The 2011 IndyCar season finale is about to begin. The thirty-four drivers line up on the grid of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but there’s an unusual entrant at the back. Dan Wheldon had been without a permanent ride all season – he’d only started two races in 2011. Las Vegas was to be his third, this time with a very tasty incentive. He had been offered $5 million if he could win from the back of the grid by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard as a way of adding to the spectacle, dubbed a ‘dash for cash’.
The race distance stands at 200 laps. 200 laps to pass 33 cars and make it to Victory Lane, a challenge that Wheldon, ever the racer, relished. ABC selected the two-time Indy 500 champion as their in-race reporter, and they talked to Wheldon just before the race start, where he told them, “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think that I could win”.
Formation lap done, it was time for the green flag, and Wheldon made up ten places in the first ten laps. If he continued at that pace, he’d stand a very good chance of being in the mix by lap 200 and he knew it.
Wade Cunningham and James Hinchcliffe made light contact on lap 12 in a seemingly insignificant incident. However, the numerous and fast-approaching cars changed that. Cunningham and Hinchcliffe were collected in a high-speed, 15-car wreck as drivers tried to avoid the chaos.
This type of wreck was more accustomed to NASCAR rather than IndyCar, but it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary. The consequences, however, were.
While 14 of the 15 drivers got away relatively unharmed, one didn’t. That one was Wheldon. There was a two-hour delay before the remaining drivers were given the news. It told them of something they knew could happen, but didn’t think ever would happen to them – they wouldn’t step in the car if they thought it would. The race was abandoned after the field completed a five-lap salute to their fallen friend, but this was just the start of what was to unfold.
On December 15th 2011, a 49-page document was published and released to the media, providing in-depth analysis of every angle of the 15-car crash that resulted in Wheldon’s death. It attributed his death to a “non-survivable” impact with a fence post on the catch fencing where his roll-hoop was torn off and left his helmeted head exposed.
As a result, Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s contract was temporarily suspended and eventually permanently ended after it was deemed that the series could no longer race there with ensured safety. The same fate almost befell Texas Motor Speedway, which is another high-banked oval, but after some consideration it remained on the calendar and is still there to this day.
Las Vegas have since expressed interest at returning to the schedule, but IndyCar management remain sceptical, not wanting to re-open old wounds or risk anything else at that track.
Since 16th October 2011, Bernard and IndyCar as a series have come under huge amounts of criticism for creating the deadly circumstances surrounding Wheldon’s death, namely the chance to earn $5 million, the often three-wide high-banked oval, the speeds in excess of 220mph and seasoned drivers having to fight against rookies. It is still such a worrying crash to look back on. Sure, the so-called ‘dash for cash’ competitions are no longer held, but the man-made nature of the circumstances are disturbing to say the least.
This all happened at a time when IndyCar was far more like NASCAR than F1 and that was the direction that the series was being taken in. The directors wanted close, high-speed pack racing that was both unpredictable and dangerous in nature. But, while NASCARs can bump and barge without too much worry, open-wheeled IndyCars, quite clearly, cannot.
This has since been turned around. A change of series directors brought about a change in attitude, and the realisation that IndyCar was not NASCAR and shouldn’t try to be like it because it just wasn’t going to work. The controversial and often polarising duo of Bernard and Brian Barnhart are no longer part of IndyCar’s management, with the former being removed in 2012 and the latter leaving to set up Harding Racing at the end of 2017.
The truth is that Wheldon’s death didn’t cause anywhere near as much change as it should have, and probably would have if it happened now. It showcased the blame-culture within the management at the time, with blame being put on the circuit for a culmination of issues that were mostly in the series’ control, not the track’s. Change was dangerously slowly implemented but that has now altered, primarily and unfortunately due to another tragedy.
Justin Wilson died as a result of injuries sustained at the 2015 IndyCar race at Pocono after being struck by a piece of flying debris that had come off the crashed car of Sage Karam. The report, which was never released to the media like Wheldon’s was, stated that it was a “freak accident”. Since then, front and rear wings have been tethered to the cars, the new universal aero kits were brought in to reduce the amount of flying debris and soon the new windscreen will be brought in, something that many believe would have saved Wilson’s life.
This showed a quick, coordinated and effective response to a tragedy, one that was far from present in the aftermath of Wheldon’s crash. IndyCar, and motorsport in general, has thankfully changed drastically since 2011, with a much greater interest in safety and the prevention of unnecessary risks. But, the sport is, by nature, reactive rather than proactive. It takes an accident for the true danger of something to be seen and the correct preventive measures to be put in place.
Not as much has been learnt from Wheldon’s accident as it should have, but times have changed. IndyCar has woken up to the safety revolution that European motorsport is already undergoing. That change just needs to keep going.
IndyCar has evolved huge amounts over the last decade in terms of safety with numerous crashes and unfortunate tragedies to be learnt from. Development has come for the cars, the tracks and the safety crews but it’s a constant race to keep the stars as safe as possible with speeds reaching in excess of 230mph.
