24 November, 2013

For the first time in ages, Mark Webber felt the wind blast into his face as he drove a race car

The end of a Formula 1 season is always a downer, but the promise of a new season and the inevitable joy that arrives with the next year's first practice session is often enough to get me through a long off-season.  But this year's campaign ends on a sad note with the departure of one of my favorite drivers, Mark Webber.

You know his story and his history, and you know that he's leaving the sport to become a proper number-one driver for Porsche in endurance racing.  But for one last time today, he was an F1 driver with a job to do, hurtling the most technologically advanced race cars on the planet around a soggy Interlagos circuit in the heart of Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Starting P4, Webber had one more outing to complete his time in single-seater Grand Prix racing, and he was brilliant.

He admitted on his slow approach to the starting grid that it would be tough for him getting in and out of the car before the race, but he assured his team that all would be fine once the visor was closed, when the world was shut out and the race had begun.

As the changeable conditions looked to shake up the grid, the foretold deluge of rain never came (the paddock got today's share yesterday when a monsoon delayed Q3 of qualifying by 47 minutes).  Mark dutifully put on a masterful charge, and even got a front row seat for the team actually making a mistake on one of Vettel's pit stops instead of his own.  Webber's car never burst into flames.  Its KERS never failed.  He didn't have to short-shift.  Yes, the delay on Vettel's stop delayed his own, but he exited the pits in relative reach of his teammate, securely chasing Sebastian from second place.

The team's assurances on the radio that everything was fine around him on the track meant that he could enjoy his last few laps in an F1 car, and Mark made the most of it.

Crossing the line for yet another podium in his lengthy career, Webber's time as a Grand Prix driver came to an end.  One cool-down lap, and that would be it.  He's not exactly sad to leave the sport, but he's sad to leave the challenge.

For so many years he plodded on with the hope that someday he would find himself on the top step of a podium, knowing he would have to endure long days in underpowered Minardis before he could live that dream.  He went from being mentored to being a role model, serving quite proudly as the head of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association.  As a senior member of an ever-changing sport, Webber's old school style and blunt honesty certainly won me over, especially as I watched him when he was a 20-something driving that gorgeous green Jaguar years ago.

He was a great driver, but like Jenson, he couldn't win.  Ever quick in a race car, Webber's talents were akin both to Nick Heidfeld's consistency and win rate.  Everyone loved him except the top step of the podium.

However, his ascent to Red Bull set him on a path that few could have ever dreamed.  A quiet, unassuming Aussie standing next to an equally respected, strong-chinned Scotsman in David Coulthard meant that Red Bull started the cogs in motion that would give them a dream team half a decade later.  But Coulthard's F1 swansong in Brazil saw him punted off the track on the first lap---something I vividly, sadly remember.  Webber's fate resulted in a much more beautiful, satisfying end.

As his seething hot RB9 coasted around the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace one last time, he furiously clawed at his gloves, yanking them off one at a time.  Then he lifted his iconic helmet---a symbol of one's existence as a driver---from his head and placed it in his lap.  For the first time in ages, Mark Webber felt the wind blast into his face as he drove a race car, providing an uninhibited view of the emotions unfolding before him.

He wanted to take it all in, and he wanted the fans to see his appreciation not through a common wave or a nod.  He wanted them to see him, to see on his face the passion that drove this steely Australian for so many years (and will continue to drive him toward that elusive victory at Le Mans).

He wanted to feel the wind and hear the engine, and he wanted to do so in his own, personal style.  There's no way he could have done that still buttoned up in his fire suit and helmet.  When the visor goes down, the world is gone.  But even when he's been in sole control of his car, it's never been just him out there.

Riding along in spirit have been all of his supporters over the years, all of his family and friends and those who respected him.  It's been all of his fans, many of whom have probably never seen him compete in person.  It's an entire world of racing that he never hears over the roar of his phenomenal engine.

Except for this time.  The helmet, and the symbol it represents, were removed, thus Mark Webber the human---not the race car driver---piloted his machine.  He could hear the cheers and see the crowd's strong, sincere farewell to a driver so revered and respected in F1 today.  The visor wasn't closed.  The world wasn't shut out.

Webber leaves Formula 1 on his own terms at the height of his career:  Two Monaco Grand Prix victories, nine wins, 13 poles and 42 podiums in 215 starts.  He leaves with a legion of fans thrilled to have witnessed a driver earn the success he had deserved for so long, and he'll be missed in our sport, especially by me.

Thanks for a great career, mate, and best of luck leading your team to Le Mans.

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