After six years on the grid, more than 100 Grands Prix and only two podium finishes, it is tempting to shelve Australia’s only Formula One driver Mark Webber as a never-was who never will be.
If Lleyton Hewitt consistently bombed out in the quarter finals, we’d hardly say he’s a sporting superstar. But tennis is a game of synthetic strings and sneakers, and if Lleyton pops a sneaker the game is stopped while he laces up a new one.
You don’t get that luxury in formula one. Second chances are rare. Mechanical reliability is not everything, but close to it. Race fans will recall Webber slamming (and destroying) his $100,000 steering wheel back into his car in Monaco a couple of years after a shot at victory went up in smoke. Instead of adding his name to the list of legendary Monaco winners, including Senna, Schumacher, Alonso and Raikkonen, Webber’s mastery on the world’s most challenging streets is recalled only by anoraks who – years later – are asked to consider whether Webber is the real deal or just making up the numbers.
We can trace Webber’s lack of podium time back to a decision he made following the 2004 season. After making his name as perhaps the fastest one-lap specialist in the game, Webber retired to his home in the English countryside to consider solid offers from Williams and Renault. He chose Williams, which subsequently underwent a messy relationship breakdown with BMW. History now records that he could have sat in the same car that powered Giancarlo Fisichella to victory in Melbourne, before his hypothetical teammate Fernando Alonso won back to back titles in 2005 and 2006.
“I made the wrong choice,” a philosophical Webber confirmed in Melbourne on Wednesday, “and you have to make the right ones”.
But is his luck about to change? Can Webber’s 2008 car – designed by the architect of 100 Grands Prix wins, Adrian Newey — propel him into the leading pack and honour his undoubted talent?
Winter testing shows that while he will not be a podium contender on Sunday, Red Bull has built a racer that is a match for today’s Renault, and possibly even the team that finished the 2007 championship in second place, BMW Sauber. Yet if the analysts are wrong, he could be dead last. Such is life in Formula One.
But there’s more counting against him. Grand Prix racing is a fascinating affair where six global automobile manufacturers, not to mention the odd billionaire, annually spend a collective $US3bn in the hope of making a car that fits the glass slippers of podium contention. Get it wrong and a highly reputable multinational like Honda, forking out perhaps $400 million last year with world class drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello at the wheel, will spend an entire season finishing 18th on a good day. So, alongside death and taxes, it is preordained that one of F1’s muscle teams this year will be embarrassingly slow.
And if competitiveness counts for anything, Mark has it over many of his on-track foes. He was the only driver last year to growl the ‘F’-word into a live microphone on British TV, so disgusted was he with rookie Sebastian Vettel who f—d up the best result of Webber’s career in a Japanese downpour. Guys like Jenson Button don’t swear because they don’t care. F1’s newly crowned world champion Kimi Raikkonen, on the other hand, wouldn’t alter his monotone if an earthquake measuring 7.8 broke out in his motor home, but he’s not averse to punching a marshal after his car gives up en route to victory.
Comparisons with goldenballs Lewis Hamilton are unfair, too. Mercedes-Benz and Ron Dennis started paving his way to motor-racing glory with £100 bills not long after his tenth birthday. Webber was born in Queanbeyan. His car will bear the number 10 in Melbourne. Bookies have him at $67. All I can say is, Go Mark! Make the right decisions.