Mike Stevens | Jul 14, 2009

WHEN MARK WEBBER scored a stunning and unexpected fifth place finish during his debut Formula One appearance at Albert Park in 2002, many declared the moment as the arrival of a new future World Champion.

But few could have predicted the remarkable series of twists and turns, and the unending run of ill-fortune that would follow Webber for the next six years, as the Australian’s hope of securing a Grand Prix victory, let alone a run at the title, appeared to evaporate.

Having progressed through the Australian junior formulae, notably emerging victorious during a support race at the Adelaide Grand Prix in 1995, Webber made the leap to Europe the following season where he won the Brands Hatch Formula Ford festival, signifying his status as a star on the rise.

His success led to a move to the British Formula 3 Championship and a drive with regular frontrunners Alan Docking Racing a year later, before signing a works deal with Mercedes to compete in the 1998 FIA GT Championship, alongside Bernd Schneider.

While Webber was a success with the German manufacturer, securing five wins during his opening season, his time was marred by a disastrous weekend at Le Mans in 1999, when the Canberra native was lucky to escape with his life.

On two separate occasions, Webber was terrifyingly launched skywards, flipping multiple times as his car suddenly and unexpectedly lost down-force at full-speed.

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After another team car was struck by an identical problem in the following days, Mercedes realised there was a serious and dangerous design-flaw at fault and withdrew from the GT championship, forcing Webber to accelerate his transition towards an open-wheel career.

The following season, Webber secured a drive in the F3000 championship with the Arrows junior team as well as a testing role with its F1 outfit before moving across to Benetton-Renault and Supernova in 2001, where he was runner-up in the F3000 championship.

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At Benetton, Webber demonstrated his significant potential, regularly topping the timing sheets ahead of well-established Formula One stars to make a not-so-subtle claim to a full-time race seat the following year.

It was here that Webber rekindled his link with Paul Stoddart, the Melbourne-born aviation entrepreneur (and former mechanic). Stoddart helped orchestrate Webber's first testing assignment with Arrows and was his team boss during his first F3000 season before handing him a drive with Minardi, the team he purchased two years earlier.

Despite the car’s lack of performance, Webber was a revelation during his opening season, constantly threatening to break into the top ten as he outdrove teammate Alex Yoong, the first of many drivers he would consign to the scrap heap.

Webber’s performances earned him a move to Jaguar Racing in 2003, where he drove to tenth place in the driver’s championship after amassing 18 of his team’s 19 points and finishing in the top eight on seven separate occasions.

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Jaguar’s fortunes turned somewhat the next season as the R5 struggled with a series of mechanical issues. But Webber remained defiant as he became a master of the newly introduced one-lap qualifying method, stunning the motorsport world with a front-row start in Malaysia.

That round however came to symbolise Webber’s next few years, as a launch control problem on the start saw him swamped and immediately fall towards the back of the grid.

Although points were difficult to come by in 2004, Webber still managed to produce a series of impressive performances, highlighted by a sixth place effort at the German Grand Prix.

But it was following this season that Webber’s career began to unravel after he knocked back a drive for Renault and opted for Williams, who had won the last GP of the 2004 season.

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While the move pleased the romantics who drew parallels between Webber and 1980 World Champion, Alan Jones, his arrival coincided with a stark downturn in form as it was revealed Williams would lose BMW-factory backing in 12 month's time.

The result of the season-opening event in Melbourne compounded the disappointment as the recipient of the Renault seat earmarked for Webber, Giancarlo Fisichella, won the opening race of the season. The Australian’s best result all season was third at Monaco.

Renault then went on to secure back-to-back driver’s and constructor’s championships while Williams lurched from one disappointment to the next as Webber began to lose his lustre and was dubbed the most unlucky man in F1.

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An apparent sideways move to Red Bull was next on the agenda for Webber in 2007, although the presence of aerodynamic genius Adrian Newey promised much for the future.

However, the Milton-Keynes based team was unable to produce a reliable car, which combined with the occasional erratic performance, cemented Webber firmly in midfield, despite regularly beating fellow Red Bull driver David Coulthard.

A third place finish at the 2007 German Grand Prix was the best Webber could muster during his opening season with Red Bull. However, he did have one chance of breaking through for a maiden win later that year at the Japanese Grand Prix.

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Sitting in second place behind Lewis Hamilton, Webber’s hopes were cruelly dashed in heartbreaking circumstances when future teammate Sebastian Vettel ploughed into the back of his car under yellow flag conditions to seemingly forever cast him as a one of the sport’s 'nearly' men.

In 2008, Webber was again consigned to mediocrity, although he was able to outgun Coulthard for a one-year contract extension.

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But even then, Webber still managed to be struck by misfortune. His fate as a driver could have been sealed late last year when he suffered a broken leg and shoulder after being hit by a car in his own charity mountain bike event in Tasmania.

However with the support and backing of his team, he made the opening grid at Melbourne. Despite suffering obvious discomfort, he then commenced a campaign which - if things fall his way - gives him a real shot at claiming Australia’s first F1 World Championship crown in 29 years.

He is certainly good enough.

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