Mark Webber apologised to McLaren-Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton at the end of an eventful home race for the Red Bull Racing star that saw him twice come into contact with the former F1 World Champion, endure a couple of costly off-track moments and ultimately take the chequered flag in a frustrated and bloodied if unbowed ninth place.
Having qualified alongside team-mate Sebastian Vettel on the front row of the starting grid for the Australian GP in Melbourne – where he has never finished on the podium, though he did stand up there following his superb fifth-placed debut with Minardi back in 2002 – Webber was looking in fine shape for a strong showing around Albert Park on race day, but right from the offset it became apparent that it might not be his day.
A tardy getaway when the lights went out allowed Felipe Massa and – albeit briefly – Robert Kubica in the Renault to get past him, and having regained second place, the 33-year-old just as quickly lost it again when Red Bull left him out too long before pitting for slick tyres once the track began to dry out. Down in sixth, he grittily re-passed Massa for fifth but then as he tried to stave off the attentions of Hamilton, the man from Queanbeyan ran out of road and off the circuit at Turn Three, costing him almost ten seconds and sending him tumbling down the order once again.
Fired-up and with the red mist in full descent, following a pit-stop for some new rubber, Webber set about following Hamilton as the delayed duo made their way back up the order, and with a handful of laps remaining the pair’s storming pace had carried them right onto the back of the battle over the runner-up spot between Kubica, Massa and the second Ferrari of double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso.
Unfortunately, in front of a record 120,000 partisan fans, the New South Wales native’s challenge would end in tears, as he got too close to Hamilton under braking and clattered into his adversary with just two laps to go. Requiring another quick pit visit for a new front wing, the loss of time left Webber a lowly ninth – albeit having done much to re-inject the entertainment factor back into F1.
“My start was tricky with quite a bit of wheelspin,” he said, “and I was very happy to get away with third place with just Felipe and Seb in front of me. Then, after the safety car re-start the race was going well, I passed Felipe and I was just waiting for some information on how it would go on the grooves. I wanted to get in on the lap that Sebastian pitted to change to dry tyres, but obviously whoever’s ahead has the call so I had to do an extra lap on the intermediates, which certainly hurt me and lost me a lot of time. We snookered ourselves a little bit there.
“Once I was back on the track I couldn’t get second gear coming out of the pit-lane. I was stuck in first, with the other guys going past on the track at 300km/h [186mph]. That was really unusual and we need to have a look at it. Then we had a good fight; I knew I had to make the moves on track, but it was very difficult to get the moves done on the inside because it was still a bit greasy.
“At the end of the race we caught the leading guys and I was looking forward to the last part; I thought it would be a big fight. We both got a run on Fernando. I apologise to Lewis; I was looking to get the run as well coming back out [of the corner], but when I got that close my front wing basically just did not work, I lost all downforce and I couldn’t get the car stopped. I just locked up, the car lifted and I slid into the back of him. I tried to get more on the inside to make it wheel-to-wheel, but in the end obviously I hit him with my front wing on his rear tyre. That’s car racing!
“Unfortunately it had looked like a good finish, but it’s still very difficult to follow in these cars. I wasn’t happy with sixth place and wanted to get a podium. In the end it was a tough day for the team, but I went down fighting. When you’re on the back foot as we were for different reasons, I think it’s best to throw caution to the wind and get into it. I was thinking after Bahrain, for the people at home maybe we should do something different. I didn’t want it to finish like that, but hopefully it was a bit more enjoyable – and we’ll be back.”
Webber’s disappointment was shared by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, who acknowledged that much more than just two points had been promised from a grand prix that on paper the Milton Keynes-based squad should have dominated.
“In his home grand prix, Mark dropped a place at the start, but then was making progress in the damp and tricky conditions,” the Englishman affirmed. “We had to leave him a lap longer than Sebastian to change to dry tyres, as he would have lost too much ground pitting immediately behind him. As the circuit went from intermediates to slicks, he made a couple of good passing moves on Massa, but then, unfortunately, he obviously got tangled up with Lewis for the first time in the race.
“After everything had settled down and with the position he was running in, we decided we had nothing to lose by putting another set of tyres on to let him have a go in the last ten laps, which [Nico] Rosberg and Hamilton also elected to do. We got Rosberg at the stop but Lewis and Mark got together again, which resulted in Mark having to pit again for a nose change. Ninth place after starting the race with two cars at the front of the grid is massively disappointing.”