Eighteen years ago, a Formula Ford grid of F1 hopefuls sat in torrential conditions at the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit. In one lap a young Queanbeyan kid scythed his way from eighth to first in a display that… Well one nobody saw. Commentators couldn’t see that track let alone the drivers and yet Mark Webber somehow found his way through the spray to lead and then dominate the race as if he was in a completely different category to the opposition. The only evidence of his tour de force being a frighteningly brave side-by-side pass on the leader through one of the track’s trickiest corners.
The mystery and conjecture of how Mark achieved that lap seems to have stayed with him throughout his career; with many of his most inspired drives going unnoticed and his subsequent stumbles being highlighted as a measure of his “nearly-man” status. In fact, since he announced his retirement, there has been a mad rush to dissect Mark’s stature in the sport – the results being predictably pedestrian.
Webber’s self-induced crash at Korea in 2010 has often been underlined as flashpoint at which his career simultaneously peaked and ebbed, but in truth Mark’s error in Korea was just as costly to his 2010 championship as Alonso’s blunder was at Fuji 2007 – yet comes as a convenient oversight to Mark’s detractors. Yes Fernando has had more realistic shots at the title since, but has done so by reverting to the devoted bosom of Maranello and undisputed number one status.
Lack of adaptability has been cited as one of Mark’s Achilles heels, yet it was Sebastian who struggled in early 2012 until Red Bull got their head around having their exhaust-blowing advantage downsized. Vettel’s brilliant driving style operating-window might’ve been perfectly suited to Red Bull’s mechanical convenience, but once outside that aperture it was usually Mark who improvised with less fuss.
In terms of adaptability, Mark got it exactly right in Malaysia 2013 and there was nothing “fairly earned” about his purloined victory. An oscillation from Vettel during his second pit-stop confirmed as much; Webber was turning the screws and the youngest three-time World Champion didn’t like it one bit.
And can you blame him? As early as his Formula BMW days, Vettel has been used to having preferential treatment. In Edd Straw’s interview with Seb’s 2004 team-mate Dominik Jackson, the Brit made no bones about the equal measures of awe and aura surrounding the young German.
“From a professional point of view, Seb was a tough challenge”, admitted Jackson . “He’s there 100% with effort… Our pre-season test was at Hockenheim and I was consistently faster than Seb. Before leaving I recorded my engine and chassis numbers, and when we arrived at the first round two weeks later they had swapped our chassis!… At the European Grand Prix support race I got pole and Seb was so pissed off that he ignored the chequered flag and tried again. He got a fine (but) when I got back to the paddock, pretty much the whole team stopped talking to me… I got on pole, yet there is a negative vibe”.
Strange then that it comes as a surprise that a driver who is nurtured to the point of benediction would benefit massively from an already formidable platform of talent. The same conclusion, mutatis mutandis can be reached with Webber. The more you are made to feel like the number two driver, you will eventually start assuming some of those characteristics. Mark knows full well that should his team-mate strike mechanical trouble, he will be given every opportunity to make up that ground. When the opposite occurs it’s: “sorry Mark, the driver with the most points gets preference”.
Get knocked down once, you get back up again, but getting up numerous times takes an extraordinary individual. There is no rhetoric or paranoia rooted in this fact. It’s no wonder then that Mark’s accident in Korea 2010 had such a massive psychological effect on his game. The man had just one week ago at Suzuka pushed his team-mate within an inch of victory – all whilst nursing a fractured shoulder – and his batteries were no doubt running on empty. It’s the same reason why Sebastian was able to brush off his engine failure at Korea with such ease – knowing full well that momentum was on his side of the garage.
Humans are products of their environment. Just as Webber responds fiercely to challenges to his sense of fair play, so too does Seb when his prerogative is under threat. Without wanting to sound too psychological, such feelings come to both drivers as naturally as breathing. In Turkey the collision of such ideals was an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. In Sepang, the effect was more akin to mururoa atoll – prompting even the usually stoic Adrian Newey into eye-balling the wunderkind into a corner during the pre-podium briefing. A shocked Sebastian only then realized the gravity of his actions and quickly went into damage control during the press conference, stating: “I remember occasions where obviously people express their opinion about Mark and his career which I thought at some stage were very disrespectful. I obviously try to be aware of what he has achieved, where he has come from, not only in Formula One but also before that and I respect that, so I respect him as a driver”.
But where was this “respect” thirty minutes earlier? Only for Vettel to flip-flop in China saying that Mark “didn’t deserve to win”. Well which is it mate; ruthless, metronomic winning machine or romantic icon? Trouble is Vettel wants both, but life doesn’t work that way. Sebastian chases the numbers; poles, wins, fastest laps and that’s fine, but trying to have one foot planted in metronomic brilliance and the other in devil-may-care-romanticism is always going to come off as contrived – even if his shuck and jive antics do manage to beguile Her Majesty’s finest with alarming regularity.
When Vettel lost low gears at Interlagos in 2011, he made an unfathomable comparison to Ayrton Senna’s plight at the same circuit in 1991. Even attempting to parallel a paddle-shift F1 car (with power steering no less) to what Senna achieved that day should’ve drawn the ire of the most seasoned commentators, but the utterance didn’t raise as much as an eyebrow. What was it again that George Orwell said about journalism and public relations?
If his place in history is so important to Sebastian, I would draw his attention to Casablanca, October 9, 1958 – and counterbalance that date with Sepang, March 24, 2013. Like I said before, you can’t have it both ways.
Aside from the nine plus wins Mark will take away from the sport he has also provided it with some magical moments – yesterday’s gutsy come from behind challenge for victory at Silverstone was testiment to that. Splitting the Ferrari’s on the front row at Sepang and that duel with Alonso at Eau Rouge with will be forever etched in the minds of many; in much the same way Mika Hakkinen’s move on Schumacher at Les Combes was eleven years earlier. You can’t emboss these rarified junctures with self-made PR. You earn them with pugnacity and virtuosity.
One doesn’t need your name engraved in metal to know that. The stopwatch may not lie, but numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Thanks for the magic Mark.
Images courtesy of Diana Rosica and Octane Photographic.