A height of marginally over six foot (1.84m) always was going to be a massive handicap to carry into Formula 1 for Mark Webber.
Yet the Australian regularly managed to shade his four-inch-shorter Red Bull Racing team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who, crucially, was 12 kilograms (26lbs) lighter. Indeed, Webber won nine grands prix in 215 starts and scored 13 poles, including two at Monaco and one at Spa-Francorchamps.
In 1999 while racing sports cars for Mercedes, Webber attracted the interest of fellow Australian Paul Stoddart, then an astute ‘super fan’ with an eye to future F1 team ownership. Stoddart brokered an F3000 drive and Barcelona F1 test with Arrows for Webber, then race deals in both categories. Ultimately aviation entrepreneur Stoddart, who spoke to RaceFans at length for a series last year, played a major role in Webber’s career.
Arrows-Supertec A20 (1999, test)
Webber describes the Arrows A20, raced by Pedro de la Rosa and Toranosuke Takagi in the 1999 season, as the F1 car he “lost my virginity” in. The car scored a single point all season. “It wasn’t at the front of the grid,” Webber recalls, understatedly, adding with his trademark grin, “but, it had all the lumps and bumps in the right places to get the job done…”
The car’s handling around the Circuit de Catalunya made a serious impression on the
“Any time you step up from the junior categories into Formula 1, it doesn’t matter what type of F1 car it is, it’s going to be an incredibly unique experience. The speed, the brute force of those cars, the power to weight ratio really hits you very, very quickly. And I was on a pretty good circuit as well.
“It’s a real wake-up call, the G-forces, the load on the body, and you very quickly see the level of fitness you need to operate these cars for two hours. That’s the biggest wake up call. Then, of course, the people in the garage, you’ve got a big entourage to get used to. So, your first test is always a big one, irrespective of performance of the vehicle.”
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Benetton B201-Renault (2001, test)
However, Stoddart and Arrows boss Walkinshaw soon fell apart acrimoniously, and Webber tested for Benetton. The team mutated into Renault, with team boss Flavio Briatore taking up Webber’s management contract off the back of the test.
“That was a bit more serious,” he recalls of the Estoril test, where race driver Giancarlo Fisichella was present. “It was really an evaluation. Flavio was having a look at me at the time as a genuine test driver back then when you did do quite a lot of mileage as a test driver.
“There were quite a few drivers in the picture. I was quite nervous going to the test – I’d done a seat fitting at the factory in Enstone, but I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was going to be as physically I was a bit big for the car.
“Thankfully, Alex Wurz [1.86m] had been there not long beforehand, which was good because ‘Wurzie’ moved out the furniture a bit, so I could get my ass and knees into the car. That was a really serious test for me, it was a few days so, of course, I didn’t have a chance to recover.
“You get tired, neck, [over] all the parts of the body which have never really had too much exposure to the sort of forces. That was a real eye-opener to do multiple days, and plenty of sets of tyres. And when you’ve got loads of tyres to test, that means more G-forces as well.
“We had a monumental engine failure on the front straight, so that was a pretty spectacular finish to one of the days. But it was a good test.”
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Minardi-Asiatech PS02 (2002)
Testing for Benetton prepared Webber for his grand prix debut – in March 2002 on home soil, with Minardi, which had been acquired in the interim by Stoddart. History records the combination scored a magical fifth place in Australia, edging out the might of Toyota. However, Webber recalls the car as being “literally a pain in the ass”.
“That was a car I didn’t fit into,” he explained. “I was pretty purple from bruising in that one. We tested in Valencia in the build-up to the season and funding was not exactly Minardi’s strong point; we had to be really measured in the build-up to the [race].
“It was a two-race contract [initially], Australia and Malaysia. I think the longest constant run I did [in testing] was 17 laps and it was a 58-lap race.
“At the end the car was literally falling apart underneath me. The differential was gone, we couldn’t open the fuel flap at the pit stops, it wasn’t linked to the pit limiter, there was all sorts of stuff. We had open that manually with a screwdriver – you couldn’t make some of the stuff up.”
Though underpowered, the PS02 handled well, Webber recalls. “It was a nimble car, particularly on its Michelin tyres,” he says. But cracking the top six – the only points-paying positions 19 years ago – was a challenge. He took eighth in France and 10th at the season finale in Japan – plus four 11th-place finishes.
