Mark Webber was born with the smell of petrol in his nostrils – literally, as his relatives ran a petrol station and motorcycle dealership in the small town of Queanbeyan, New South Wales.
Such an environment had a massive impact on Master Webber, as did the Australian Grand Prix joining the Formula 1 calendar in 1985, when he was nine years old. It caused a buzz in the Webber household and the seed had been planted – the lad wanted to be an F1 driver.
His dream came true in 2002 when, after several years of hard graft, he made his F1 debut at the Australian Grand Prix, making him the first antipodean to compete in the sport since David Barbham eight years previously.
Driving for F1 minnows and Australian-owned Minardi, the 25-year-old had the partisan crowd going wild with his superb drive to fifth place, which still ranks as one of the best debut performances in the modern era in the sport.
Webber’s first grand prix weekend began well when he pipped the Jaguars of Eddie Irvine and Pedro de la Rosa in qualifying. Minardi’s rookie racer was the first driver to head out in the hour long session which was later affected by heavy rain, and clocked in a time of 1m30.086s to line up in 18th position for the race.
“It was a mixed session in terms of weather,” said Webber post-qualifying, “with some heavy sprinkling and mist which hung over the track. It was good to get those two runs in and whilst it would have been nice to have been a little bit quicker, I have to say I’m happy with my first ever qualifying session, even if it was a little bit short. It was a good experience for me.”
Aside from Webber’s dream debut, the 2002 Australian Grand Prix is also remembered for the first corner chaos that saw Ralf Schumacher becoming airborne after hitting the back of Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari and taking out six other cars in the process.
Webber managed to avoid the mess that unfolded in front of him and was up into eighth position by the end of the first lap.
Eighth would become tenth once the race had resumed some six laps later. But, as those ahead of him ran into a spot of bother – most notably David Coulthard, whose troubled McLaren made him easy prey on lap 25 – then up the order Webber moved once again. All the way to fifth place.
Everything was now looking hunky-dory for the Aussie, who was among the first to pit for his one and only stop of the day on lap 34. That was until a problem developed with his refuelling flap which temporarily malfunctioned and refused to open.
Despite a delay of almost 30 seconds, Webber managed to retain his position – such was the lack of opposition following the number of retirements – it did, however, present Mika Salo with an opportunity to try and poach it later on in the race.
Unhappy with the handling of his car, Webber was struggling to match the times being set by the Toyota driver and, inevitably, came under attack with just three laps remaining.
“The last few laps were pretty interesting with Mika Salo catching me,” said Webber, “but I was quite calm with him around me. The plan was obviously not to let him past me and I hurt my car a little bit more than I would have liked. I knew where I was weak but I also knew where I could keep him behind me. I was also aware he had a slight top speed advantage, but in the end, Mika made a small mistake which helped me out!”
And that it did, as the Finn’s attempt to pass him on a dusty part of the circuit ended in spectacular fashion as both his hopes and car spun away from him, much to the delight of the home crowd.
“Seeing the chequered flag was an awesome moment and my arms were sore from where I was pumping them in the air and bashing them on the side of the cockpit! I’m just very, very happy!”
The sheer joy that exploded from Webber and Minardi team boss Paul Stoddart was clear for all to see as the Aussie duo enjoyed their own private podium celebration once the official ceremony had finished.
Fifth was as good as a victory for such a small team, and while the two points they scored may have been small in the grand scheme of things, on this certain day in Melbourne they meant the world to someone who had finally realised his career ambition.