When Mark Webber retires from Formula 1 and looks back on his career, one moment more than any will stick out in his mind. It won’t be the point-scoring debut for Minardi at his home race, and it won’t be that first podium in Monaco 2005, or the first win four years later at the Nurburgring. It will be the moment he ran wide on the kerb at Turn 12 on the 18th lap of this year’s Korean Grand Prix.
Until that moment Webber had been the most consistent driver of all the championship contenders. He had no driving errors at all this season, and had a 14 point lead over Fernando Alonso in the championship standings. He knew that all he had to do was finish ahead of Alonso in each of the remaining three races and he would be world champion – Australia’s first for 30 years. His confidence had grown throughout the season, and despite some intra-team wrangles, the smile was back on his face.
Webber had, for many, been the driver of the season until that point. I have been a huge critic of Webber in the past, but I was impressed with how he had driven this year. He didn’t have a great start to the season, finishing 7th in Bahrain, having a scrappy race in Australia to finish 9th, and allowing team-mate Vettel to beat him to the first corner and win in Malaysia. Added to that an 8th place in China, and Webber looked like he could not get the best out of the Red Bull car, something which his team-mate Vettel seemed to be doing.
But then came along the European races, and Webber seemed to move up a gear. He dominated in Spain and Monaco, and looked all set to win his third race in a row in Turkey until his now-infamous collision with team-mate Vettel. He recovered well to take a solid 5th in Canada, before suffering his worst accident of his Formula 1 career in Valencia when he went over the back of Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus.
Wins in Britain and Hungary, which were sandwiched by a poor Red Bull showing in Germany, and a second place behind Hamilton in Belgium, left Webber with a healthy championship lead, and despite only finishing 6th in Italy, he was still odds-on favourite to take the title as the F1 circus left Europe.
He then seemed to lose his way a little, often fighting further down the points positions than he would have liked. He collided with Lewis Hamilton while fighting for third in Singapore, and a damaged wheel which was lucky to have made the finish seemed to say that Webber also had luck on his side in his fight for the title. He could not match team-mate Sebastien Vettel’s pace in Japan, but second place ahead of Alonso meant he had a 14 point lead with only 3 races to go.
Then came that mistake in Korea – an unforced driver error that seen him score no points and seen his championship lead turn from a 14 point lead to an 11 point deficit. It was only his second non-points race of the year, but it came at the worst time. He was now playing catch up, and not only had he lost his lead to Alonso, but paved the way for his team-mate and Hamilton to also catch him.
He finished ahead of Alonso in Brazil, but once again behind his team-mate, and now he was playing catch-up. He had been the man to beat for so much of the year, but now he was under pressure. He had to finish ahead of Alonso in Abu Dhabi to have any chance of taking the title, and Red Bull tried to pit him early in the hope of jumping the Spaniard when he made his pit stop. When Alonso emerged ahead of Webber, his championship chances were over, and to make matters worse for him, his team-mate Sebastien Vettel had overcome all the odds to become the champion. Had it not been for that error in Korea, and the 18 or even 25 points that would have come with it, then we would have been toasting Australia’s first champion for 30 years. And unfortunately for Mark, time isn’t on his side and it may have been the only chance he will have to become Formula 1 world champion.