One of the biggest changes to come to the oval races was the introduction of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barriers, more commonly known as just ‘SAFER Barriers’. These first came about, after a number of high profile fatalities, in 2002 when they were installed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before being retro-fitted to all ovals used by IndyCar and NASCAR by 2006. Since then, the SAFER Barriers have been used at some IndyCar road courses – such as Watkins Glen – where there’s not enough room for sufficient run off given the speed of the cars.
Iowa Speedway was actually the first track to have the SAFER Barriers incorporated in the track design, featured around the whole perimeter of the track to reduce the loading on the driver, decreasing the chance of injury or worse.
During the event itself, the AMR IndyCar Safety Team are there for the drivers, should they be in need of their assistance. A dedicated team consisting of three trucks and, in total, twelve personnel, follow IndyCar around for every race of the season, joining forces with the local safety teams at each track. This group are there to focus on the three main areas of an incident – the impact zone with the wall, the place where the car comes to rest (including the driver) and the debris field. The teams will be dispatched to every incident from a simple breakdown to a multi-car wreck and, for 99% of the time, the incident can just be cleared and the session can continue as usual.
It’s that 1% where the problem lies.
One of those such incidents happened on 18th May 2015 during Practice 8 of the Indy 500, the day after qualifying. It was about an hour into the session and James Hinchcliffe was getting some draft practice in before race day when his right front rocker failed. This was a highly unusual failure, when cars have been through huge crashes, their rockers will more than likely be intact but, for Hinchcliffe, that wasn’t the case. The Canadian was left a passenger in his #5 Schmidt Peterson as it ploughed into the wall of the famous speedway coming out of Turn 3 and into Turn 4. From the outside, the crash didn’t look that bad at first, sure, it was a big hit but we see them quite a lot in IndyCar.
However, all was far from well. The piece of suspension that had caused the crash had also puncture the tub and, along with it, Hinchcliffe’s thigh. Worse still, it had hit the Canadian’s femoral artery. This was not good news but, thanks to the quick work of the Safety Team, they managed to get Hinchcliffe out of the car and to the hospital – all with about 90 seconds to spare before his time was up.
Just days after Hinchcliffe’s crash, parts had been added to the rockers on all cars to stop them failing in the same manner and the tubs had been strengthened further to prevent anything from puncturing it.
Once Hinchcliffe had recovered enough to be conscious and talking, his third question was “when can I get back in a car?” which is true testament to the mentality of racing drivers. Return he did, having sat out the rest of the 2015 season, Hinchcliffe was back for 2016 and, incredibly, took pole for the Indy 500, at the track that had so nearly claimed his life the year before.
Another one of those 1% crashes came at the Indy 500 last year when Sebastien Bourdais hit the barriers during his qualifying run. After running pole pace on his first two laps, Bourdais lost control of his car on the third, hitting the wall and causing the tub to break. As a result, Bourdais fractured his pelvis but, thankfully for him, that was the only damage done and he returned to racing just over three months later at Gateway. The consequences weren’t nearly as severe for Bourdais as they were for Hinchcliffe but both their injuries contributed to the all-new design for the 2018 cars.
The biggest change on the new cars safety-wise was the restructuring of the sidepods. They, along with the oil and water radiators, were moved forwards to be ahead of the driver’s hips, providing extra cushioning to the driver in the case of a side impact, such as Bourdais’. Additionally, a wider edge to the base of the sidepod and other modifications means the cars are less likely to go airborne during spins and collisions, as they have been doing in previous years.
Also, the front and rear wings have less elements and the rear wheel guards, along with the winglets, have been removed, all to reduce the amount of potential flying debris in incidents. The design of these cars allows for a cockpit windscreen to be put in place which is where IndyCar is heading next.
While F1 have pushed ahead in developing and implementing the ‘Halo’, IndyCar have been forced to take a different route, primarily because of the ovals and the visual implications to the driver that would surface as a result. IndyCar’s cockpit windscreen has already had a few running’s in tests and practice sessions by numerous drivers, who agree that it takes a while to get used to but does need to be put in place.
IndyCar has a very personal reason for wanting some form of cockpit protection. Back in 2015, Justin Wilson was killed at Pocono when he was struck by a piece of front wing from Sage Karam’s crashed car, it was a fatality that shook IndyCar to the core and the first in the series since the much-loved Dan Wheldon in 2011. Following Wilson’s crash, front and rear wings were tethered to the main body of the car, in a similar way to the wheels, to prevent them from breaking free but the huge loss was all the same.
Over the years, huge changes have been made to all aspects of IndyCar, making the series much safer than before with the crashes acting at catalysts for quick or more long-term changes. However, like any other form of motorsport, there are still changes to be made and, as it was put it perfectly in the documentary ‘Yellow Yellow Yellow: The IndyCar Safety Team’, “you think you’ve got every aspect covered until they figure out another way to crash…”
The Head and Neck System (more commonly referred to as the HANS device) is often overlooked in the world of modern Formula One. Its historical significance, though, should not be underestimated, not least because at the time of its introduction it was one of very, very few occasions in F1’s history up to that point where the FIA had reacted to a non-fatal accident.
