Mark Webber’s Route to F1

Route to F1

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Mark Webber is set to retire from Formula 1 at the end of the season after 12 years and over 200 grand prix starts.

This first instalment of a new series looks at how Webber made his way to the top flight of motor racing from humble beginnings in Australia:

1994-96: Formula Ford

When Webber made the jump from karts to racing cars in 1994, David Brabham was Australia’s only representative on the Formula One grid. Webber was under no illusions about the difficulties he faced on the “shark infested, long, long Mount Everest road” between him and his goal.

His father Alan ran his first racing car and in 1995 Webber placed fourth in Australia’s Formula Ford championship. “I got a lot of pole positions, but I was very impatient in the races and I had no idea technically about the car,” he said. But among the races he did win was a rain-lashed event at Sandown Park:

In order to make progress towards a Formula 1 seat Webber knew he would have to race in Europe. He made the switch in 1996 after beginning a relationship with Ann Neal, an administrator in the Formula Ford championship who was moving into management and helped him secure sponsorship.

Having relocated to Britain the 18-year-old Webber came to terms with the inevitable homesickness and finished runner-up to Kristian Kolby in the championship. More significantly, he also won the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch.

Keen to attraction attention from F1 team bosses Webber also got a drive in the F1-supporting Formula Holden event at Melbourne, winning the second race:

1997: Formula Three

A gradual procession to Formula Three via Formula Renault would have been ideal, but a lack of budget meant Webber skipped the Renault category and went straight to F3 with fellow countryman Alan Docking’s team. Still backed by Yellow Pages, who Neal had got behind him, Webber finished fourth in his rookie season behind Jonny Kane, Nicolas Minassian and Peter Dumbreck.

1998-99: GT racing

Webber met Mercedes motorsport chief Norbert Haug at the 1996 Australian Grand Prix. During 1997 Webber turned down an opportunity to make a one-off race start for them in the FIA GT championship, as there was no chance to drive the car beforehand, but after testing successfully for the team at the A1-Ring he was hired for the 1998 season.

Mercedes dominated the series, winning all ten races. Half the wins went to Webber and team mate Bernd Schneider, the rest going to the other car belonging to Klaus Ludwig and Ricardo Zonta. But two retirements for Webber – one due to a wheel rim failure and another caused by driver error – tipped the balance in the championship to Ludwig and Zonta.

At Silverstone Schneider and Webber gave the outgoing V12 GTR its last win before the introduction of the new CLK-LM:

The following year the FIA GT series was dropped meaning Webber found himself with much less seat time. Then Mercedes suffered an infamous disaster at Le Mans.

The latest Mercedes CLR proved aerodynamically unstable on the high-speed La Sarthe track. It culminated in a high-speed flip suffered by Webber’s former F3 rival Dumbreck on the Mulsanne straight during the race, which led to Mercedes withdrawing their other car.

However a third car piloted by Webber, Jean-Marc Gounon and Marcel Tiemann had already been pulled out ahead of the race after Webber suffered two similar flips during practice. On both occasions the television cameras only captured the aftermath. After the first flip during practice on Wednesday Webber returned to the car, only to have it happen again on Saturday morning:

Following that experience Webber decided to return to single seater racing, though he will make a return to Le Mans with Porsche next year.

2000-01: Formula 3000

Webber turned down the opportunity to race in CART with Mercedes, preferring to join Paul Stoddart’s Formula 3000 team instead. He also landed a Benetton F1 test and was hired as their reserve driver for 2001.

He logged a vast amount of testing mileage for Benetton in 2001 – so much that he admitted he often found it difficult to adjust to the slower speed of his F3000 car.

Webber finished runner-up in the championship behind his future Jaguar team mate Justin Wilson. He won at Imola, Monaco and Magny-Cours but only scored on two other occasions due to series of crashes, including this 150mph shunt at Spa-Francorchamps:

But his raw speed had by now done enough to convinced the F1 fraternity of his potential. Now being managed by Benetton boss Flavio Briatore, Webber finally got his F1 break for the Stoddart-run Minardi team in 2002.

He began his grand prix career with a dream home result, scoring fifth place for the tiny Italian outfit in Melbourne. In 2009 he became the first Australian driver to win a grand prix in 28 years with victory at the Nurburgring for Red Bull.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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28 comments on “Mark Webber’s Route to F1”

  1. New series (?) !!

    1. maybe ;)

  2. Great idea for an article series!

  3. Nice backstory on MW. As tough as it was to enter F1 then, it can only be said that today it’s even tougher .. you need that silver spoon, maybe two of them!

    1. @tomsk Thanks for that I hadn’t seen it before, that’s fascinating. He wasn’t far off with his estimated entry year either, though he obviously didn’t expect the Mercedes diversion.

      Interesting that he was considering IndyCar as a route as well. Though of course he drew this up in the year the split happened, so the consequences of that wouldn’t have been known at the time.

      Also, they used a picture of a 1995 Benetton as the 2001 F1 car and that’s who he ended up testing for that year!

      1. I guess the US route was still a way into F1 for several years after that – or, at least, a route into Williams. Can’t imagine F1 teams would go near an Indycar driver with no European experience these days.

        I remember being struck by how close to the plan he’d got – guess that’s why he put it on Twitter.

    2. Interesting to see that the junior categories were massively expensive, even then. 500.000 pounds for a year in Formula 3000, wow.

