F1 has undergone a changing of the guard this season. In the wake of Schumacher, champions have come and gone, but in the past 10 years, only the brief resurgence of Renault has managed to knock Ferrari from the top of the podium.
Going back even further, since the ’80s, the triumvirate of Ferrari, McLaren and Williams have scooped up all but a few titles. Dominance is too small a word; hegemony rings truer. But 2009 has been different. The old giants are faltering – even last season’s bright young thing, Lewis Hamilton, is off the pace thanks to some disastrous early season form. Newer faces such as Brawn-Mercedes and Red Bull Racing crown a constructor’s race seemingly turned on its head. So is this a revolution or simply an evolution?
Mark Webber is perhaps best placed to assess the change in F1’s fortunes because they mirror his own. Like Jensen Button, this season’s early runaway leader, career-wise he has been around the track. At 33, he is one of the older drivers and has spent much of his eight-year F1 tenure battling in the middle of the pack. Certainly, the past two seasons’ finishes of 12th and 11th didn’t suggest that this trend would change in 2009; but, with the Renault engine of Red Bull, Webber has thrived, ranked as high as second and as low as fourth for the majority of the season. So what’s changed, we wondered?
‘Obviously the regulation changes have helped,’ says Webber. ‘We seemed to do a good job of adapting to them early in the season. It put us on a good, solid foundation to go forward from there. There’s a totally new set of rules and our design team have clearly made a great step forward when it came to interpreting those rules. We just had a faster car than other people.’
The faster car won – nothing groundbreaking there – but there is a definite Darwinian aspect to F1 at the moment. New rules, new tracks, new drivers: adaptation is becoming as big a test as the race itself. Webber is quick to single out the other success story of 2009 – Brawn. A month prior to the season they didn’t exist but, come the opening day, thanks to some solid driving and a controversial double-decker diffuser, they blew the competition away. To coin Webber’s phrase, they ‘interpreted’ the rules a little better than the rest. Darwin one, Bernie Eccleston nil.
It’s something of a cliché, but technology plays a massive role. ‘I’ve been in a position quite often where I’ve not been able to achieve what I think I should be able to do because the package has been poor,’ says Webber. ‘You’ve got to assess what your goals are for that weekend, whether you’ve got to go for points, or something less rewarding,’ explains Mark with a pragmatic air. But, while this year has seen his goals raised, there are plenty of frustrated drivers to take his place. ‘We’ve seen Robert Kubica previously going for the championship and this year he’s only nicked a few points. Fernando Alonso is one of the best drivers on the grid, if not the best, and he’s struggled badly this season.’
Why? Essentially Brawn and Red Bull caught the others napping. Last season saw McLaren and Ferrari throw everything but the kitchen sink at one another in battling for the 2008 Championship. ‘They probably used a lot of resources just to try and finish the championship off last year and that maybe hampered their progress a little bit this year,’ proffers Webber. But the field is once more levelling out. ‘A lot of other teams are naturally catching up to us,’ he adds, and the early leaders have undoubtedly found the second half of the season far tougher.
Arguably, few deserve success more than the patient Webber. As his reputation suggests, he is an easy-going character. A sunny Aussie drawl and the occasional ‘mate’ betrays his New South Wales upbringing. The other giveaway is his love of the outdoors. Away from the circus of F1, he started the annual Mark Webber Challenge in 2003, an all-terrain biking, kayaking and walking charity trek across Tasmania, although it’s on hold this year after he broke his leg in the 2008 edition. He was still in recovery when the F1 season got underway. Certainly, it would have been a shame if his years of patience had not been rewarded.
Mark is blasé about ageing in F1. ‘You can’t always be 21,’ he notes wryly, even when the competition is getting younger. If it wasn’t enough that the practically pubescent Hamilton swept all before him in 2008, in recent years Webber has been teamed with Nico Rosberg (24) and now Sebastian Vettel (21). But playing Mother Goose to the next generation is not on his mind.
‘Perhaps it’s a bit easier for them [younger drivers] to jump straight in and be reasonably competitive… In the early ’90s F1 cars had no power steering, a lot of power and were very tricky to drive. Now it’s just like driving a Formula 3 car, really, and with the youngsters coming through, they’re encouraged really fast. It’s very hard to get an advantage with your experience because there’s a limit to what you can do. It would be nice if the cars were a bit more difficult to drive.’
New drivers, new cars, new rules, F1 has changed; but perhaps one of the biggest levellers in recent years has been the introduction of new circuits like Valencia (2008), Singapore (2009) and Abu Dhabi (2009). For the driver, they get just a few minutes to practise before qualifying begins. ‘We have a rough idea from the simulator, but generally it’s nothing like the real thing,’ says Webber. Certainly Valencia proved a thorn in the side of many. ‘I hope Abu Dhabi have done a little better than that in terms of how we can race each other around the track,’ he adds. Notably, the only driving concern he has about Yas Marina Circuit comes from the twilight start, adding that he hopes the sun isn’t too low when the chequered flag goes down.
In the end, Mark Webber has more reason than most to be happy with the way this F1 season has gone, even if modesty forbids him saying so. ‘The number on the pit board changes and every now and again I’m standing on the podium at the end of the race. It’s exciting, but I’m still working as hard as when I was in the middle of the pack.’ Whoever said success was glamorous? Nevertheless, as the sun hangs low in the Yas Island sky and the season comes to a close, it will crown one of the most dramatic years in F1 history.