Formula 1

How will Mark Webber stack up against the greats?

Webber 5

How will Mark Webber stack up against the greats?

Recently I had the great pleasure of attending the screening of ‘Rush’ at the Cremorne Orpheum, hosted by 1980 Formula 1 World Champion Alan Jones. At the conclusion of the film AJ stayed back for a few questions, one of which was whether Mark Webber should be proud of his achievements and how would his career compare against the greats of the sport?

I don’t intend to suggest that the questioner was of this opinion but anyone who thinks Mark Webber should be in any way disappointed with his achievements in Formula 1 is seriously out of touch or is Sebastian Vettel.

But where do you place a driver that won multiple Formula 1 Grand Prix, the majority of which were in no way fortunate, was beaten to four driver’s championships by a teammate that will be regarded as one of the greatest of all time, while enduring a great deal of adversity in a career spanning over ten years?

Finding a starting point in which to place Webber

Gerhard Berger: known largely for his performances at Ferrari, it is his years at McLaren that contrast greatly with Webber at Red Bull.

Gerhard Berger: known largely for his performances at Ferrari, it is his years at McLaren that contrast greatly with Webber at Red Bull.

When thinking of this question the first driver that came to mind was the Austrian Gerhard Berger, whose career from 1984 to 1997 included two stints with Ferrari, multiple victories, poles and fastest laps and a three year stint alongside Ayrton Senna at McLaren from 1990 – 1992. Here’s a breakdown of Webber and Berger’s Formula 1 career stats:

                                                  Mark Webber                        Gerhard Berger

Wins                                                    9                                             10

Pole Positions                                 13                                           12

Fastest Laps                                    18                                            21

Podiums                                            40                                           48

Races                                                 215                                         210

I must confess that I had no idea of just how closely matched the statistics of both Webber and Berger were before writing this piece but for drivers that have competed in over 200 races they are remarkably similar. With stats so similar though, who ranks higher and why?

Formula 1 cars of today may have over 100 sensors monitoring their performance but it is the performance of a driver’s teammate that is the best sensor of any driver. In his 14 seasons in Formula 1 Berger raced alongside, Manfred Wincklehock, Thierry Boutsen, Teo Fabi, Michele Alboreto, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Jean Alesi.

Following his first stint with Ferrari, Berger had earnt a reputation for being a fearless and spectacular driver, capable of dominating races, none more so than the 1987 Australian Grand Prix where Berger claimed pole position, led every lap, and recorded the fastest lap on the way to victory, only the 34th grand slam ever achieved at that point.

Berger’s first chance in championship-winning machinery though came in 1990 when he signed for McLaren alongside the ethereal Ayrton Senna. While Berger was considered the less-favoured driver, few expected Berger’s first win for McLaren would come at the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix, the penultimate round of that season, and only after Senna allowed him past on the final corner of the race. In fact, in the three seasons that Berger raced against Senna at McLaren, the Austrian recorded three victories, the other two coming at the 1992 Canadian and Australian Grand Prix, but only after Senna retired with an electrical failure in Canada and rammed Nigel Mansell at Adelaide.

While Berger also competed against Nigel Mansell for a season at Ferrari, his year was hampered largely by his horrific accident in the opening laps of the San Marino Grand Prix, a crash that Berger later told Sky Sports F1 HD, put an end to his risk-taking style of driving.

Webber's front row start at the 2004 Malaysian Grand Prix was very hard to ignore.

The quality of Webber’s front row start at the 2004 Malaysian Grand Prix was very hard to ignore.

While Webber built his career on incredible performances for Jaguar in 2003 and 2004, most notably, qualifying 3rd in the 2003 Brazilian and Hungarian Grand Prix, and 2nd in the 2004 Malaysian Grand Prix, it is his performances against Vettel in 2009 and 2010 that put the Australian’s talent in the greatest light. His first F1 win at the 2009 German Grand Prix, despite incurring a drive-through penalty was one of sheer dominance, while his back-to-back victories in the Spanish and Monaco Grand Prix of 2010 set up a tilt for that years championship, the closeness of which was disguised in large part due to the unreliability incurred by Vettel, who lost certain victories in both Bahrain and Australia. However, on those three occasions Vettel had no such problems and openly conceded that his team mate was simply too good on the day, something Berger never achieved with Senna.

While Webber was able to record one win in 2011 and two more victories in 2012, the last three seasons of his career have been marred by his inability to come to terms with the Pirelli control tyre, introduced in 2011, and designed with a very high wear rate.  Webber’s performance at the 2011 Australian Grand Prix serves as a strong reminder of just how incompatible Webber’s driving style was with the Italian compound and just how hard Webber has had to work on adapting his driving style. In the opening round of 2011 Webber started on the soft compound tyres and opted for a three-stop strategy, but where rivals opted for a further stint on soft tyres, Webber was forced to use the harder compound, as he was simply unable to make them last.