The accident in question occurred at the 1995 Australian Grand Prix, hosted at the popular Adelaide circuit. At one of the fastest points on the track, a rapid tyre deflation sent Mika Hakkinen – then in his third season in F1 – hurtling into the barriers. The impact was so extreme that his neck hyperextended, his skull was fractured, he swallowed his tongue, and he suffered major internal bleeding. He spent over two months in hospital – a significant amount of that in intensive care – but he eventually made a full recovery and returned to F1 for the 1996 season.
F1 drivers in that era were still sitting very high up in the cars with their shoulders often clear of the chassis, making them extremely vulnerable to head and neck injuries. It was this driving position, mixed with the fact that Hakkinen had nothing supporting his neck, which made his injuries so severe.
The HANS device was already in existence at this point, having initially being designed in the 1980s by Dr Robert Hubbard, but it was too bulky to fit into the narrow cockpit of a single-seater racing car, and he was unable to find sufficient financial backing to complete the necessary redesigns. Hakkinen’s accident, though, made the FIA realise its potential in terms of safety, and they offered to help in and fund its development.
The HANS device, because of Hakkinen’s accident, evolved into what it is today – a collar-type piece of carbon fibre that fits either side of the drivers’ shoulders, attached to mounting points either side of their helmets by two tethers and held in place by the seatbelts. In the event of a crash, these tethers stop the head from whipping backwards and forwards, keeping the neck in line with the spine and thus preventing it from hyperextending like Mika Hakkinen’s had. In addition, it helps to transfer the energy that would otherwise be absorbed by the head, into the stronger torso, seat, and the belts, reducing the strain put on the head.
Even today, head and neck injuries are still the leading cause of driver deaths regardless of category, and it begs the question just how many potential fatalities were prevented by the HANS device.
Hindsight, though, is a wonderful thing. When the HANS device was initially introduced, it was greeted with a very lukewarm reception. Many drivers claimed that it was cumbersome, uncomfortable, and might even cause more injuries than it prevented. NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt even went so far as to refer to it as a ‘noose’. In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, Earnhardt was killed by a basal skull fracture in 2001, the forth NASCAR driver in the space of fourteen months to die of such an injury, one which the HANS device would have helped prevent.
The National Hot Rod Association was the first series to adopt the HANS device, following the death of Blaine Johnson in 1996. In 2002, at the Italian Grand Prix, Felipe Massa became the first man to wear the HANS device during a Formula One race. The next year, in 2003, it became mandatory for drivers in any and all FIA series to wear the HANS device, at the risk of being disqualified from the event should they fail to do so. Some have claimed that Massa’s accident at the 2004 Canadian Grand Prix was the first example of the HANS device potentially saving a driver’s life.
Amid all the talk of Virtual Safety Cars and halos of late, it is easy to overlook the HANS device and the impact it has had on safety in motorsport. Before its introduction, even crashes that did not on the face of it seem that dramatic could end in tragedy. Yes, head and neck injuries may still be the leading fatalities of drivers, but the number of times the HANS device has prevented such an incident from happening is innumerable and worth its weight in gold. It has become a staple of motorsport safety, and in no way should it be taken for granted.
Well, I’ve been here five years. I started out in the customer engineering department, spent a couple of years there, I was working with Nassar Al Al-Attiyah, and we did WRC2 and we won that championship, did a couple of years in the Middle East. I then transferred over to the works team in 2015 and been there ever since. I worked with Elfyn these past years including last year in the D-Mack car and obviously this year as well, so that’s where we’re at really. With the works team, we actually quite a small team, we have a lot of responsibilities, not just the car, kind of spread out to other departments.
Okay, well the reason for this call is to get a point from the safety aspects of the way the cars are constructed, how you tackle the events, from that safety aspect, keeping everything safe so they can go all out knowing it’s all safe.
The first question is, in terms of the FIA, what kind of checks do they do on the cars, are there any inspections for the cars, before you enter each year?
Yes, the main inspections are during scrutineering at each event, so with the car being homologated the FIA expect you turn up with a design that is homologated, within the safety regulations. As a manufacturer, we actually self-scrutineer before the event.
The event scrutineers and the FIA technical delegate will arrive in the service park and will go to each manufacturer team and they will inspect simple things like fire extinguishers, they’ll look at the cut off switches and they’ll check the safety foam around seat and the doors, side impact structures, just very basic checks, but they expect us to self-scrutineer and present the car in a safe manner. Now one of my responsibilities is to liaise between the FIA and ourselves with regard to what we are going to seal at each event, be it engines, transmissions, whatever it is we are sealing and we present a scrutineering form for each car and that declares that part is safe to start the event.