“We had some good races in it,” Webber recalls, “top six was hard to get. I think we finished a few races in the top 10 so would really have got more points these days. But that’s how the cookie crumbles. But Magny-Cours, Monaco were a few good races.”
Jaguar-Cosworth R3, R4 and R5 (2003-04)
Webber’s performances with Minardi caught the eye of Niki Lauda, then team boss of Jaguar Racing. “I did a test with the [R3] in the middle of  which went well,” Webber explains. “The [Cosworth] engine was incredible, real power. The car wasn’t special in terms of balance, so aerodynamically needed a lot of love.”
Webber signed with the green team after the test. But by the time he arrived in Milton Keynes Lauda was on his way out, which Webber recalls was “frustrating”. Still, he enjoyed the season, which also saw the introduction of one-lap qualifying.
“I really was at one with that [R4] when it counted over one lap. A big-engined car that was a real handful in the races. That was evident because we always qualified towards the front, but then [it was] very hard to hang on to, particularly aerodynamically.”
Three sixth places and four sevenths were the result – fortunately for Webber points had been extended to eighth place that year. He took 10th in the standings.
“With experience, looking back,” he says, “we focussed on the wrong things. Even with the engineering team we were barking up the wrong tree, not measuring enough and [not] getting enough data and science into understanding why we were killing the tyres.
“That all become apparent later on in my career, why and how you need to respect the aerodynamics so much.”
Matters did not improve markedly for his second season at Jaguar, which was the team’s last before selling out to Red Bull Racing, now based at the same Milton Keynes address.
“It was good for me to be associated with such a big team,” he says, “but ultimately, they did not have the resources or firepower to focus on areas that made the biggest performance gains, which was clearly aero.
“I think Cosworth were a phenomenal company, they did a brilliant job although reliability was a bit flaky which was understandable given what they were up against.”
Williams-BMW FW28, Williams-Cosworth FW29 (2005-06)
Williams beckoned next. Webber’s arrival evoked comparisons with another successful Australian, Alan Jones, who delivered the team’s first championship success.
Yet a partnership which promised much left both parties extremely disappointed. After testing the FW27 which won the season-closing race of the 2004 season in Brazil, Webber’s hopes were high.
“I thought this is going to be brilliant, this is going to be unreal. I was doing long runs at Barcelona at what was pretty much qualifying laps in the Jaguar, give or take a few tenths.
“The car was so soft on its tyres, it had a truckload of horsepower with the BMW, the aerodynamics of the car were pretty stable, the software electronics were really dialled in with all engine braking. The car was awesome.
“Then out came the new one… and she was a lemon.”
He puts the problems down to “Mainly aero, there were a few little regulation changes. The first test we did everybody just looked at each other, and went ‘We are in serious strife here, this thing’s doing nothing.’ It had no grip.”
Webber is, though, complimentary about the “extraordinary” BMW engine. “The torque – traction control was around then, so we could play a lot with systems and software on how to deploy that type of power.
“The engine kept pulling where the Cosworth was a bit peakier. We just had a lot more grunt in the bottom part of the RPM range. So, a very, very spectacular engine.”
But with BMW poised to end their relationship with Williams, having bought Sauber for 2006, Webber suspects their engines were dialled back. “Probably the best of the BM days were when they were at the front, and they peeled back a little to not have any tricky PR in their last season [with Williams] for no real good use.”
Clearly Webber expected more from the season than a single, debut podium appearance at Monaco. However if the FW28 was a disappointment, its Cosworth-powered FW29 successor proved worse in 2006.
“Cosworth was convenient in terms the UK and British brand, that was the big pitch, and certainly they could produce some good power which they did,” says Webber. “But the car was the Achilles Heel, the performance was not good.
“We had even simple things like diffusers touching [the ground] in high-G corners. We were exploding inside shoulders on tyres, things like that which was just unreal.
“The gearbox was not reliable – we had a problem behind the Safety Car in Melbourne when on course for a good result potentially, and the gearbox wasn’t syncing.
“I remember mowing the lawn and thinking, ‘It’s not going well; it’s time I’ve got to make a decision. Go to Red Bull, which was actually the only option.’”
Red Bull-Renault RB3-RB9 (2007-13)
Webber’s tenure with Red Bull established him as a regular grand prix winner, with classifications of fourth place and three thirds during his seven years with the (developing) team attesting to his consistency in their Adrian Newey-designed cars. Newey’s first ‘proper’ Red Bull was the RB3, powered by Renault after swapping its Ferrari engines with sister team Toro Rosso.
