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Soup of This Day #23: Ifs, Could Haves, Should Haves and 1 Beauty

June 26, 2011

Webber in a 2002 Minardi
Mark Webber in a Minardi at the 2002 French GP. In his debut year Webber qualified in 18th at Magny-Cours but defied lowly expectations to finish the race in 8th – Photo: Mathieu Felten, 2002. Mathieu Felten is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

Mark Webber is currently the only Australian driver racing in Formula 1. He’s been the only Australian driver racing in Formula 1 for the past 9 years now. Daniel Ricciardo, a young lad from my home town of Perth, Western Australia, is a test driver for Toro Rosso, often getting a drive in Friday’s free practice sessions on race weekend. Toro Rosso are the junior partner team of Webber’s Red Bull outfit and big things are expected from Daniel but for now all of the pressure resides squarely with Mark.

It’s a mantel that hasn’t always sat easy on his shoulders. The promise was there early on, Webber taking a lowly Minardi to 5th in his home GP on debut in 2002. From there his progression should have been a steady rise to ascendancy. Instead a series of inopportune moves to teams that could not support Webber’s talent and a growing portfolio of errors and bad luck meant that he had a reputation as a good 2nd driver, there to support a star, careful never to outshine his teammate. His legion of fans became accustomed to Webber crashing out or his engine blowing up, sometimes even before the 1st corner. Webber became a byword for almost. As in almost good enough but not quite. Through his first 7 seasons he failed to win a race, occasionally threatening to almost win…without ever really convincing anyone.

2009 rolled around and suddenly Mark Webber was in a competitive car. Red Bull had the brilliant Adrian Newey as chief designer and he had turned out a car for them that could match it at the front of the grid. Even so, by Race 9 at the Nürburgring in Germany, while his teammate had chalked up 2 wins and was battling for the title, Webber could only manage 3 2nds to his name. The closer he got the more elusive his first win seemed.

Germany however just felt different. It felt different from Friday’s free practice through to Saturday’s qualifying. It felt like Webber had a shot. Whisper it softly because nobody who cared was daring to say it out loud. He took the pole, the first for an Australian since 1980, after dominating both days on the track and crucially, looked to have a consistently fast car under him.

The race did not start differently. Webber is often slow off the line, swamped by those around him. Again, this time he got away tardily, holding Rubens Barrichello through the first turn, even bumping wheels before the Brazilian got by. Defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton also clashed with Webber in the opening exchanges, coming off the worse for wear after minor contact yielded a puncture.

Webber though was seemingly unfazed. He just kept on going, reeling off fastest laps and motoring into the lead after a round of stops. Red Bull kept their cool with a solid pit strategy and performance, although the truth of it is that Webber made it easy by just being faster than all of the rest. Around Lap 15 though luck looked like it was continuing to shun him. Stewards had reviewed his clash with Barrichello and deemed that he should take a drive-through. Red Bull put it off as long as they could but eventually he came in, dropping to 8th.

Experienced Webber watchers groaned and started the mental chalk up to yet another ‘almost’ day. Mark though just got mad and just got faster. He surged back, got clear around the halfway mark and just held it there. He kept the car on the road and was in front when it mattered at the end of the penultimate lap, 59. With a hard-core of long suffering fans watching at the Nürburgring and at home on tv Webber guided his car into the last lap. I reckon most of us half-expected the man to lose it somehow, have his engine blow, spin or just plain run into a back-marker.

He did none of those things.

After 1 hour, 36 minutes and 43.310 seconds of racing, on July 12, 2009 at the Nürburgring in Germany and 129 other GPs Mark Webber got to hear some words over his radio that he must have been beginning to doubt he would ever hear.

‘Mark Webber you are a Grand Prix winner.’

His reaction was something to hear. A popular driver, amongst rivals and fans, nobody begrudged him his:

‘You @#$%ing beauty!’

Even if it was broadcast to a global audience. Nor could anyone criticise him for babbling like a child, seemingly breaking down into sobs on his in-lap. Most Australian motorsport fans were yelling incoherently at their tv screens anyway. I wasn’t. I had a wife on one arm and a young son, turning 1 the next day asleep in the next room. I did wear an Australian football shirt and I had a lump in my throat as he stood atop the podium with Advance Australia Fair playing.

Webber won again that year and then 5 times in 2010, including a win at Monaco, the 1 race every driver covets above all the others. He hasn’t found that form again yet in 2011, having not led a single lap out of the 7 completed races, leaving him 3rd in the championship, 67 points adrift of teammate Sebastian Vettel. With 25 points for a win Webber is a long way back…

Unlike Aussie Casey Stoner in MotoGP, the motorcycle equivalent of Formula 1. With 7 rounds done Stoner has won 4 times to lead the championship by 28 points. MotoGP follows a roughly equivalent point structure to F1 with 25 points for a win. Stoner was the World Champion in 2007 riding a Ducati, however for this season the prime Italian marque picked up the great Valentino Rossi and Stoner moved to the Repsol Honda team.

It seems to have worked for him.

Casey won the first race of the season but was recklessly taken out in the next race at Catalunya in Spain. The offending rider was Rossi and with his customary media entourage he sought out Stoner after the race to apologise. The Australian though is known to be forthright and his mood at the enforced retirement wasn’t improved by Rossi’s media savvy nous.

‘You had something with your shoulder did you? Obviously your ambition outweighs your talent.’

‘I would prefer it if Valentino did it away from the cameras,’ The Australian commented to the official MotoGP website, ‘and would say something to me quietly without always having to have proof. Valentino doesn’t do this for himself, he just wants to show to everybody that he has apologised.’

No holding back there then Casey.

Stoner is on record as wanting to dial back the circus and return to the good old days where racing was all that it was about. The days when Wayne Gardiner, Australia’s first World Champion in 1987, and Mick Doohan, 5 time World Champion, from 1994 to 1998, ruled the roost. Yearning for the past is nothing new or unique in sport though.

The Red Sox are yearning for the days, a little over a week ago when they won 9 in a row. They are in a rut now, having lost their last 4, including Game 2 of an Interleague series in Pittsburgh. Again they out-hit their opposition, this time 9 to 8 over the Pirates. Again they failed to capitalise, losing 6 to 4 in the only count that really matters.

Tim Wakefield had the start and apparently is the last pitcher to have won a post season game for the Pirates. That was in 1992, also the last winning season for the Bucs. Somewhat ironic therefore that Wake gave up 5 runs, including 4 in the 4th, absorbing the loss and propelling Pittsburgh to 39 and 37. On offence Gonzalez (again) with a RBI in the 1st and a solo long shot in the 3rd. Reddick and Ellsbury with solo shots of their own in the 7th but too little too late was the mantra of the day. Once again the Sox left runners stranded, 0 for 8 with RISP. This now yields 2 form 23 with RISP over the past 3 games. PNC Park looks a nice one but that really doesn’t mean the bats need extended time standing around out in the middle. Andrew Miller up for his 2nd start tomorrow. It’s tempting to ask a big ‘What if?’ around the losses of Beckett and Buchholz recently and Dice K and Lackey earlier.

Whenever I get too retro, playing out what might have been I like to think of Mick Doohan. Australian Doohan was 65 points clear at the top of the 500cc World Motorcycle Championship (Now MotoGP) in 1992 but sustained a serious injury, almost losing a leg to amputation. He recovered in 8 weeks but lost out in the chase for the title. He struggled again in 1993 as he fought to regain his touch, before breaking through in 94 and winning the 4 after that for good measure. Sometime later, after he retired, he was asked by a journo if he looked back at that accident and what it had potentially cost him. You could have won 7 titles the journo suggested. Doohan shrugged, looked at him and said:

‘Ifs, could haves and should haves don’t count for shit.’

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