It’s one of the most enduring images of Le Mans: Mark Webber’s Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR becoming airborne in dramatic style on the Mulsanne Straight. It happened not once but twice in the build-up to 1999’s 24-hour race, and again during the race in the hands of Peter Dumbreck. At that point, Mercedes’ Le Mans entry was withdrawn and its endurance motorsport activities came to an end.
Webber’s endurance days also ended, and he returned to the single-seater racing that had characterised his career before moving to the Mercedes team in 1998.
Back in ’95, Webber had moved to the UK to further his motorsport career. He may tweet under the handle Aussie Grit, but he’s also an honourary Aussie Brit, still living in Buckinghamshire now.
Working his way up through various single-seater formulae, he was following the prescribed route to Formula One before being persuaded to go sports car racing. After that detour, and the Le Mans disaster, he returned to F3000, before becoming an F1 test driver for Benetton in 2001 and securing a drive with Minardi in 2002. But that Aussie Grit would be further tested with a long wait until he secured a seat in a car competitive enough for victory.
It would be 2009 before his first F1 win – which came with Red Bull. Eight podiums in that year and ten the next made this his most successful period in F1. But his retirement from F1 at the end of last year’s season sees him return to endurance racing in the Porsche 919 Hybrid this year.
This weekend, he will return to Le Mans for the first time since that dramatic race in 1999. It’s unfinished business. Speaking to the FIA’s Auto magazine, he said: ‘As drivers we’re well used to getting back on the horse and dealing with those personal battles. But under the circumstances there was no way for us to re-group and re-do the race properly. So yeah, for me to go back there after some of the incidents is a personal challenge as well.’
And after that? He will be driving the very same Porsche 919 at the Festival of Speed. By then we will know if he and the Stuttgart team did enough to topple Audi’s recent domination of the 24 Heures du Mans. Whether they did or not, you won’t want to miss Webber and the Porsche take to the Goodwood Hillclimb during the Festival of Speed at the end of this month.