“It was so, so good that [Red Bull owner] Dietrich Mateschitz – and Adrian from what I hear – was a little bit keen to give me a run,” says Webber. “That worked out well and off we went.”
The RB3 proved fast but initially fragile – Webber and team-mate David Coulthard each retired seven times in 17 races. But it came good towards the end of the season, rewarding Webber with a podium at the Nürburgring and the lead at Fuji before being punted out by future team-mate Sebastian Vettel. Clearly, though, Newey was still getting to grips in Milton Keynes after stellar years at Williams and McLaren.
The RB4 suffered an initial run of suspension failures for both drivers, and I recall a typical Webberism when I asked him about fragility in Melbourne: “Mate, if we were building aeroplanes I’d be fucked…”
The quote is still valid, he says during this interview: “I think at the time Adrian was pushing the boundaries, he had a bit of a tricky run.
“I was a friggin’ nightmare for Adrian, I was too tall, he hated the size of me, but he got me in [the team] and I’m forever thankful he made an effort to get me comfortable.”
Webber says the [hip] area, not footwell or elbow room, was his biggest squeeze, leading to “nervous moments in January” when the FIA’s exit tests were performed.
“There was no question about it, in the last three or four years I was extremely comfortable in the car and had no issues, and that shows that if you’re been with a team for a while, it’s a big win. That’s something which people on the outside don’t see – it’s good for the cockpit, the ergonomics, and the [car] environment.”
The 2009 season brought the RB5 and a return to slick tyres in place of grooved rubber. It also brought a new team mate in the shape of Sebastian Vettel.
The beginning of the season was shaped by an argument over ‘double diffusers’, introduced by rivals Brawn among others. By May Red Bull introduced its own trick diffuser, which made a world of difference, says Webber.
“There was just so much so much grip in the rear of the car [with it]. A grand prix car is by its nature unstable in the rear generally in terms of the power and especially with no traction control, whatever you could do to calm the rear down and then jam a front load full of downforce onto it to balance it, then the stopwatch is going to love it.
“It was a good Formula 1 regulation,” he grins, “the cars were quick, refuelling kicked off even though qualifying was a joke with no way of knowing fuel loads. And of course [it brought] my first victory, which is important to any Formula 1 driver’s career and it was a great cup.”
That breakthrough victory was vintage Webber, as he charged to the front at the Nurburgring despite a penalty for contact with Rubens Barrichello at the start. But Vettel had already taken his first win a few months earlier, and the rapid ascent of the team’s junior driver prompted claims of favouritism.
“I think at that time we were trying to get to the front, still just developing the car, whatever we thought was best to whoever was the quickest, and at that time there was nothing between us,” said Webber. “Until, obviously, [his] first championship.” That came in 2010.
“The youngest world champion was important for Red Bull, so once that was done then it became very challenging inside there after that.”
The RB6 commenced a four-year unbeaten run for the team in both championships, Vettel taking the drivers’ title each time. During a period of relative stability in the regulations, Red Bull and engine supplier Renault were first to exploit the potential of using exhaust gasses to enhance the power of the car’s diffuser.
“The blown diffuser was very much linked to the [strong] partnership with Renault because obviously we need to use the [exhaust] plume to stimulate the diffuser,” Webber explains. “Whether it was hot air, which we’d have sometimes fuel going in, or it was just the engine running, just open with the throttles open [no ignition] and cold air going through, still a plume going through.”
But Webber admits Vettel mastered the driving technique necessary to extract the most from this phase in the development of four successive and similar cars.
“When we got that right, obviously Sebastian enjoyed it more than I did,” he says. “It was a very special piece of kit.
“We used more fuel, obviously, exhaust temperatures were through the roof and the exhaust would be exploding. Then you would link that to your front wing angle depending on how much you’re going to be cranking rear the floor. To put that whole jigsaw together was good fun.”
Thereafter “the cars just kept moving along”, the 2011-2013 cars (RB7-9) being evolutions of what went before or an optimised adaptation where (minimal) regulation changes ahead of F1’s switch to the hybrid formula meant adaptation.
That changeover prompted his switch from F1 to the World Endurance Championship, where he won the title with Porsche in 2015. Looking back, he believes he timed the decision well.
“It was my last year, but I still managed to get a couple of poles. I was very, very happy to be on the podium with Fernando and savour my last race and get the fastest lap.
“So it was good timing. It’s very easy to screw the timing up and be there too be long…”
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