Vomit, a burnt bum, kids that “f**k it all up” and first-lap nutcases – life has never been boring at the Japanese Grand Prix for Mark Webber, and after last weekend’s litany of disasters in Korea, surely better fortune is on the cards for the Aussie this weekend in a country that has never been one of his favourite stops on the Formula One calendar. But for all that, Suzuka remains one of the tracks he’s held in great reverence throughout his 12-season career, and one last chance to let an F1 car rip around one of the sport’s best circuits is something he’ll relish.
Webber, of course, hasn’t missed a Japanese Grand Prix since 2002; my own Japan run started in 2004, and as we chatted in the Suzuka paddock on Thursday, plenty of those memories came flooding back.
There was 2004, when, after qualifying a Jaguar in third place in a car that had no business seeing the top 10 without a pair of binoculars, he had to retire as his seat was getting hot – to the point that his backside was almost on fire. Five points for Williams 12 months later (back when five points actually meant something for fourth place) was his second-best result of that season. The next year, I vividly remember watching him wrestle a pig of a Williams through the final chicane, seemingly closer to disaster on every lap as he searched for pace the car didn’t have before binning it on the start-finish straight late in the race, clouting the wall and conveniently coming to rest opposite the Williams prat perch, ensuring himself a short walk back to the garage.
And then there was Fuji.
I’m not sure I’ve been belted by rain more at a sporting event than that first year at Fuji in 2007. The famous mountain was spectacularly visible – for about 30 minutes in Friday morning practice. From then on, the grey clouds turned to black, and proceeded to lash rain on the circuit for the best part of two days, rain that made the 1976 season-decider immortalised in the movie ‘Rush’ at the same circuit look like a passing shower.
Race-day morning, something wasn’t right, and it had nothing to do with the velocity of the water as it cascaded from the sky. There were 21 drivers on the drivers’ parade; the one who was missing was, as he might put it, “hurling his guts up”, ravaged by food poisoning. Given the conditions, it would have been perfectly excusable for Webber to sit out, but he dragged his weakened body into the Red Bull RB3 and cruised around behind the safety car until the weather was deemed suitable to start the race.
Webber, covered in vomit inside his steamed-up helmet with rain continuing to tumble, worked his way up the field from seventh on the grid. Before long he was second, title contender Fernando Alonso had crashed, and Webber was gaining on Alonso’s rookie McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton, the race leader who surely wouldn’t have fought too hard as he attempted to bank a slab of points critical to his title aspirations. The best result of Webber’s career looked to be on the cards, and the top step was real possibility.
And then this. “It’s kids, isn’t it?” Webber spat to startled pit lane reporter Louise Goodman after a 20-year-old named Sebastian Vettel had rammed him off the track in the rain behind the safety car, eliminating both cars from the race. “Kids with not enough experience – and they go and f**k it all up.” Interview over. Makes you wonder what ever became of that Vettel ‘kid’ and whether he eventually turned out to be half-decent …
Later that afternoon, I got a sense for the sort of bloke Mark is, win or loss, good or bad. Two hours after the race, we sat with Mark’s partner Ann and dad Alan and chatted. I’d filed all my stories for the day, had no work to do, no reason to be there other than to see how he was. He looked dreadful, but hung around. “You’ve come a bloody long way mate, so you’re right,” was his reasoning.
It’s either the sublime or the ridiculous for Webber in Japan. In 2009, he made a mess of the Red Bull by going off at the trickier-than-it looks-on-TV Degner 2 corner in Saturday practice, smashing the car up so badly that he couldn’t qualify it hours later. Starting dead last from the pit lane the next day, his first four laps probably should have been accompanied by a laugh track. Three pit stops – two for the headrest material in the car coming loose and one for a puncture – put him nearly as many laps behind the field as the rest had completed. The response was a near-faultless drive – to 17th given how many laps down he was – with the fastest lap of the race thrown in to boot. Teammate Vettel won from pole with no mechanical problems or ill-fortune (stop me if you’ve heard that before), but Webber was happy he’d at least achieved something. “Can’t let Seb have everything, can I?” was his wry comment over a solemn post-race green tea.