If you then get caught at post event scrutineering, if that part of the car is found not to conform to the form, there can be penalties. There is a certain amount of trust from the FIA to the manufacturers as we present the car in a safe manner. Now, that is different for a customer team, so anybody who competes as a customer WRC or in the WRC2 or any of the support championships, they don’t self-scrutineer, they are inspected a bit more thoroughly, as I guess they have fewer resources, they maybe are not familiar with the regulations, so they have to present their car to the FIA and pass a series of tests before they start. In that respect, it’s easier for a manufacturer, but a lot goes into it, with homologating the car and so on.
In terms of the construction of the car, were there many changes to the cars, compared to the previous generation, other than the obvious things?
Yes, there was a big drive in fact. The main concern from the FIA was looking back to the mid 2000’s, the cars hadn’t really progressed from then to 2015, 2016, so in that ten-year period the safety side hadn’t really developed, so there was a bit of a push from the FIA and also the Global Institute for motorsport safety, which is an independent body that sits inside the FIA. So, going back to when they presented the new regulations in 2015, the FIA came up with a safety road map for the WRC.
The first thing presented to the teams, a proposal for safety enhancements as part of the new for 2017 regulations. Now each car is fitted with an accident data recorder and using statistical analysis they were able to see the highest ‘G’ impacts on the cars could sustain without having any injuries and if there was a threshold above which there were injuries to the crews and then they would work to increase that threshold by improving various aspects of the safety that’s when they started to present a proposal for new equipment, to change the design of the cars that means that incorporated new seatbelts and new side impact, new regulations on seats as well.
That was all the effort to increase the safety. Now the safety road map is something that all the teams are working towards, for 2017 we had to as part of the new regulations, the cars were wider and that allowed us to add 20% extra impact foam and this was in the door the carbon structure along the sill as well. As well as that we were able to introduce new regulations for the fuel tanks and we had to fit a medical light to the windscreen so that in an impact of over 25g the light switches on and any marshal that arrives at the car, if this bright blue light is flashing, then the crew will need medical attention.
Thinking then during an event, if there is any damage to the car during an event what happens there, obviously you’d try to fix it, but would the FIA come a re-inspect the car before it goes back out?
If it’s an impact that damages the safety cage, the FIA will want to inspect that. If it’s an impact that we deem we car repair, we’ll have to get the car re-scrutineered again during the rally2 service, plus if it’s an impact that we deem we can’t repair then at that point the FIA remove the seals that are on the body shell and roll cage and then when that shell is repaired and brought back into circulation, it will have to be re-inspected and sealed again.
We always have the FIA technical delegates around and they’ll always be checking if there is any damage to the roll cage. Effectively the roll cage can be damaged and repaired during an event. We can change parts of the roll cage if we need to, but if we do that it has to be with a piece that’s already been pre-inspected at the start of the homologation process to the car, we will present pieces of roll cage that aren’t assembled to the FIA and they will fit seals to them and those will be the only parts we can fit into the car.
How many pieces would you therefore be transporting to each event?
Well, I think we carry three full kits to each event, actually and they take up a lot of space. Certainly, since this new generation of car that came in at the start of last year (2017) we’ve never had impacts there, we’ve not needed to replace roll cage parts, but we’ve only had one large accident, which was with Elfyn in Mexico, and in that case the shell had to be completely rebuilt and that car hasn’t come back into circulation yet, so when that does come back in we’ll have to get it re-inspected and sealed again.
Now thinking of the safety crews that go into the stages, when are they mainly used?
They are mainly for tarmac events, and each crew has a safety crew and they don’t have to be a qualified person, but they tend to be. Obviously in Elfyn’s respect, it’s his dad, ex-WRC driver Gywndaf and Phil Mills and these guys have a timetable they have to follow when they go through the stages and that can be as close as forty minutes before the stage actually goes live and those guys would call back to the crews and engineering as well and then if they correct the notes they will pass those through the team back to the rally crew.
Of course, we saw Phil Mills sit in alongside Elfyn after Dan’s concussion which was caused by that high-speed roll during Mexico, so I asked Chris about this.
It’s something that I feel quite strongly about, I have strong views personally. The issue with the crews, when they get concussion is it maybe that they feel okay within themselves, or they may not feel they have concussion, but say in Dan’s case, he felt ill, he wasn’t sure if he could continue, so in that case the first point of contact between the team and the crew is myself or the car engineer, so it’s possible if you don’t have immediate medical assistance to basically diagnose possible concussion, you can end up with the crew speaking directly to the engineer, I don’t know if we can continue, and for me I think someone who has not qualified and should not have an opinion on medical issues and it shouldn’t really fall to the team or the engineer to make a decision if they should continue or not.
With Dan, it was a case that he felt a bit ill, and obviously didn’t know he was concussed, and we took a view that he had to seek medical assistance, but he did one more stage after the accident, a little super special before coming into service – so he actually went through another stage, a small stage, and the kind that you wouldn’t expect them to have another accident, but because there hadn’t been any kind of medical assistance where he was checked out, it’s possible they could have had another accident there, so for me I think that was a bit of a failing there in the safety system. I think that’s something that needs to be looked at. (Chris made it clear this was his own personal opinion).
