Mark Webber is now a World Champion!
In only his second season in sportscar racing’s top flight, the FIA World Endurance Championship, Mark Webber has lifted the title for Porsche, one of the discipline’s most successful and revered marques. The Australian and his team-mates, Kiwi Brendon Hartley and German Timo Bernhard, won four races, at the Nürburgring, Austin, Fuji and Shanghai, netted second at Le Mans, third at Spa and fifth in the crucial race in Bahrain, and retired from the season-opener at Silverstone. A fairly healthy return, you’ll agree.
It’s a fine achievement for the former Grand Prix racer who, disillusioned with Formula 1 in 2013, chose to pursue a career in long-distance racing. The 39-year-old gelled immediately in Porsche’s and the WEC’s team-centric, car-sharing environment that’s so alien to the ‘selfish’ approach of life as a Grand Prix driver – a role he performed for 12 seasons with Minardi, Jaguar, Williams and Red Bull.
The nine-time Grand Prix winner left the disharmony of the final few years of life inside Red Bull to rekindle a love-hate relationship with sportscar racing’s greatest test, the Le Mans 24 Hours (who can forget those terrifying backflips at La Sarthe for Mercedes in 1999?), and with a pukka championship built around the great race, there’s plenty of glory and kudos for drivers of the calibre of Webber to chase. And he’s exorcised those demons at Le Mans too after running at the front in 2014 and 2015 for Porsche, the race’s most victorious marque.
Now that fellow former F1 racers Kevin Magnussen and Juan Pablo Montoya have tested Porsche’s 919 Hybrid, there’s every chance we’ll see more defections by high-profile ‘selfish’ single-seater drivers to a series that routinely provides thrilling contests among top drivers armed with exotic machinery. It’s certainly the case that the WEC is pinching fans from F1 after out-rating motorsport’s perceived pinnacle formula in 2015.
Before we forget, a big shout-out to 28-year-old Briton Sam Bird who lifted the LMP2-class World Title after winning in Bahrain. Bird, who shared his G-Drive Ligier-Nissan with Russian Roman Rusinov and Frenchman Julien Canal, has been a star in the second-string prototype category and is surely now on the LMP1 manufacturers’ radars.
Sebastian Vettel is the Champion of Champions
While Webber was duking it out in a bid to land the World Endurance title in the heat of Bahrain, his former Red Bull F1 nemesis Sebastian Vettel, with whom there was precious little love lost in the latter part of their five seasons together, found himself in a freezing cold Olympic Stadium in East London going head-to-head with an elite band of racers from multiple disciplines in the Race of Champions, which has run annually at various venues since 1988.
Back in London for the first time since 2008, the knock-out format, in which racers from F1, IndyCar, sportscars, rallying and touring cars go up against each other in a variety of one-make machines, came down to a showdown for overall honours between the four-time World Champion and nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen. The Ferrari number one got the better of the Dane in their best-of-three contest, ensuring he added individual victory to the numerous Nations Cup wins he secured for Germany alongside Michael Schumacher. Vettel had vanquished World Rally and World Rallycross Champion Petter Solberg, Force India F1 driver and Le Mans winner Nico Hulkenberg and 2014 RoC winner David Coulthard to reach the final, while Kristensen had despatched Formula E Champion Nelson Piquet Jr, British Touring Car legend Jason Plato and Blancpain Endurance title winner Alex Buncombe.
There was much pride at stake in this year’s Nations Cup, which joined the Race of Champions schedule in 1999. Touring car kings Plato and Andy Priaulx joined forces under the Team England 1 banner and got the measure of Team Germany, comprising Vettel and Hulkenberg, to notch up the first British win in the Nations Cup. Football fans in the crowd were doubtless particularly pleased with the result.
The Race of Champions is a fun, end-of-season concept, and the camaraderie among the drivers is superb, but I can’t help thinking that the competitive element would be better if the event returned to a real racetrack or rally stage – or, ideally, a combination of the two – so that fans could watch the world’s best drivers proving their versatility – and at speed. By its very nature, the indoor-circuit layout is slow and narrow, which reduces the dramatic effect somewhat.
Check out the BBC-televised 1983 Donington Rallysprint (above), featuring Grand Prix aces against World Rally stars in a rally stage aboard Rover SD1s, an autotest in MG Metros and a race aboard MG Maestros. With a rethink on crowd safety for the rally stage, it could be brilliant.
Swede harmony for street king Rosenqvist
European Formula 3 champion Felix Rosenqvist completed his dominant season with a second consecutive win in the Macau Grand Prix – the prestigious curtain closer to the junior single-seater season that has pitted the world’s best F3 drivers against each other since 1983 around the fearsome Guia circuit in the Chinese-owned colony.
The 24-year-old Swede is only the second driver to win the race twice, but the first to do so for two different teams. When you remember that the first F3 Grand Prix was won by Ayrton Senna, you’ll appreciate the significance of a young driver adding a Macau scalp to his CV.
The problem for Rosenqvist is where to go next. He’s been racing in F3 since 2010 and first tasted victory at European level in 2011. Too many people will be studying his CV and wondering why he’s remained in F3 for so long. As is so often the case for talented youngsters, Rosenqvist does not have access to huge pots of cash, with European F3 title success and Macau victory not necessarily a passport by themselves to the next rung on the perilous single-seater ladder to Formula 1.
There’s no guarantee, of course, that the perfect storm of contacts, financial backing and being in the right place at the right time will carry you to F1, but Rosenqvist certainly deserves a shot. After all, it’s just over 38 years since a Swedish driver stood atop a Grand Prix podium and I’m sure Rosenqvist would love a chance to match Ronnie Peterson’s 1978 Austrian GP performance.
Photography courtesy of Porsche Motorsports, IMG and FIA F3.