A year later, Webber was at his best and most amusing. Qualifying was a complete washout on the Saturday – we spent more time discussing cricket as the rain belted down – but on Sunday he was on it, arguably the strongest weekend where he didn’t win the race in his F1 career. Pipped to second on the grid by Vettel by 0.068secs in a hastily-arranged Sunday morning qualifying, he finished 0.9secs behind his teammate after 53 laps to enjoy a 14-point lead in the championship with three races left. Korea and that crash was to come a fortnight later, but Webber was almost in as good form off the track as he was on it that weekend.
He wanted to get the one flight back to Australia that left Tokyo that night, and had a helicopter lined up to take him straight from the circuit to Narita Airport, and time was tight. The only problem was, because he’d finished second, he had the post-race press conference to negotiate. Knowing I was onto his escape route, he grinned as he entered the presser, politely asked if he could get through his questions first despite not having won the race, and then scampered off to the waiting chopper still in his race suit. Got in a little bit of trouble too, but it was worth it for the sheer audacity of it all. He made the flight too …
Then there was last year. Strong qualifying, second again behind Vettel who is absolutely mega at Suzuka, and ready to do something big in the race. Come Turn 2 on Sunday, Webber was on the grass facing the wrong way, turned around by serial offender Romain Grosjean, and while he recovered through the field to ninth, you could almost see the steam coming out of his ears every time he passed the pits. As he crossed the line to take two points on a day where he felt 18 would be the bare minimum, I knew I just had to scurry down to the post-race ‘pen’ where the TV cameras gather to broadcast the thoughts of the drivers after they returned to pit lane. I promised the Fleet Street tabloid guys sitting near me in the press room that I’d share what I got from my compatriot if they kept an eye on other things for me, and they weren’t disappointed.
“I haven’t obviously seen what happened at the start but the guys (on the pit wall) confirmed that it was the first-lap nutcase again, Grosjean,” Webber started, and then he was off. In an era where driver after driver is too busy thanking a sponsor or on-message to deliver anything of interest, the next 90 seconds were gold.
“I don’t know what the issue is. We’re starting an hour-and-a-half Grand Prix and we all fold into the first part of the lap … I was hoping for his sake that somebody else hit him and put him into me, but the guys said it was all of his own doing. Maybe we have two separate starts, one for him and one for us. We finished eight seconds off fifth place, and I was in reverse for 10 seconds on the grass.
“The rest of us are trying to fight for some decent results each weekend but he is trying to get to the third corner as fast as he can at every race. He needs to have a look at himself. How many mistakes can you make, how many times can you make the same error? It’s quite embarrassing at this level for him.”
And with that, Webber was off, stopping by the Lotus hospitality area for what was described as a “conversation” with the Frenchman, although it was more than likely a fairly one-way chat …
You sense only Webber could have had the sequence of events that scuppered his race in Korea last weekend happen to him. Out of position on the grid from a 10-place grid penalty after qualifying third, he’d moved his way into potential podium contention before pitting for a second time – and came out right behind Sergio Perez’s McLaren as its right front tyre exploded. As the first car on the scene, a puncture ensued … which necessitated another pit stop … which dropped him down to 11th … which meant he was in the firing line for Adrian Sutil’s spinning Force India after the re-start … which meant a Red Bull on fire. Given his usual luck, it was a surprise the 4WD safety vehicle that was dispatched onto the circuit didn’t hit him when it eventually got to his smoking car. Webber does have history with being hit by 4WDs in places where they shouldn’t be, after all …
Perhaps, just perhaps, this is the weekend it all comes together. The RB9 will be ideally suited to Suzuka’s sweeping curves, he loves the circuit, typically goes well here and is due a massive slice of good fortune after his recent travails. Vettel’s recent form suggests the German will be mighty hard to stop, but it’s very possible that some ‘Aussie Grit’ could propel Webber to his first victory of the season – and a great way to finish up at a circuit that he describes as one that provides “an awesome feeling to know you’ve got the best out of the car.”
One thing we do know: win or not, it’s bound to be entertaining. Japan and Mark Webber together know no other way.