Chris also talked about Julian Ingrassia, who suffered concussion last year at Rally Finland.
They were both side impacts, which were between the head and the seat, which is an area the FIA are looking at, going forward and next year they are bringing in a new helmet standard for Formula One which is supposed to improve safety. We’ve not seen a rally version yet, but the intention of the FIA is back to the safety road map is that will be introduced next year. Hopefully that will reduce these concussions.
One more question for you then – When the recce is completed, do you sit down with Elfyn and Dan and discuss the stages?
Yes, we have a team debrief, and debrief just after the event with all the crews together, go through aspects of the cars performance, team performance as well. We’ll also give feedback to the team manager about how the event has been run, tend to do that as soon as possible after the event, so we’ll do that at four or five o’clock, Sunday afternoon.
Then after that we’ll conduct our test for the next event which tends to be a about a week later. Now with Elfyn in the UK, he sometimes comes up to the factory and we’ll sit down in the office and we’ll look at things in more detail, so in that respect it’s quite good that he’s only a few hours down the road, and we can get together and look at some things. Obviously, the relationship between the engineer and the crew is a close one. We are always in constant contact.
Finally, I asked Chris if there was anything he wanted to talk about additionally.
Well, we’ve got a few more safety things coming in the pipeline. Things being brought forward by the FIA. One area we’re working on with the FIA is the seat rails, integrating the seats into the bodyshell. We’re looking how these can bend and deform to take some of the impact away from the crew, and this is something which will be introduced for 2020 – that’s the seats themselves, the way they’re anchored into the shell.
For next year we’ll start using the Formula One biometric gloves, so basically the crew will wear these, and they’ll send real time data, actually measure blood oxygen levels, that will be sent to the FIA and the medical crew and if there’s been an accident, particularly an accident where the car has gone off the road and they can’t quite reach the crew, the medical crews will be able to assess the crew without being with the crew and this will be a good advancement.
One final thing which is being brought in is a high-speed camera, which is fitted into the cockpit and this means we can see the impacts and how the body is moving inside the car and that’s something that’s started being used in Formula One and we started testing that, with the intention to bring that in next year.
These are all good steps indeed to look after the crews and Chris said,
Rallying is a living environment, rather than a circuit, so has different safety requirements.
Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to Anna at M-Sport for being so helpful in arranging this and to Chris a massive thank you for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions.
Look out during this week for more articles from my colleagues about safety in motorsport.
Red Bull currently have four constructors titles and four drivers titles, those four titles are all courtesy of one driver, Sebastian Vettel. The German’s relationship with the team begun in 1998 at the age of 11, when he signed to their junior team. His success in the junior formulae acted as a precursor to his career at the top table as he won the Junior Monaco Kart Cup in 2001.
He then went on to win the 2004 German Formula BMW Championship, with a whopping 18 wins from 20 victories. This opened up his door to F1 as he was rewarded with a test in the Williams FW27. While he was winning these cups in the junior categories, in Formula One another German was taking all the plaudits. As Vettel won 18 from 20 races in 2004, Michael Schumacher was taking his seventh world championship in his most dominant season. He took 13 wins from 18 races and took his final championship win.
Vettel begun testing for the BMW Sauber Formula One team in 2006, while participating in the F3 Euroseries, coming second to Paul Di Resta. 2007 saw him get his big break, while racing in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series. Following Robert Kubica’s horror smash at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix, Vettel was called up to replace him for the US Grand Prix. He qualified seventh and finished eighth, taking his first point and becoming the youngest point scorer in history, aged 19 years and 349 days.
BMW released Vettel so that he could join the Scuderia Toro Rosso team for the remainder of the 2007 season, replacing Scott Speed. This is where his journey to Red Bull stardom began. Following a few impressive results, his big break came at the Italian Grand Prix in 2008. He qualified on pole in horrendous conditions, becoming the youngest polesitter, which he then masterfully translated into his and Toro Rosso’s first win. He broke Fernando Alonso’s record set at the 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix of youngest winner.
For 2009, Red Bull promoted Vettel to their team alongside Mark Webber, and the rest, as they say, is history. He took Red Bull’s first win at the Chinese Grand Prix, with team mate Mark Webber in second. He took four wins that season and finished second in the championship to Jenson Button in the dominant Brawn.
2010 however, was an interesting year for the team, at the Turkish Grand Prix, while challenging Webber for the lead, the pair collided, putting Vettel out of the race, and the relationship turned sour from that moment on. Both were fighting for the championship come the end of the season, with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso joining them, in a winner takes all clash at Abu Dhabi. He took pole and won the race, taking his first championship, following in the footsteps of John Surtees in 1964 and James Hunt in 1976 in not leading the championship at any point during the season.
