vettel had given Red Bull their maiden race win. In 2010 Webber narrowly lost the championship to his team final round. Already there were signs of friction between the two drivers and Red Bull management.
During practice at Silverstone an upgraded front wing was taken from Webber’s car and put on Vettel’s, who was leading the points at the time. The pair clashed on the first lap and Webber won, telling his team it was “not bad for a number two driver”. Webber’s victory in Hungary came after
Heading to the Japanese Grand Prix Webber was leading the championship by 11 points. But he suffered another bike crash, this time injuring his shoulder. He kept quiet about the injury: even his team didn’t find out about it until after the season had ended.
If his 2010 title loss to Vettel was a disappointing close-run thing, his 2011 defeat was utterly crushing. Webber simply couldn’t extract the best from the RB7, which derived much of its performance advantage from its powerful exhaust-blown diffuser. He was closer in 2012 when EBDs were banned, but again the title went to Vettel.
By now the antipathy between the pair was unmistakeable. Ordered to hold station behind his team mate at Silverstone in 2011 Webber refused, hounding Vettel around every corner of the track. He gave his team mate a hard time in the 2012 season finale as well.
This hostility was aggravated by Helmut Marko, the Red Bull motorsport director whose stewardship of the young driver programme brought Vettel to the team. Marko seldom passed up an opportunity to get in a dig at his favourite driver’s team mate.
Most preposterous was Marko’s attempt to lay the blame for a 2010 collision between the pair of them at Istanbul – which was plainly Vettel’s fault – at Webber’s feet, after it cost Red Bull a one-two finish.
Last January Marko laid into Webber again in Red Bull’s in-house magazine: “As soon as his prospects start to look good in the world championship, he has a little trouble with the pressure that this creates. In comparison with Seb’s rising form, it seems to me that Mark’s form somehow flattens out.”
The relationship between the two drivers hit a new low at the second race of the new season. This time it was Vettel’s turn to receive a ‘hold station’ order while following his team mate. He paid as much attention to it as Webber had at Silverstone 19 months previously – but the crucial difference was Vettel succeeded in getting past and took the win.
That left a furious Webber thinking more deeply about his future. “I’ll catch some waves in Australia on my board and I think this will be good medicine for me,” he said at the time. “I had a lot of thoughts going through my mind in the last 15 laps of the Grand Prix so whether the medicine is enough, we’ll see.”
“F1 wasn’t on my radar”
Webber says the events of Malaysia did not lead to his decision to quit F1. “I’ve had a personal plan and I’ve stuck to it,” he told his official website today. “This is the next chapter.”
“Formula One as a category wasn’t on my radar for 2014,” he added. Perhaps he is being diplomatic by not laying the blame for his departure at the feet of Vettel (or Marko). But it would be no surprise to discover Webber has tired more of F1 than he has of his team mate.
Webber has never disguised his dislike of the gimmicky nature of modern F1, not least the fragile tyres, which he has often struggled to squeeze as much life from as his team mate can.
His choice of words when talking about his decision to leave F1 today was striking. “Formula One is seen as the pinnacle”, he said, – implying that other motor sports might be considered equally challenging.
If any form of motor racing can make that claim at present the World Endurance Championship must rank among them. The cars may be slightly slower than F1 machines over a single lap but they have to cover over ten times the distance.
The engine rules – particularly the use of modern hybrid technology – are more ambitious than F1′s. But what Webber will probably appreciate most is freedom from driving every lap obsessing over tyre degradation.
Webber craves a purer form of racing than F1 can offer at the moment. And he has no qualms about returning to a series in which he survived two huge crashes when driving for Mercedes: “Le Mans in 1999, those cars were very… I think the regulations were quite dangerous,” he said today.
“Look, motor racing is dangerous, I accept that, we all know that. Motor racing is dangerous. Le Mans is a classic race. The cars are not slow there now but I’m not a guy who wants to wrap myself in cotton wool either.”
But Webber is a true racer and even as he prepares to take his leave of Formula One he admits there are parts of it he will miss:
“The drug on the grid, when the guys walk away from the car, that’s the best legal drug you can get. I’m ready to go racing, that’s brilliant.
“But like I say you’ve got to be real with yourself and know there’s a day where you need to go on to the next chapter and that’s what I’m very excited by. You can’t kid yourself and say it’s going to go on forever.”
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