      1. Yes, I’m surprised by how expensive the US route is as well. 500k back then – over a million quid now?? GP2, one year is now £1.5 million… so it hasn’t actually gone up by as much as I’d have thought it could have in almost 20 years, however there are more rungs on the ladder now!

        1. Yeah I always found this funny..why F1 doesnt consider the American open wheel series drivers. The last one was Montoya and Speed? Not to mention they had European racing experience under them as well.

          The guys in the US may not be as sharp as the European based racers, but Im pretty sure that their skills can be honed. Not to mention, they could potentially bring some good money to the table as well. For teams at the back end of the grid, is there too much to lose?

          The other question is, are the drivers in Indycar interested to hop over to F1? Maybe not.

          1. I have to imagine it’s a number of combined factors. The time needed for a driver to adjust from Indy to F1 is probably a little longer than if they had come up through GP2/3. With how competitive F1 is now, any time wasted trying to acclimate a driver makes someone coming from a European series much more attractive. Then there’s the consideration that to get the attention of F1 bosses, you need to be successful. If you’re successful in Indy Car, why would you jump ship to drive for a backmarker team in F1? It’d take a huge desire from the driver to be in Formula 1 and that sort of eagerness is probably going to land them in European feeder series before it lands them in Indy Cars. And the other problem is money: again, success over in the States means they’ll want a nice paycheck and since any lower teams in F1 are probably going to want them to “pay to race,” it’s not likely they’ll want to go from earning it to dishing it out.

          2. David not Coulthard (@)
            3rd August 2013, 14:54


          3. @jay menon: The reason you don’t see a lot of American drivers in F1 is because open wheel racing isn’t popular here. Btw, I live in the States if you can’t tell.

            While European and Asian kids are getting into Karting to learn how to go fast on a circuit, American kids are getting into Midget Sprint Cars and going fast in circles in the dirt. The natural progression for a Midget Sprint driver is a Stock Car so they could go faster in a circle but this time on asphalt and if they’re lucky, they’ll land a seat in NASCAR to go really fast in a circle.

            So I wouldn’t expect the States to give the world a championship quality F1 driver anytime soon.

          4. @joey-poey: Some Indycar drivers would do anything to get in F1 and some drivers love Indycar and don’t have any ambition to move to F1. Darrio Franchitti comes to mind.

            But Sebastian Bourdais was the Indycar driver (actually ChampCar) who had the itch to make the move to F1 which he finally got a chance but only after winning the ChampCar Championship FOUR TIMES IN A ROW.

            And what F1 team does Bourdais get to drive for? That’s right, Scuderia Toro Rosso, a Back Marker team and the move to F1, I think at least, ruined his career. Bourdais is back in Indycar but is in nowhere near the form he had before he left.

            And it depends on the driver as to whether they get acclimated to an F1 car or not. Obviously Bourdais didn’t adjust well but neither did Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi but Jaques Villenueve and Juan Pablo Montoya seemed to do well to F1 cars.

            It’s seems to be simple to make the comparison between F1 and Indycar but the two series are totally different. Indycar is basically a Spec Series that has rolling starts where F1 is a Constructor’s Series with standing starts. The only similar thing about the two series is the open wheels.

  4. In Formula Ford he also managed to go from 8th to 1st on the first lap at a wet Phillip Island.

  5. That shunt at Eau Rouge is incredible. Clouted on the head by the tyre wall at 150mph and he just throws the steering wheel out of the car and gets out within seconds. Action man by name, Action man by nature I guess.

  6. OmarR-Pepper (@)
    1st August 2013, 15:08

    Great article. I want to see Kimi’s one, that about the 23 races before F1.

    1. I second this! Fantastic idea for a new series though, looking forward to future pieces!

  7. @keithcollantine

    The CLK proved aerodynamically unstable on the high-speed La Sarthe track.

    I think it was the Mercedes CLR, not the CLK.

    1. It was. Also:

      At Silverstone Schneider and Webber gave the outgoing V12 GTR its last win before the introduction of the new CLK

  8. Love this. Great new series!

  9. In the article from the Herald Sun about “shark infested, long, long Mount Everest road”
    I found it interesting to note how Webber considers Alonso.
    I thought the tweeted picture of him and Alonso after that controversial overtake from Vettel was more political. But I may have underestimated their friendship.

  10. This was an excellent article and bas an Aussie it was great to see some earlier footage of Webber.

  11. It it about to come only when a driver is to retire?

    That’s a great piece Keith, much more enjoyable than a visit to wiki.

  12. As an Australian interested in F1 career paths, Mark’s career is very different to that of a european contender. I strongly feel that the Australian Formula Ford career path actually means nothing in its current form. All it does is find the best 1 or 2 drivers from all of the talent and then they have to make their way over to Europe. Its unbelievable when you think of it in those terms.

  13. @keithcollantine This article is fantastic, you are always constantly experimenting with different ideas and for that I thank you!!!! F1Fanatic isn’t just a news site, its an F1 Community outside the paddock…

  14. Lovely read (finally I took the time to sit down and enjoy it today) @keithcollantine

  15. Great article and although his financial struggle in the late 90’s wasn’t really mention, it’s worth noting that Mark as very fortunate to be helped in 1997 by another Queanbeyan (NSW) resident by the name of David Campese who funded Mark’s efforts to the tune of $100,000 that enabled him to keep racing in Europe. And in fact Mark himself also assisted Will Power (IndyCar) in 2004 and he has now become a top driver in that category in the U.S.

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