Can Mark Webber win the championship?
Mark Webber will attempt today to write one of Formula One’s most improbable stories by becoming world champion at the grand old age of 34.
And after a career spent mostly in the shadows of the world’s most glamorous sport, he knows there is unlikely to be a second chance. History dictates that F1 is no country for old men.
In the past 20 years only Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Damon Hill have won the world title at an older age, but they claimed the crown as runaway favourites in an era when Williams produced cars that were the envy of the paddock.
Michael Schumacher may have won the title when he was a few months older than Webber is now, but it was the German’s seventh crown.
At the start of the season last March, Webber, the self-effacing Australian, was no-one’s idea of a potential champion.
Sebastian Vettel, his Red Bull team-mate and one of three other drivers who have a chance of claiming the world championship today, was just four months old when Webber first went to an F1 race.
Only Rubens Barrichello, Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld and Schumacher himself are still racing from the drivers Webber first competed against on his debut in 2002.
‘I appreciate that this might not come around again but I can’t try any harder because of that,’ says Webber.
‘These are uncharted waters, if you like. But what are we going to change? Nothing, of course.
‘We’ll just do all the things that have been unique and special to us up to this point.
‘This is what sport’s all about, isn’t it, mate? None of us would watch if we knew what was going to happen.
‘Things can change like that. The championship could be decided on the first corner … or on the last.’
If Webber needs any reminding about the fragility of his claim to become world champion, he has only to reflect on the horrifying accident he experienced on the streets of Valencia in June.
He was left a passenger as his car was launched into the air after colliding with the rear of back-marker Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus at 190mph.
‘I feared for my life,’ admits Webber.
‘You don’t have a big one like that without thinking of what might have been. At that height you are in anyone’s hands. I imagined I could have a career-threatening injury, or worse.’
Even now, Webber refrains from watching the harrowing footage of the crash filmed from inside hiscar.
‘It’s not something I like to look at, mate,’ he explains.
When it happened, he made light of the accident, but now he admits: ‘I did wonder how I’d feel when I got back into the car for the next race.
‘There were things which happened after Valencia that surprised me. I had delayed concussion and that put added heat on the next time I drove the car.’
Webber can proudly claim to have withstood the heat and, if the fates smile kindly on him again herethis afternoon, there will be those in an English country pub raising their glasses to the affable Aussie who calls England his home.
Webber, square-jawed and, at 6ft 2in, unusually tall for a racing driver, does not seek the limelight.
He would rather ride his mountain bike or walk his dogs than be photographed on a red carpet.
He has become distinctly Anglicised, though, since securing his first drive in F1 with Minardi, who did not have to pay him as he was a contracted Renault driver.
He lives in Buckinghamshire with long-term partner Ann Neal, who is English, and his manager. She also co-owns The Stag Inn, a picturesque gastro-pub in Mentmore.
At the outset of this, his ninth season in F1, Webber could boast just two wins; both claimed last year after he had worked himself into the ground to recover from a broken leg in time to start the first race.
And the season was not very old when Webber, who finally had his hands on a fast, reliable grand prix car, felt undervalued.
In his mind, he thought that Red Bull’s hierarchy had a preference for Vettel to become the team’s inaugural world champion in just their sixth season of existence.
It was a claim Webber aired in public, more than once, and it was not without some legitimacy.
In response, Webber through his no-nonsense Australian attitude to life appeared to court controversy almost as vigorously as he has chased championship points.
Before last week’s Brazilian Grand Prix he said his speed, and second place in the championship, behind Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso but ahead of Vettel, was ‘an inconvenience’ to those who underwrite his £5million annual salary.
Earlier, after winning the British Grand Prix, when Vettel had been afforded both versions of the new front-wing introduced at Silverstoneafter damaging the first one, Webber had bluntly announced on the team radio: ‘Not bad for a No 2 driver.’
Vettel had already been excused blame by RedBull when he drove into Webber’s car at the Turkish Grand Prix when most seasoned observers felt the German was at fault.
Yet, in the lull before this afternoon’s storm, the Australian sought to place in context the rivalry with Vettel that is a nothing more than an echo of F1’s more fiery partnerships.
‘I believe I’m a professional guy and I always try to be fair and give an honest and frank opinion,’ says Webber.
‘We are talking within reason, of course; because we know there’s lots of politics and bull that goes on in sport at the top end.
‘Collectively, we’ve learned an absolute bucketload on how to deal with having two guys at the front ripping chunks out of each other. Also, there’s an element of me liking being on the ropes.
‘Firing things up a bit here and there is not a bad thing for me.
‘At the start of the year, my name wasn’t being mentioned as a potential world champion.
‘But here I am — and while I’ve had a great car, and I’m in a great team, it doesn’t mean I have been gifted anything.
Whether dealing with some crashes, especially the one in in Valencia, or a red-hot, young team-mate, I’ve put myself on the line and been account for.
‘I have earned the right to be in this position. Of course, I want to put the icing on the cake now but I know the other drivers can say they they deserve to be champion, too.
Seb’s dealt with some reliability problems, Fernando can say he doesn’t have the car we have, but has still got himself in the hunt and Lewis can say the same sort of thing.’
Vettel and Webber have both won four races but with ten places on the podium the Australian is just eight points behind championship leader Alonso, whereas the German is 15 points adrift.
The smart money is on Vettel conspiring, voluntarily, not through outlawed team orders, to assist Webber to win the title at the expense of Alonso once it is clear this afternoon that he cannot obtain the honour and the glory for himself.
This scenario may not manifest itself until the end of a long, tense Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that will begin in daylight at 5pm localtime and climax under floodlights.
‘Seb and I will shake hands today, as we do every day,’ says Webber.
‘After he won in Brazil, I was the first to say, “Good effort, mate”. He’s said the same to me several times this year. The relationship is much better than people perceive.’
Fundamentally, an age difference of 11 years was always going to be a barrier.
Vettel was still a baby when Webber was first taken by his father, Alan, to watch the 1987 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide.
‘It took dad 13 hours to drive us there from our home in Queanbeyan (outside Canberra),’ says Webber.
‘I was an expert of identifying drivers by the colours of their helmets and the first driver I saw was Martin Brundle in pre-qualifying — and I just remember how amazingly fast the cars were.’
This afternoon, Brundle, commentating on the race, could be hailing Webber as world champion from his booth at the Yas Marina Circuit. And Webber’s father,along with his mother, Diane, have flown here from their home in Australia to support their son.
For Webber is poised to show that it is really is never too late to turn yourself into a champion.
‘I like people saying I can’t do something,’ he says, smiling in anticipation of the work ahead of him today.