Part 2 of our 'Farewell Mark' feature charts the Aussie's first years in Formula 1

Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix will mark the last time that Formula 1 fans will get to see Mark Webber behind the wheel at a Grand Prix.

In the second of our three-part tribute special, RichardsF1.com charts the Australian’s amazing motorsport career ahead of his second crack at endurance racing glory next year.

After some ups and downs in the junior formulae and after surviving two enormous accidents at the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans, Part 2 looks at Webber’s return to open-wheel racing and his early Formula 1 years. You can read Part 1 of our tribute by clicking here.


An Aussie connection comes to the rescue

After somehow surviving two huge accidents at the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours, Webber seriously considered his motorsport options.

Having had a serious fright in closed-cockpit racing, Mark opted to return to open-wheel racing – but there remained a problem: who would be prepared to take him on when he had next to no commercial support.

As was the case with David Campese in his Formula 3 days, another Australian connection came to the rescue: airline magnate and motor racing nut Paul Stoddart.

Stoddart had been looking for a way to break into Formula 1 for a number of years. After a failed bid to buy the ailing Tyrrell team at the end of the 1998 season, the chain-smoking Aussie helped kickstart what was ultimately an stillborn F1 project by Honda in 1999, while also hedging his bets with a minor sponsorship deal with the Jordan team that year.

Neither option worked out, but Stoddart also had his Formula 3000 team, European Arrows, which was effectively the feeder team for the Arrows F1 operation.

He took a punt in Webber and signed him on for the 2000 season, and in the process gave Webber his first Formula 1 outing, with a short test at the Circuit de Catalunya in the 1999-spec Arrows at the end of the year.

Webber performed impressively in his first year of F3000 racing
Webber performed impressively in his first year of F3000 racing

Webber performed well in his maiden season of Formula 3000 competition – conveniently under the noses of all the Formula 1 leadership – impressively winning the second round at Silverstone en route to claiming third overall in the championship standings.

That earned the attention of Benetton team principal Flavio Briatore, who signed Webber into his management stable and gave the Aussie an end-of-year test at Estoril.

Again, Webber did well enough and he earned a full-time test driver role with the team for the 2001 season.

But his other major focus that year was inking a deal with the crack Super Nova team for a second crack at the Formula 3000 title, with Briatore helping broker the partnership.

Webber would claim three race victories – including the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix support race – but still that maiden open-wheel racing title proved elusive after he was pipped at the post by Justin Wilson. The pair would eventually meet as teammates in Formula 1.


Points on his F1 debut

Having shown serious promise in Formula 3000, Briatore then pulled a few strings to secure Mark a Formula 1 race seat with Minardi, which had been bought out the year before by Paul Stoddart.

After knocking on the door for the past two years, Webber now found it opened fully.

But his prospects of making a name for himself were still steep. Minardi had been a cellar-dweller operation for years, and its finances were in a perilous position. Taking on an unfunded driver was a major risk for the team which had plenty of pay drivers ready and willing to drive and help the team’s coffers.

Webber's Grand Prix debut was the stuff of fairytales...Reflecting this, Webber was signed on a three-race deal, whereupon it was expected that he would have to give up his seat unless further funding came the team’s way.

His Grand Prix debut, fittingly, came on home soil. It was a daunting prospect: Australia hadn’t had a Grand Prix driver since David Brabham way back in 1994, and the media attention was enormous.

But Webber handled the task with ease, setting clear expectations that anything better than the back row of the grid would be a huge achievement.

Who would have thought that the fates would collide so brilliantly. Not only did Webber qualify a superb eighteenth in a rain-affected qualifying session, but the team’s fortunes were given an even bigger lift when a huge first-corner pile-up wiped out half the field.

Certainly, attrition played its role, but Webber kept his head and drove the Minardi – which itself had a damaged driveshaft – to a memorable fifth place, fending off a fast-closing Toyota of Mika Salo to give the team its best finish since 1994.

Webber claimed an historic fifth place on his Grand Prix debutThe result was celebrated like a victory, and Webber and Stoddart were given an unprecedented invitation to celebrate on the podium.

The result was a major financial boost for the team, with the advance on prize money – coupled with Webber’s increased profile – proving enough to extend his three-race deal into one lasting for the rest of the year.

