Mark Webber ‘s recent book – “Aussie Grit”
Missing out on a world championship by the smallest of margins once was disappointing enough for Mark Webber, but that another looked to be slipping from his grasp again at the death will have tested the veracity of his twitter moniker and title of his recent book – “Aussie Grit” – to its limits.
Fortunately no rewrites nor handle changes will be necessary. He and his team held their nerve and saw out a nail-biting and gripping finale of the FIA World Endurance Championship in Bahrain, to ensure that this time he would be coming home with the title. A deserved reward for a fine driver and for his Porsche team who also won their first top-end sportscar drivers’ championship since 1986.
The Australian missed out in 2010 at the final round in Abu Dhabi while driving for Red Bull, the year Sebastian Vettel took his first F1 championship. It was the closest Webber came to that title, but having switched to drive for Porsche in the WEC in 2014, securing the drivers’ championship with team-mates Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard looked like being an altogether easier task in Bahrain.
Having taken pole position their No17 Porsche required only a fourth place or better finish to take the title in a car that had been dominant over nearest rivals, the No7 Audi of Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer. But this was to be no cruise and there was drama almost from the off when Bernhard suffered a throttle actuator problem on his first stint and lost five laps to leaders, dropping to 19th place. The Porsche had been almost bulletproof on reliability all season but suddenly what had been expected to be a fairly straightforward job had become a real battle to fightback for the title.
It was a potentially game-changing moment in the championship as the Audi crew sniffed a chance. They powered to the front, aiming for the win that was their best bet of taking the title at the last. Behind them, coming through the slower cars of the other classes and making the most of the 919 Hybrid’s straightline speed, the No17 had recovered to sixth at the end of the second hour but was still three laps down from the fourth-placed Toyota of No1 car Anthony Davidson, Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima.
At which point making it to that crucial fourth place looked too large a task when the pendulum swung again. The No8 Audi of Oliver Jarvis Loïc Duval and Lucas di Grassi, then in third, took an unscheduled pitstop on lap 91, two hours and 45 minutes into the race, losing eight laps thanks to a driveshaft problem that advanced the No17 to fifth place – enough for the title could their sister car, the No18 of Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb, take the win and demote the No7 to second.
Which they set about with determination. Just past the three-hour mark Lieb was dicing with Tréluyer for the lead with the pair swapping the front spot across several laps. Lieb kept putting his nose ahead and although Tréluyer was in no mood to make it easy he had the lead by lap 112.
The No18 crew wanted to take the flag but it was also the second time this season they have proved what a team sport this is. Out of the running for the title they had led up until the last minutes of the race at round six in Fuji before allowing the No17 car to inherit the win. With the points at the death proving so tight it was, alongside their victory here, crucial in sealing the championship for their sister car.
They had extended the lead further after a wheel nut issue forced the No7 car to pit later in the race, yet even with some semblance of calm returning, Webber himself had to go through the grinder one final time. Taking the car for the final stints to the finish, the actuator problem recurred alongside what appeared to be a front-wheel hybrid harvesting issue. The car had to pit again and was intermittently losing power on track and no doubt pushing Webber’s nerves to the edge.
Fortunately he and his car gritted it out. The No18 took the flag after 199 laps, ahead of the No7 by a minute and a half, while the No17 took fifth and the title to the relief of the entire team, just five points clear of the Audi crew.
“That shows the fighting quality of the team,” said Webber. “We had a lot of problems and it was very stressful; we got the car home and we had enough points and enough wins to be world champions.”
Indeed it was a deserved championship. Audi had opened the season strongly with wins at Silverstone and Spa but since the season’s blue riband event, won by the No19 Porsche of Britain’s Nick Tandy, Germany’s Nico Hülkenberg and New Zealand’s Earl Bamber, the team’s third car entered for Le Mans only, Porsche have enjoyed a considerable advantage in pace.
Webber and his team-mates went on to win at the next round at the Nürburgring, then also at the Circuit of the Americas, that third win at Fuji followed which was enough for them to take the lead in the title standings and at the last round in Shanghai a fourth successive victory put them within touching distance of the drivers’ title and ensured Porsche took the manufacturers’ championship, the double then this season, having only returned to top-end prototype racing in 2014 after a 16-year absence.
The trio were also second at this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours but none of the three drivers has won a world championship title before. Hartley, who is 26 years old, was a reserve driver for Red Bull in 2009 and 2010 (alongside Daniel Ricciardo) and tested for the team when Webber broke his leg in a cycling accident in 2008. His previous highest series win was the Eurocup Formula Renault in 2007.
Bernhard is no stranger to winning however and already has an exemplary record in endurance racing. He won Le Mans in 2010 with Audi and is the most recent driver to have claimed the sport’s triple crown, with wins at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2003 and the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2008 alongside his victory at La Sarthe, but this is also his first world championship title.
Yet it will perhaps be of most import to the Australian, the F1 title, Webber admits, was the one he wanted most but having to had to fight so hard to take this one will doubtless make it all the sweeter.
Alex Wurz, who was competing in his final race having announced he was retiring at the end of the season, took third place in the No2 Toyota, alongside his team-mates Stéphane Sarrazin and Mike Conway.
In LMP2, Sam Bird, Julien Canal and Roman Rusinov took the drivers’ championship for G-Drive; in GTE PRO Richard Lietz and Michael Christensen claimed the title for Manthey Porsche and in GTE AM the SMP Ferrari of Andrea Bertolini, Viktor Shaitar and Aleksey Basov were champions.