One of Australia’s most decorated international motorsport stars, Mark Webber, has announced his retirement from racing. Webber will hang up his helmet at the end of the 2016 season, signalling an end to a glittering career that started in his hometown of Queanbeyan in 1991.
The current Porsche factory racer in the FIA World Endurance Championship fought his way to the top of the motorsport world with indomitable will and persistence characterised by his ‘Aussie Grit’ nickname.
After moving to Europe in 1996 to further his career, Webber announced his arrival with victory in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch before graduating to Formula 3. In 1998, Webber signed with Mercedes to join its then fledgling sports car team. He scored five wins that year to finish third in the championship and secure his place on the squad for the 1999 season.
Tipped as one of the favourites to win Le Mans that year, Webber’s career instead came to a screeching, shuddering and bone-crunching hold. An aerodynamic flaw on his Mercedes-Benz CLR racer saw Webber flip twice in practice and qualifying at Le Mans. Webber’s teammate Peter Dumbreck also flipped his car during the race, forcing Mercedes to immediately cancel its sports car program. Webber’s international career, it seemed, was on the rocks.
But a switch to F3000 in 2000 reignited his career and by 2002, the Aussie had made his Formula 1 debut, finishing fifth and in the points on debut in his home grand prix in the unfancied Minardi. That catapulted Webber from just another journeyman racer into the elite and over an F1 career spanning 12 seasons and four teams – Minardi, Williams, Jaguar and Red Bull Racing – the Aussie started 215 grands prix for nine wins, 42 podiums and 13 pole positions.
He finished third in the world championship three times (in 2010, 2011 and in his final season in 2013) but it could have been oh so different had the Aussie used around an inch less of road in 2010. Leading the world championship heading into the final races in Korea, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, Webber needed to consolidate his points lead with a solid result in Korea.
But torrential rain threw his race into chaos and while running second behind teammate Sebastian Vettel, Webber ran an inch off the track and onto a painted kerb, causing him to spin and crash out of the race. With Vettel later retiring from the lead of the race with a blown engine, the Korean Grand Prix was Webber’s to win and, had he done so, he would have enjoyed a near insurmountable lead heading into the final two races.
Instead, with his momentum stalled, Webber faded to third by year’s end leaving Vettel to claim the first of his four world championships. It was a bitter pill for Webber and one he never really recovered from.
Years later, this writer interviewed Webber at the end of his F1 career and asked him about that moment in 2010 in Korea and if he thought his world championship was over at that moment. He paused for a minute, saying nothing, sighed and then in a barely audible whisper said “yep”.
Webber finally claimed his richly-deserved world championship in 2015, winning the World Endurance Championship for Porsche, for whom he has raced since his retirement from F1 at the end of 2013, but victory at Le Mans continued to elude him. His best result was second last year. Now, with just three races left in the 2016 season, Webber has finally called time on his career at, he said, a moment of his choosing.
“Of course hanging up my professional racing helmet is a very big decision but I’ve been extremely fortunate to receive great counsel from two of the legends of our sport, Sir Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda, about the timings of such a decision,” said Webber as he prepares for this weekend’s Fuji round of the WEC. “The timing is right for me – you certainly view things a bit differently when you get a bit older and your priorities in life change. As with my F1 career, it’s nice to making the decision on my own terms.”
Webber will take up a role as a Porsche ‘special representative’ where he will represent Porsche at global events and as a consultant will contribute by lending his experience to the motorsport programs of the German manufacturer. He becomes only the second ‘special representative’ for Porsche behind legendary rally driver Walter Rohrl.
Webber has always professed an affinity for the brand, having owned a succession of Porsches throughout his life. His current collection includes a 918 Spyder, a 911 R, a GT3 RS (991), a 911 GT2 RS (997), a 911 GT3 RS 4.0, a 1954 356 Cabriolet and a 1974 2.7 Carrera.