Vettel’s continued superiority over Webber in the management of the Pirelli tyres was evident once more at the 2013 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix where Vettel was able to record fastest laps in the opening stint while being one of the last drivers to change tyres. Only just this weekend at Austin Adrian Newey acknowledged that the performance between Webber and Vettel would be much closer were they on the Bridgestone tyres (link). Even in an interview given to the BBC at the 2011 Monaco Grand Prix Webber is apparent of his inability to look after the tyres effectively (link). Not only are the Pirelli tyres attributable to Webber’s inability to compete with Vettel, in my opinion they have seen Webber become increasingly disillusioned with the sport, having competed in the early 00’s when high downforce and V10 engines were in vast supply. Even Lewis Hamilton increasingly shows similar signs of annoyance with emerging era where management and conservation are the key elements to achieving victory.

In my opinion the nature of Webber’s retirement is immensely disappointing. Not because we will never see ‘Our Mark’ on track again (this was inevitable) but that one of Formula 1’s fiercest competitors would retire, not out of an inability to compete physically, but out of an inability to maintain motivation. In an interview recently conducted in Australia, Webber acknowledged that his passion for the sport had deserted him, a prospect he never envisaged when fighting in lesser categories. This loss in motivation is attributable to the dramatic changes in the nature of racing in Formula 1 from 2002 to where it finds itself in 2013. Let me be honest in saying that an ability to adapt to changing regulations is part of Formula 1 and the inability for Webber to adapt to the Pirelli tyre is no excuse for his performances against Vettel, in fact, for every reason it tarnishes Webber’s ability, it further highlights Vettel’s.

While never able to claim the sports ultimate prize there is little doubt that Mark Webber proved himself capable of defeating a driver that may one day be heralded as the most successful of all time, in equal machinery, and all this despite incurring a broken leg prior to the 2009 season. For theses reasons Webber ranks higher in my opinion than that of Berger.

Opinion

What is Webber’s finest race?

Greatest drive: Webber at Monaco in 2006.

Greatest drive: Webber at Monaco in 2006.

Such was the mis-fortune for which Webber was associated with for most of his early career, that it is little surprise perhaps that Webber’s greatest performance in my opinion was in a race which he failed to finish. For me there is no escaping Webber’s surreal performance in the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix in which he qualified in the dry on the front row alongside Alonso in the unfancied and unreliable Williams Cosworth FW28, 2.6 seconds quicker than rookie team mate Nico Rosberg. For 48 laps Webber shadowed Alonso and Raikkonen only to have a broken exhaust rob him of a certain podium finish.

Where does Webber rank?

I would place Webber towards the very top of those drivers that were able to dominate a Grand Prix, and although given a championship-winning car were thwarted by the talents of one of their generations greatest. Drivers that fall into that category would be the likes of Rubens Barrichello (00’s), David Coulthard (90’s), Gerhard Berger (90’s), Didier Pironi (80’s), Carlos Reutimann (80’s), Ronnie Peterson (70’s), Gilles Villeneuve (70’s), Clay Regazzoni (70’s), Wolfgang Von Trips (60’s), Bruce McLaren (60’s) and Stirling Moss (50’s). I should note that horrific accidents were attributable more to the championship failures of Pironi in 1982 and Von Trips in 1961. Nevertheless, there could be little argument that these drivers are some of the greatest in the sport.

For me the greatest thing that would hold me back from putting Webber as the highest of these drivers is his wet weather performances, an area where I believe his skills have been notably inferior to that of Vettel, Schumacher, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Alonso and Button. Webber has never looked totally at ease in these conditions, always looking to stay alive rather than command a Grand Prix. His drive at the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix is an exceptional stand-out and were it not for Vettel’s brain-fade under the safety car, deserved to be his first victory.

While Webber has not been able to adapt to the Pirelli tyres there has been plenty he has been able to adapt to including no tyre changes in 2005, the change from Michelin to Bridgestone Tyres in 2006, V8 engines in 2006, banning traction control in 2008, aerodynamics regulations in 2009, KERS in 2009, F-Duct in 2010 and DRS in 2011, not to mention the various one-lap qualifying formats which enabled Webber to earn a formidable reputation as one-lap expert alongside Jarno Trulli.   

For me the greatest thing that would hold me back from putting Webber as the highest of these drivers is his wet weather performances, an area where I believe his skills have been notably inferior to that of Vettel, Schumacher, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Alonso and Button. Webber has never looked totally at ease in these conditions, always looking to stay alive rather than command a Grand Prix. His drive at the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix is an exceptional stand-out and were it not for Vettel’s brain-fade under the safety car, deserved to be his first victory.

Where does Webber rank? It is no guarantee that all drivers with a championship should rank higher than Webber but it is worth noting that there are 32 drivers who have won a world title. With this in mind, I would have no hesitation placing Webber inside the top 40 drivers of all time.

Do you agree? Comments welcomed.

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