March 3rd, 2002. Mark Webber, as if cheered on by the home town crowd, out performed his Minardi F1 car and lined up 18th on the grid. The entire country tuned in to see an Aussie line up next to the likes of Michael Schumacher, Jacques Villenuve and David Coulthard. The first Aussie since David Brabham eight years before him, and the first to carry the hopes of a championship since Alan Jones, two decades earlier.
Over the next two hours, the world watched on as the gladiators of high speed crashed, broke, cheated and spun their way out of the running, clearing the way for Australia's hopes. The Aussie driver behind the wheel of an Aussie owned car. Pushing home a limp horse, Webber defended a late charging Toyota to grab 2 points in his first race. Australia cheered as if it was a win. Mark Webber had arrived!
Fast forward to 2005. Webber had suffered the fate of a driver unable to get a winning car. His Jaguar had convincingly floundered in the middle of the pack for two years but once again Webber had the hopes of a nation behind him. Mark had made the seemingly hopeful move to Williams, a team use to winning. The last race of 2004 was won by a Williams, the expectation of Mark winning this year was high. Having convincingly out-qualified his new team mate, Nick Heidfeld, Mark lined up third for the race along side Jacques Villenuve. Australia was on the edge of its seat!
The race started with what has now become Mark's trademark bad start. Swamped into the first corner, Webber fell back and adjusted to life following others. Despite an off passing slower cars, Mark had a relatively quiet race and equaled his Australian record of 5th place. The highest finish he was yet to achieve.
The early half of 2005 had Mark knocking on the door of points, usually managing one by the checkered flag. Monaco was different. Australia was once again watching closely as Mark slipped back behind his team mate after a Williams call brought Heidfeld into the pits a lap earlier than Mark, giving Nick the opportunity to pass his team mate. Webber was gifted third from a struggling Alonso but knew in his heart his first podium was meant to be second.
2006 tested Webber's relationship with Williams. His Williams FW28 retired more times than it finished, levelling the teams poor form on the Australian. Mark left the team looking for a fresh start and landed at Red Bull along-side accomplished driver David Coulthard in 2007. Despite showing some early pace, the only success came at The Nürburgring where Mark found his second podium.
By 2009, Australia was use to Mark trailing the leaders. Now teamed up with young Seb Vettel, Mark showed his usual form in Australia, finishing 12th and a lap down on the leaders, Brawn. The surprise came in China as a rain soaked track became the stage for the first Red Bull 1-2. Mark had achieved his best result of 2nd, four years after his first Monaco 3rd. Red Bull was on its way!
A lot more points came in 2009, with Mark finally grabbing that missing win in Germany, the site of his first ever Red Bull podium. Nothing could stop the Aussie winning, even a drive through penalty was unable to slow his assault. The win finished Webber's run of races without a win, a record which he comfortably holds at 130 races.
Webber has had the best run of his career with Red Bull. 7 wins, 2 third place finishes in the championship, and even a chance at the title in 2010. The one thing that has eluded him, a podium at Australia, has to be high on his list of wants. Despite all his recent success, that fifth for Minardi in 2002 is still his best Australian finish. With the clock on his career ticking away every race, and the best car he will ever get, 2012 has to be the year!
If not, there is always Daniel Ricciardo?!