2011 was another story, he was dominant, taking 11 wins from 19 races, showing his driving prowess and the newly found power of Red Bull in Formula One. The Austrian team had beaten the heavyweights of McLaren and Ferrari in becoming the top team in the sport. Vettel was quickly becoming known as one of the best drivers in the sport, taking record after record. 2012 saw him take his third consecutive title, emulating Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher in the process.
He was in a battle with Fernando Alonso, again, and it went down to the final race in Brazil. After a first lap collision, Vettel was at the back of the grid, he battled back through the grid, taking sixth, while Alonso finished second, meaning there was nothing Alonso could do. A rather symbolic moment from the race however was Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher moving over for Vettel to take sixth place in Schumacher’s final race. It was almost like there was a changing of the guard between the two.
2013 saw Vettel take an impressive fourth title, not without its hairy moments, with the now infamous multi-21 incident in Malaysia. Vettel ignored team orders and overtook Webber, taking the win, the Australian was incandescent. Their relationship was already fragile following the incident in 2010, and this was the final straw, with Webber believing the team was against him, he decided to retire from Formula One at the end of the season.
He was booed at some races and Vettel revealed it did have a negative impact on him, though it was widely condemned by many drivers. It didn’t appear to faze him too much as he ended the season with 13 wins from 19 races, including nine consecutive wins at the end of the season.
2014 was the beginning of the end for Red Bull and Vettel, with the rules being changed, Mercedes became the dominant force, with Vettel being overshadowed by new team mate Daniel Ricciardo. In Japan it was confirmed that Vettel would join Ferrari, ending a 16 year association with Red Bull. A German at Ferrari, sound familiar?
Vettel is currently fighting for the title with Lewis Hamilton, but it’s clear that without Red Bull, Vettel’s career could have been so different.
The year was 2005 and Red Bull Racing were looking to grow their brand in F1 for both the short and long term. As lady luck would have it, such an opportunity presented itself at the end of that season. Scuderia Toro Rosso (STR) was born, and the rest as they say, is history.
The struggling Minardi team was sold to Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz at the end of 2005, when he entered into an equal ownership agreement with F1 legend Gerhard Berger, which lasted until 2008 when the Red Bull team took full ownership.
Designed to serve as a vehicle for the development of their junior drivers before they could be promoted to the RBR senior team, STR has nurtured the talent of the many young drivers, the most notable of which is 4-time champion, Sebastian Vettel.
It was in an STR that Vettel took the first win of his legendary career when he shook up the paddock with a pole to victory drive at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix. He is, to this date, responsible for the only STR win in F1. His victory proved to be the catalyst for his amazing season, which earned him a promotion to the RBR senior team in 2009…. And we all know how that went!
Mateschitz’s vision of creating a sustainable future for his maverick brand in F1, had immediately paid dividends, which has again been repeated by the outstanding talent that is Max Verstappen.
Even though this season has been one to forget for the Dutch driver, his win soon after promotion to RBR again underlined the need for STR in keeping young talent in the paddock, especially given that tenure in F1 is uncertain to say the least. His efforts in the 2015 season resulted in RBR scoring the most points in their history in terms of the constructors rankings.
That’s not to say it has been all wine and roses for the team. Early on in their tenure, questions were raised of an unfair advantage that STR had gained as a result of their RBR link. The team had struggled with performance and handling issues, which had been alleviated to an extent during Vettel’s sterling 2008 season.
2016 saw STR find themselves inadvertently in the middle of a motorsport storm, when Daniil Kvyat, then driving for RBR was sent back to STR for further development, and replaced in the senior team by Verstappen, to the chagrin of a large contingent of F1 fans. The malcontent died down however, with Verstappen’s success at RBR.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN
There are lessons to learn in the RBR/STR journey, not the least of which is the value of a team that can act both as a developmental vehicle and retain some independence. STR also doesn’t follow a traditional “use the same engine as the parent team” model which is a departure from the usual in F1. But it is their treatment of younger drivers that stands out.
Teams often face the problem of developmental drivers, who usually run the odd FP1 session or in DTM/GP2, coming into the F1 team with little experience of the rigours associated with full time F1 driving. STR has allowed the younger drivers a way of developing their skills “on the job”, so as to speak, giving them a full shot at the F1 world and arguably a better chance when they are eventually promoted to the RBR team or even join another team on the grid.
Currently Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kyvat helm the machines at STR and while they have struggled a bit this season, the upcoming tracks should suit their style of driving and keep them in the mix for points.
Red Bull started their ever-successful F1 adventure in 2005 with David Coulthard and Christian Klien as its first ever driver pairing, while Vitantonio Liuzzi drove several races in Klien’s place. But what of their predecessors at the Milton Keynes base?
Ford took over the old Stewart team in time for the start of the 2000 season and renamed Sir Jackie’s outfit as Jaguar Racing and promised a lot during their five seasons. In Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine, they started out with two Grand Prix winners with Irvine himself fresh from a title challenge with Ferrari in 1999, missing out by two points to Mika Hakkinen.
The season fell way short of their predecessors though. Herbert retired from F1 to go and race in the US off the back of a pointless season, while in a car that clearly struggled Irvine managed to wrestle four points from it. With today’s points system in place, he would have scored 42.
2001 was little better amid turbulence behind the scenes, with successful American team manager drafted in by Ford to turn things around. Irvine was to make the podium in a chaotic Monaco Grand Prix but aside from that results were largely the same. Luciano Burti lasted just four races as Herbert’s replacement before he was himself replaced by Pedro De La Rosa, who would score two points in Italy. Jaguar would finish eighth in the Constructors’ Championship.
2002 saw fewer points but ultimately a higher position in the Constructors’, taking the last of their podium finishes at the Italian Grand Prix courtesy of Irvine once more. Irvine would retire at the end of the season, De La Rosa would go through it pointless and lose his seat as the promising Mark Webber and Brazil’s Antonio Pizzonia joined for 2003. In a similar pattern to Jaguar’s three years, Webber would dominate Pizzonia while he became the second Brazilian to leave Jaguar midway through a season. His replacement, Justin Wilson was on closer terms with Webber and would score a point. Webber would score 16.
A stronger performance in 2003 led many to believe Jaguar would be more regular scorers in 2004, but it didn’t materialise. Webber managed just seven before it was announced he’d be joining BMW Williams, while rookie Klien took just three. Before the end of the season Ford announced their intention to sell, their F1 project floundering.
It wasn’t until very late that Dietrich Mateschitz, whose Red Bull company had sponsored Jaguar as part of the deal to sign Klien, bought the team outright, before buying Minardi a year later and renaming that Scuderia Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s junior team.
Red Bull were clearly the most dominant team of the early decade after years of building solid foundations in the midfield. The team formerly known as Jaguar began their F1 tenure with an excellent performance in what was their debut campaign.
David Coulthard showed on numerous occasions that the RB1 was quick as he twice just missed out on podium finishes on his way to 24 points and 12th place, in a renaissance for the Scot ousted at McLaren by Juan Pablo Montoya. Christian Klien took further eight points including 5th place in China, while Vitantonio Liuzzi scored his maiden point at the San Marino Grand Prix.
2006 was to be less fruitful for the team despite Coulthard scoring their first podium, and the first for the Milton Keynes factory since 2002, at the Monaco Grand Prix. Klien left three races before the end of the season to be replaced by Robert Doornbos as Red Bull scored just 14 points all season, with six of those in Monaco.
Mark Webber re-joined in 2007 and the team became more consistent as they began to move up the Constructors’ standings, while Coulthard remained as First Driver. On the pitwall, Red Bull pulled off a major coup by signing legendary designer Adrian Newey from McLaren on a long-term contract. Webber was to score a podium at the European Grand Prix in Germany but was dogged by the kind of reliability issues that plagued his two-year stint at Williams.
Coulthard was more of a consistent scorer, largely avoiding the poor luck that Webber endured. 24 points was enough for the team to finish fifth in the World Championship. More points did not herald forward movement in the Constructors’ Championship in 2008 as the influence of Newey began to show. Webber scored points in five of the first six races of 2008 while Coulthard, in what was to be his final season in F1, struggled to make an impact.
A chaotic Canadian Grand Prix saw the Scot take the final podium of an excellent career with third place behind the two BMW Saubers, but seventh in Singapore was his sole other points finish. His career ended with a first lap shunt at the now famous Brazilian Grand Prix. With Sebastian Vettel announced as his replacement after impressing at Toro Rosso, new regulations for 2009 promised a shake-up of the order. That promise came to fruition as Red Bull proved to have one of the quicker cars, although they started out well behind Brawn GP following Ross Brawn’s Honda-salvage operation.
It had been a slow start with just 1.5 points from the first two races as Vettel crashed out of the Australian Grand Prix while fighting Kubica for second while Webber finished sixth in a rain-shortened Malaysian Grand Prix. A rain-soaked Chinese Grand Prix was the scene for Vettel’s second Grand Prix victory but more importantly Red Bull’s first, as Webber made it a 1-2 ahead of Jenson Button’s Brawn.
Vettel would win again later in the year in Britain, Japan and Abu Dhabi while Webber took an emotional first-ever win at Nurburgring, with a second one in Brazil not enough to stop the Brawn pair of Button and Rubens Barrichello winning both the World Drivers’ Championship with Button and the Constructors’ Championship with a race to spare. Nevertheless, a precedent had been set as Red Bull comfortably outperformed their rivals in the second half of the season, while Ferrari and McLaren both had poor seasons. It was never a flash in the pan for Dietrich Mateschitz, and Red Bull Racing were here to stay.
Mark Webber made his debut at his home Grand Prix in 2002, driving for the now-defunct Minardi team. When the-then 26-year-old made his debut, no-one could’ve expected points but no-one would’ve thought that the unassuming Aussie would go on to be such a role-model and ambassador for F1. In this feature, I look back on Mark Webber’s stint at Red Bull – a car he became synonymous with from 2007 right up to his retirement in 2013.
