It’s tough not to feel for Red Bull driver Mark Webber.
Set to retire from Formula One at the end of the season and join Porsche’s World Endurance Championship team driving a gas-electric Le Mans Prototype car, the 37-year-old can’t seem to catch a break on his farewell tour.
As his 12-year F1 career winds down, he’s not even made it to the finish line in the past two races after retiring with mechanical troubles in Singapore three weeks ago and then seeing his Red Bull go up in flames when it was speared by another car in Korea last weekend.
To add insult to injury, Webber was slapped with a 10-place grid penalty in Korea after attracting the attention of the stewards in Singapore. Webber was cited for creating a dangerous situation by running out onto the track without permission on the cool down lap to hitch a ride to the pits on the sidepod of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. Unfortunately for Webber, the dash into traffic was his third reprimand of the season, which brought an automatic grid penalty at the next race.
Webber handled the controversy honestly and head-on, something that will make him missed in the paddock. Not shying away from a fight, he posted a tweet containing a collage of 12 pictures of other F1 drivers getting rides from fellow competitors in his @aussiegrit Twitter feed and then a second of Derek Warwick, the former F1 racer who was a steward in Singapore, getting a lift on a Ferrari along with the words: “Looks like even one of the Singapore stewards has done it ... C’est la vie.”
With the 10-place penalty at the start of his Korean weekend, things went from bad to worse for the Australian since the huge fire that engulfed his car last weekend happened with only five days to prepare for the first practice for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix at a time when the team was halfway around the world from its home base in Milton Keynes, U.K. Getting his car in tip-top shape for the Suzuka weekend race will pose a massive challenge for his Red Bull crew, which will likely increase the odds of something going wrong for the veteran – again.
On the other hand, Webber seems to watch his teammate and reigning three time champion Sebastian Vettel scamper off into the distance and disappear on most grand prix weekends, rekindling questions about whether or not both drivers are getting the same equipment.
Those suspicions go back almost three years, when things soured for Webber early in 2010 when it became apparent that Vettel would be Red Bull’s first violinist while the veteran Australian be relegated to playing second fiddle. The turning point came in the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix, where Vettel tried to overtake his teammate for the lead and the move ended in shards of carbon fibre flying from both cars. After the crash, Webber lost his comfortable lead and finished third after pitting for a new nose, while Vettel retired. The real damage to Webber came from team principal Christian Horner and Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko who both pointed the finger at the Australian as the culprit despite clear evidence that Vettel turned in aggressively and caused the collision.
At the time, Webber hinted that his teammate’s top speed advantage over him was due to unequal equipment and suggested that F1 reporters should “dig more, somewhere else.” In his book about that season called Up Front: 2010 – A Season to Remember, Webber wrote that the Turkish incident “marked the beginning of a building tension within the team.”
A few races later, Webber had a new front wing taken from his car and put on Vettel’s for qualifying after the young German saw his fail and break in practice. Although Vettel used the new wing to qualify on pole, he suffered a puncture in the first turn and opened the door to a victory by Webber. As he crossed the line, he always outspoken Australian provided the press with the F1 the quote of the year: “Not bad for a No. 2 driver.”
The 2010 season turned out to be Queanbeyan, Australia, native’s best when he finished third overall in points. In all, he has 11 poles, nine wins, and 38 podiums to his credit in 210 grand prix starts.
Fast forward three years and it was apparent things had changed little when Vettel disobeyed team orders and passed Webber in the closing stages of this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix to steal a win. The icy relationship between the pair was on display for all to see in the green room prior to the podium ceremony where Webber glared at his teammate and said curtly: “Multi 21, Seb” before shaking his head in disapproval. “Multi 21” is the team code that tells the drivers that the No. 2 car (Webber) is to stay ahead of the No. 1 (Vettel).
When the team’s response was essentially a collective shrug, Webber’s final season was destined to be a long one. So far, he’s not won a race or started on pole and has only four podium finishes in 14 starts in a Red Bull car that is clearly the best on the grid. In comparison, Vettel has six poles, eight wins and 11 podiums this year.
Now, there’s plenty of evidence that Vettel is a superb driver and is mega talented, but it doesn’t completely explain Webber’s lack of pace. Remember that Vettel was able to pull out a two-second per lap gap after the safety car period three weeks ago in Singapore, which means the Red Bull is stunningly quick and should be blazing fast in any capable F1 driver’s hands. But while Vettel flies to great heights weekend after weekend, Webber hardly seems to be able to find the throttle.
Then again, perhaps it’s just a matter of a driver who knows that he’s fighting a losing battle on an uneven playing field and just wants to get to the end of the year before he begins life after F1 with Porsche.
While that may be true and the odds seem stacked against him, let’s hope Webber has a swan song left for his fans in the last five races of 2013 and his F1 career.
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone