Anyone who thought that Mark Webber would arrive in the World Endurance Championship and make his teammates at Porsche look ordinary was always going to be wrong.
But then anyone who believed the Formula 1 star would be the precious prima donna unable to understand the need to work with those teammates for the greater good was equally wide of the mark.
Webber understood the need for teamwork from the get-go. The Australian jelled with co-drivers Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley, and they forged a bond that undoubtedly played a part in the successes that made them world champions in 2015.
Bernhard helped Porsche’s big-money signing make the transition from F1 and in turn they both mentored young up-and-comer Hartley. Webber talks about a driver who “was a bit rough around the edges” back in 2014 maturing into a “phenomenally well-rounded sportscar driver.”
Hartley’s progression is clearly a source of pride for Webber, whose praise for his younger teammate comes across as almost paternal. Often, he wants to talk about the Kiwi’s role in a race victory before his own.
Webber has always knuckled down to the task in hand during his short return to the sportscar ranks. He didn’t set the world on fire in the beginning, but the days of a driver fresh out of F1 blowing everyone into the weeds are long gone.
The WEC is far too competitive for that, the cars way too complex.
He struggled in his first races back in the original iteration of the Porsche 919 Hybrid in 2014. The low-downforce package devised for the unique demands of the Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans was an anathema to a driver straight out of F1.
Webber struggled at Le Mans that year. He wasn’t quick, not as fast as Bernhard and Hartley and certainly not on the pace of the drivers in the other Porsche. But he was happy to admit it.
Le Mans, he pointed out, was the track on the WEC calendar of which he had the least experience. Don’t forget that he never managed a racing lap on his two appearances at the 24 Hours with Mercedes in 1998 and ’99.
The Porsche was afflicted by a handling imbalance from Saturday evening and it wasn’t his place to play the hero in a car that had an outside chance of victory if it kept going. It was an honest, even modest, assessment of his part in proceedings.
But Webber grew into a car that was always coming to him. A higher-downforce version that came on stream for the second half of the season was more to his liking, or more in tune with his skill set. That process continued in 2015 when the second-generation 919 got the “kit 5” aerodynamics with which it would go unbeaten through the second leg of the season.
Webber, Bernhard and Hartley won four of those five races, though the title was ultimately decided on a toss of the coin. Had the trio in the second Porsche, Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb, not experienced hybrid problems at Austin, they would have won the race and left Texas as Porsche’s best-placed crew in the championship.
Porsche subsequently opted to enforce team orders. Webber and his co-drivers were the chosen ones and duly became the German manufacturer’s first world champions for nearly 30 years.
That should in no way be regarded as a criticism; it’s just the way it happened. Don’t forget that Webber, Bernhard and Hartley lost a possible victory and definitely a bag full of points at Silverstone earlier in the season.
If there is one criticism that can be leveled at Webber it’s that he never truly mastered the challenge of the 8.47-mile Circuit de la Sarthe. He was never at his best at Le Mans, even this year on his third attempt.
Experience, or rather a lack of it, had to have something to do with it. But we shouldn’t forget the starring performances of debutant winners such Tom Kristensen and Laurent Aiello in 1997 and ’98 respectively. There was something more to his underperformance at Le Mans, however.
Webber has enthused about the place. “Very sexy, something I’ll always remember” is how he described driving at night at Le Mans just today.
But did he fall in love with the place as so many drivers do? Did he want that first victory in the world’s biggest motor race so badly that it hurt? I don’t think so.
I don’t believe the burning desire to win Le Mans is or was ever there deep down in Webber’s psyche. Because, if it was, there’d have been no retirement announcement this week and he’d be going back next year to try to scratch that itch.
Webber has definitely left his mark on this branch of the sport: the WEC title and the race wins – seven and counting – will be inked indelibly in the history books in years to come.
But was there a defining moment for which we shall remember Mark Webber the sportscar driver? I can’t think of one. He doesn’t have a Le Mans 2008 like recent sportscar retirees Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen.
I’m not holding that against him. Webber may have arrived from a winning F1 team, but he was always the consummate pro, the team player who got the big picture, and a driver knuckled down and got on with the job in hand.