Minardi and Webber wouldn’t come close to hitting the same kind of highs over the remainder of the season, as the team’s finances still kept testing and development to an absolute minimum.

Nonetheless, Webber had done enough to secure himself a mid-season test with the Jaguar Racing stable, which led to then team principal, Niki Lauda, signing him up for the 2003 season.


Toiling with Jaguar

Having shown serious promise in Formula 3000, Briatore then pulled a few strings to secure Mark a Formula 1 race seat with Minardi, which had been bought out the year before by Paul Stoddart.

With the team now in its fourth year of competition after buying out and renaming the Stewart Grand Prix team at the end of the 1999 season, Jaguar Racing (via parent owner, Ford) had spent the previous three seasons pouring money into a very uncompetitive operation.

Webber delivered some impressive performance for Jaguar in 2003, despite the uncompetitiveness of the carIts predecessor designs were of very poor quality, and the 2003 R4 challenger wasn’t a great deal better, with a tendency to chew through its rear tyres.

His season started badly with retirements in the first four races undoing some solid qualifying performances, particularly a very impressive third-placed effort at the Brazilian Grand Prix.

His first points finish came at the Spanish Grand Prix, whereupon the team promptly extended his contract by a further two years, reportedly worth $6 million a season.

That was the start of a run of five point-scoring drives in the next six races. Webber consistently ran in the lower reaches of the points and ultimately finished tenth in the Drivers’ Championship standings, tying with Jenson Button on total points but losing out on ninth place on countback.

His teammate, Antônio Pizzonia, couldn’t live with Webber’s speed and was sacked before the end of the season to be replaced by Justin Wilson (who had himself taken Webber’s former seat at Minardi). Wilson fared little better and didn’t race in F1 again after seeing out the season.

After a trying 2004 season, Webber team up with Williams for 2005The 2004 season saw Jaguar Racing get the first cash injection from drinks giant Red Bull, which bankrolled the second race seat for Austrian youngster Christian Klien.

Despite a new management approach within the team, the 2004 season was yet another struggle for Jaguar Racing. Webber finished only ten of the eighteen races that year and claimed a paltry seven points.

Growing sick of pouring more money into the team with little reward, Ford pulled the pin on the F1 operation and the team was bought out at the last minute by Red Bull.

Amidst all the uncertainty, Webber secured a release of his contract and was presented with attractive offers from both Renault and Williams for the 2005 season.


Williams proves to be the wrong choice

Under the leadership of Webber’s manager Flavio Briatore, Renault (nee Benetton) had shown the odd flash of race-winning form over the previous two seasons, but Webber remained nervous about the prospects of racing in the same team run by his manager. Briatore was not a sentimental man, having sacked Jarno Trulli (whom he also managed) before the end of the 2004 season.

On the other hand, Williams was entering its sixth year in a works partnership with BMW, known to have the most powerful V10 powerplant on the grid. Added to this, there was the sentimental notion of an Aussie driver joining the Grove team, which had the potential to replicate the success that Alan Jones had enjoyed with the team, culminating in the 1980 World Championship title.

Webber came to regret his decision not to sign for Renault
Webber came to regret his decision not to sign for Renault

Webber ultimately plumped for the Williams drive, a decision he would freely admit was a mistake given Renault went on to win the 2005-6 World Championships with Fernando Alonso.

The two years with Williams were, on the large, disastrous. The team fell out with BMW in a power struggle during 2005, which prompted the German marque to split with the team and buy into Sauber.

In turn, that left Williams faced with the embarrassing choice of taking on a customer supply of Cosworth engines for 2006.

That year proved even worse, with Webber suffering countless retirements and the loss of a potential win at the Monaco Grand Prix – the one and only outstanding performance of the year – when his engine failed.



TOMORROW: A ‘HOMECOMING’ TO RED BULL RACING

With his Formula 1 career seemingly at the crossroads once again, into the rescue came Dietrich Mateschitz, who offered Webber a lifeline with the Red Bull Racing team. Despite a rocky start, it would ultimately prove to be a successful partnership, albeit pitted with many bumps along the way.

Make sure you tune in tomorrow for our final installment!

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Richard Bailey

Editor at RichardsF1.com

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