Webber made a bold decision to join Red Bull in 2007. The team at the time had only one podium, which was a lucky one at that – at the 2006 Monaco GP, following the retirement of Jarno Trulli’s Toyota just a few laps from the end. Webber himself was also unproven, with just one podium to his name, at the same Grand Prix the year before.
The start to his Red Bull life was nothing spectacular. It took him until the United States Grand Prix to score points – the 7th race of the year. The next time he would score points would be at the European Grand Prix, hosted at the Nurburgring – which turned into be an iconic and memorable circuit for the effervescent Australian.
The race will be one that many of us remember for different reasons. For me, it was because, as an 8-year-old boy, I was listening to Murray Walker commentate for the first time in my life, on the radio in the UK. There was carnage at turn one, with a quarter of the field sliding off in the monsoon-like conditions – Webber was NOT one of them. Mark went on to finish a whole minute behind the winner but it was enough to secure him his first podium for Red Bull. There would be just one more points-finish in 2007, at the Belgian GP where he was 7th.
For 2008, he remained with Red Bull and finished eight races but this time, without a podium finish. His best result was 4th at the Monaco GP – a circuit that was quickly becoming one of his favourites. Just three retirements in the 2008 season also suggested that whilst Mark as a driver was becoming a more complete competitor, Red Bull as a team were making big steps forwards.
2009 beckoned and for once, the grid had been well and truly shaken up. McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari were both struggling, whilst the likes of Brawn and Red Bull took over as the top-two teams. Webber was undoubtedly outshone by his young teammate and Red Bull new-kid, Sabastian Vettel. Webebr’s first podium of the season came in China with 2nd – his best result ever at the time. This was followed by Spanish Grand Prix success and third place, two races later. From the Turkish GP to the Hungarian GP, Webber took four podiums – including his first ever victory, at the Nurburgring in Germany.
Years of doubt had plagued Webber. Journalists and TV pundits doubting him throughout his career.At the time, Australia was also coming good in other Motorsport areas. Casey Stoner was a regular race-winner in MotoGP whilst Troy Bayliss had become World Superbike champion for a third time in 2008. Josh Brookes was a revelation in British Superbikes and Cameron Donald was continuing to take the road racing scene and the Isle of Man TT by storm. Mark Webber had completed the set of Australia’s Motorsport achievements towards the end of the naughties. He became the first Australian to win a race in F1 since Alan Jones at the Caesar Palace Grand Prix, way back in 1981. The drought of Australian F1 success was over and Webber was now on his way. After the Hungarian GP of that year however, it all went wrong. Just two more podiums came his way, with a win in Brazil and 2nd in the Abu Dhabi GP placing him 4th overall in the standings – his highest at the time. However, in the words of the man himself, “It was nothing to what 2010 had in store”.
He was quite right too. 2010 was another stellar season. Wins came at the Spanish GP and Monaco GP before a controversial clash with teammate Sebastian Vettel in Turkey occurred. Brits adored him as one of their own and when he won at Silverstone, it was met with great delight. Once more, a win in Hungary proved that he had talent in a Formula 1 car and that he could be a regular threat.
Despite being his most successful season in F1, Mark would have to wait until the final race of the year to become a winner in 2011 – the Brazilian Grand Prix. He finished every race in the points with the exception of the Italian Grand Prix. A damaged front wing tucked under the car at the Parabolica, recording his and the team’s first retirement of the year. Webber finished 3rd in the championship on 258 points.
2012 was disappointing. His first win came in Monaco and his next at Silverstone. However, that was to be his last win in F1. Webber had a poor mid-season and by the time the championship had concluded in Brazil, he was 6th in the championship – his worst championship position since 2008. However, the gritty Wonder from Down Under wasn’t finished.
2013 would prove to be Webber’s last in Formula 1. However, it wasn’t a boring bow-out. He came to blows with teammate Vettel in the Malaysian Grand Prix, after the German ignored team orders and took the win away from Webber. In June, Mark Webber made the announcement that no-one wanted him to ever make. The humble Australian, who had gone from inconsistent driver to accomplished race winner in just a couple of seasons, was to leave the sport at the end of the season to pursue a new career in the World Endurance Series.
Webber finished his Formula One career with nine wins, forty-two podiums, thirteen pole positions and nineteen fastest laps from 215 race starts. An icon for Australians and an inspiration to any young driver. Webber’s defiance to continue in his early years despite mediocre results earned him a reputation as being one of the most determined and most calculated drivers in the modern era of F1. Whilst the world and F1 paddock has gone PC and Red Tape mad, Webber pushed the boundaries and that is what gave him so many fans worldwide. F1 misses Webber but he will be remembered for his success at Red Bull. A fixture and fitting of the team and by no-means forgotten about.
Webber continues with media duties for Channel 4, with their F1 coverage and also interviews the drivers on the podium after the racing.