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Webber at Red Bull - right place, right time? 01 Mar 2007

Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB3 Formula One Testing, Day One Jerez, Spain, 6 February 2007. World © Bumstead/Sutton Mark Webber (AUS) KL Minardi Asiatech, Paul Stoddart (AUS) KL Minardi Team Owner Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, 3 March 2002. World © Bearne/Sutton Mark Webber (AUS) Williams BMW chats with his engineer. Formula One Testing, Jerez, Spain, 9 December 2004. World © McNeil/Sutton Mark Webber (AUS) Jaguar Cosworth R4.
Formula One World Championship, Rd14, Italian Grand Prix, Monza, Italy, 12 September 2003 Mark Webber (AUS) Williams FW28.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 9, Canadian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Montreal, Canada, 23 June 2006

Some of the best drivers in Formula One history have somehow always found themselves with the right team, but at the wrong time. With his fourth change of team in six seasons, has Red Bull’s Mark Webber found his niche at last?

So far, in 86 Grands Prix, the well-liked Australian has yet to win. His one podium finish came at Monaco in 2005 when he was with Williams. He graduated from Minardi to the hugely-hyped Jaguar in 2003, and then to Frank Williams’s squad in 2005. But can his new team Red Bull, with ex-McLaren, ex-Williams technical guru Adrian Newey in charge of the RB3, finally make him a winner?

When he first drove a Formula One car, Webber took to it at once. “After 10 laps you start to feel comfortable,” he explained. “The brakes, the power: you can’t imagine it till you feel it. You’re constantly taking yourself and the car to the limit. Everything’s easy at eight-tenths. At 10/10ths it’s a bit different.”

Giving those 10/10ths came easily, as Webber swept home to two world championship points on his Formula One debut for Minardi in Melbourne in 2002, then earned himself a quick change of address to Jaguar.

“The Minardi was a tidy little car,” he said at the time, “and with the money they had, the team did a really good job. I suppose me being with Jaguar proves that people know what’s going on and if you do a good job, then it pays off.”

Though never blinded by the hoo-hah surrounding Jaguar’s arrival in Formula One racing, Webber was buoyed enough by what he found there to imagine great things. “There are no average teams out there,” he said. “We have one of the leanest machines out there in terms of resources,” but he still felt certain they could aim at sixth place in the constructors’ world championship, then edge up year on year.

It wasn’t to be: though Webber contributed 17 of their 18 points in 2003, Jaguar finished seventh then and again the following year, 24 points behind sixth-placed Sauber. Niki Lauda, then in control of Jaguar’s destiny, admitted they had failed their man. “If the car can’t deliver what it’s supposed to deliver,” commented the pragmatic three-time world champion, “then he’s in difficulties…”

Webber refused to give up. With ringing endorsements from his race engineers and no less a personality than another three-time world champion, Sir Jackie Stewart, he headed to his third Formula One team for 2005. This time, he felt, it was for real: he was a Williams driver, and the two seemed made for each other.

“They’re interested in winning races and interested in car racing,” insisted the Australian. “I know that I can finish Grands Prix a lot faster with a different car. So the number on the pit-board just changes. So I have to make sure the number gets smaller and smaller every race.”

That number had got to the smallest of all when Williams claimed first place in the final race of 2004, adding further fuel to Webber’s feeling that this was the right place to go. Long looked after by Flavio Briatore, who by then was running Renault’s world championship campaign, Webber opted not to go there but to be convinced by Williams’ own title-winning pedigree.

But despite being described as ‘inspirational’ by team principal Sir Frank Williams, Webber was eventually ground down by the British team’s inability to provide a consistent ‘package’. He scored 36 points to finish 10th overall in 2005, but last year just seven points came his way as Williams fell to eighth in the constructors’ championship and their worst season in two decades.

Hence the flight to Red Bull. “I want to have my best season in F1 this year,” Webber insists. If he does, that means Red Bull will need to challenge the likes of Toyota, BMW Sauber and Honda for places in Formula One racing’s second tier, behind the current ‘big three’ of Renault, Ferrari and McLaren.

Though the ultimate success seems a long time coming, Webber need only look along the Albert Park pit lane for reassurance that it’s never too late. While he is about to race for the 87th time, there are three drivers on the Melbourne grid who waited a lot longer for a maiden win. Giancarlo Fisichella’s came in his 110th start, Jarno Trulli’s in his 117th, and Rubens Barrichello’s in the Brazilian’s 123rd. And Formula One racing’s most recent new winner, Jenson Button, went 113 starts without that inaugural victory.

Some will see this new choice of team as a homecoming for Webber - the Red Bull operation is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Jaguar’s Formula One experience. However, only time will tell whether it will really prove to be the right place at the right time…