Mark Webber yesterday confirmed what many close observers suspected when he announced that he will be leaving Red Bull and Formula One at the end of this season to switch to sportscar racing with Porsche’s LMP1 team.
The Australian, who will turn 37 in August, has been expected to make a move ever since his Red Bull teammate, triple world champion German Sebastian Vettel, disobeyed team orders to “steal” a victory from him at the Malaysian Grand Prix in March.
Webber made the announcement by posting a Porsche statement on his Web site saying: “It’s an honour for me to join Porsche at its return to the top category in Le Mans and in the sports car World Endurance Championship and be part of the team.”
Finland’s Kimi Raikkonen, who won in 2007 with Ferrari and returned to F1 with Lotus last year after a spell in rallying, is expected to be a leading contender to replace Webber at Red Bull.
At 33, he retains the pace and has the race craft to be a good replacement even if Vettel could be reluctant to adopt his alleged carousing lifestyle.
Another Australian, Dan Ricciardo, currently junior sister outfit Toro Rosso, could also be a contender if he rises to the challenge in the second half of the season and Raikkonen rejects the move.
Webber has previous experience racing in sportscars with Mercedes in 1998 and 1999 before he went back to single-seaters in Formula 3000 en route to joining fellow Australian Paul Stoddart’s Minardi team in F1 in 2002.
He made his debut at Melbourne in the Australian Grand Prix and famously finished fifth, a result that incited such a wild crowd reaction that Webber and Stoddart were required to perform an unofficial podium celebration of their own.
After spells at Jaguar and Williams, he joined Red Bull in 2008 and became the solid, reliable and dogged racer who built the foundations for Vettel’s rise to fame after the German switched to join the team from Toro Rosso.
Webber became a race-winner and title contender with the team, but was unable to match Vettel’s success and has had to endure a turbulent relationship with the pragmatic 25-year-old German in a team in which, despite protestations by the management, he has always been seen as the second driver.
After winning the British Grand Prix in 2010, having been given second use of new parts for his car, he responded to Red Bull chief Christian Horner’s effusive praise over the team radio by saying: “Not bad for a second driver.”
Born in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, Webber has started 203 Grands Prix, winning nine. He has secured 11 pole positions and recorded 15 fastest laps.
Webber is certain to be at his determined and dogged best this weekend as he bids to complete a hat-trick of Silverstone victories in five years.
He has finished on the podium in all of the last four races, winning twice in 2010 and last year, and taking the pole in 2011.
Meanwhile, Vettel will be bidding to win a fourth straight title after coming off a comfortable win at the Canadian Grand Prix. Vettel has shaken off some early season headaches with tires and seems ready to dominate.
The youngest world champion has a chance to match the exploits of F1 greats Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher by winning four drivers’ championship titles in a row.
However, Silverstone has not been kind to Vettel in recent years. He has only won there once, in 2009, on what is essentially the team’s home track just 30km from Red Bull’s factory in Milton Keynes, southern England.
“Apart from the unpredictable English weather, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone is a highlight of the season and one of my favorite tracks,” Vettel said. “Only Suzuka can be compared to Silverstone. No other track on the calendar has such a sequence of superfast corners like Silverstone does.”
After his win in Canada earlier this month, Vettel was keenly aware his 36 point-lead over Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso is far from impregnable with 12 races remaining.
Lotus’ Raikkonen is another eight points back in third and Mercedes driver Briton Lewis Hamilton sits another 11 points behind in fourth.
Alonso has done well to keep pace with Vettel this season, winning twice and finishing second twice, but there is a sense that Ferrari should be doing better with their much-improved car and that they risk allowing the title to slip away without more wins.
Raikkonen is confident an upgraded car will end a poor recent run of 10th in Monaco and ninth in Canada.
Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg will be just happy to get back to racing after the controversy over Mercedes’ in-season testing was settled.
Mercedes escaped with only a reprimand for violating rules by using their current-season car to conduct a joint testing session with tire provider Pirelli.