Local hero - will Webber's day come? 30 Mar 2006
Few Formula One drivers have shown more dedication to the learning of their craft than Mark Webber. For several seasons it seemed that whenever Michael Schumacher was running during an open test or practice session, Webber wouldn't be far behind, striving to pick up tips from the master himself.
Yet although Webbers dedication hasn't diminished, some may argue his potential as a race winner and world champion has. Does he really have what it takes to get close to Fernando Alonso or Kimi Raikkonen? As Formula One racing's only Australian driver gets ready to take the start of his fifth home Grand Prix in Melbourne this weekend, he knows that he's still got plenty to prove - not least dealing with his very speedy young team mate, Nico Rosberg. Australia will expect - but can Webber deliver?
Webber's determination to succeed is obvious, and has driven him throughout his career. Without the breaks of more affluent rivals, he made his Formula One debut relatively late by modern standards - and right at the blunt end of the grid. His journey to the top flight had taken him through Formula 3000 and sportscar racing (where he suffered an infamous flip in his Mercedes CLK at the Le Mans 24 Hours race) - with Formula One only beckoning after fellow Australian Paul Stoddart took control of the Minardi team.
Of course, Webber's Formula One debut at the 2002 Australian Grand Prix has become the stuff of racing legend. Not only did he get to the end of an incident-packed race, in which just eight out of 22 starters were classified as finishers, but he also managed to take two championship points in fifth place. Considering the uncompetitive car he was in, it was a remarkable achievement.
His career continued on its upward trajectory with a move the following year to Jaguar Racing, where he quickly proved his pace with a string of strong qualifying performances - third on the grid for both the Brazilian and Hungarian races. He was less successful in the races themselves, retiring six times and with a best performance of three sixth places - but he consistently out-performed team mates Antonio Pizzonia and, later, Justin Wilson. After a second season with Jaguar, including P2 and P3 grid spots, Webber announced that he would be moving to the Williams team - and the paddock anticipated great things.
However, so far, Webber is yet to deliver on his promise and prove himself a potential world champion. His single-lap performance remains blistering. Last season he out-qualified team mate Nick Heidfeld 9:5 - and then beat substitute Antonio Pizzonia 5:0 after the German was injured. But the Aussie's race performances have been relatively disappointing by contrast, thanks to a combination of bad luck, poor reliability and occasional driver error. Both he and Heidfeld beat each other six times last season - but the German took two second place finishes, while Webber's best result was a single third.
And now Webber is facing what could be his greatest challenge yet, in the shape of new team mate Nico Rosberg. The young German proved himself in his first ever Grand Prix, qualifying five places below Webber in 12th place, but powering through the field in fine style to finish the race seventh - just one place below the more experienced Australian. In Malaysia, Rosberg out-qualified Webber (they emerged in third and fourth respectively) before being forced to retire with engine failure. If the season continues in a similar vein could we see Webber struggling to keep his rival in check?
Webber's greatest strengths are his commitment to teamwork, natural pace and ballsy racing style. It's an outlook that reminds many of the last Australian to become world champion, Alan Jones, in 1980. That was also done in a Williams powered by a Cosworth V8 engine - and Webber will still be hoping to make history repeat itself. But unless he's able to stamp his authority on both his team and his young team mate, that may be a diminishing dream.