Webber not happy with season
As loyal as Webber is to Jaguar Racing, and as close as he is to the people in the team, and as hard as they have all worked to make the team succeed, if the car doesn't start performing, Webber will start looking after his own career.
Webber has some difficult decisions to make. While the specifics of his contract with Jaguar are not public knowledge, it's fairly certain that there are performance clauses: Webber is under contract to Jaguar in 2005, but if the team does not achieve a certain number of points in 2004 he probably will be free to look for another drive.
"If we went out and won three Grands Prix this year, we have a different ballgame on our hands, don't we?" Webber said as he chatted with reporters after the first day of practice for the European Grand Prix. "That is unrealistic, the extreme, but we have gone to the other extreme now."
The other extreme is that Webber has scored a solitary point in the first six races of the 2004 season. He's been poised to earn points in most of the races only to be let down by reliability woes.
"If we had finished the Grands Prix that we should have I'd be feeling very happy right now," Webber said. "We'd be ahead of Sauber and McLaren in the championship and we have a different ballgame. But what's happened has happened. It is water under the bridge."
Webber is not looking at the water that's gone by, but he is standing on the bridge and looking at his future. He is 27-years-old, experienced, fast, intelligent, independent, gritty and just the sort of driver Williams BMW would be looking for as a replacement for Juan Pablo Montoya.
"I am not 22 anymore," Webber said, "and I have to make my decisions for my future. If we can't be challenging the guys I think I should be driving around, then there are clearly some big decisions to be made."
The problem has not been the speed of the 2004 Jaguar Cosworth R5. Webber qualified second in Malaysia and has frequently been in a position to score points. The problem has been finishing races.
"I have been really disappointed with the reliability of the car, as has a lot of the team," Webber said. "Last year we used to do a Grand Prix distance before the weekend started (in the Friday morning test session some teams signed up for), at a canter. We got 18 points last year in an environment that was probably not as tough as it is now. It is harder to get points now, but we have made a better car on the performance side of things. The big disappointment has been the inconsistency."
When things go wrong, it all starts to snowball. Webber's car suffered two fires in Monaco. One was caused by a loose oil pipe and the other by a problem with a hydraulic line. The result is that instead of having two cars available for the next test session Jaguar will have to make do with one.
Would more testing help cure the unreliability? Jaguar doesn't have the same budget of the big teams that seem to test around the clock.
"Mileage is king, isn't it?" Webber said. "Of course we'd love to be out there every week. But we have to look at how much load that puts on our factory as well. If we go testing for three days between each race, then it is going to compromise our race performances."
Formula One is a very fickle business. A reporter pointed out to Webber that it only takes four or five races where you are not in the limelight and people have forgotten you and have a new hero. Another half-season of this and people will forget who Mark Webber is, according to that theory.
"Absolutely," Webber said. "It is a phenomenally fickle business, and that is why I stressed to (my manager) Flavio (Briatore) that we have to be very careful with this year. He knows that. I am not telling him how to cook his eggs because he hasn't made a bad decision for me yet. We had a lot of discussions over the winter about my future, and so far so good."
Webber says it's not time to panic just yet.
"We haven't had the season we wanted at the moment, and the fickleness of it is still under control," he said. "I am still happy with how I am driving at the moment. There is interest (in me) in the pit lane, so that is a good thing for me to have. But I still have to keep performing, whether it is Friday, Saturday, Sunday ... every session I want to get the most out of the car and the most out of the team."
In his year and a half at Jaguar, Webber has become a true team leader and he has a very good relationship with the crew.
"The hard thing is that I am so close to the guys that I feel so personally involved in making them happy," he said. "And that is why when you get bad results, through no fault of myself, it is hard to take that back to them."
Webber has been working hard. He even went to the Jaguar factory a couple of days ago to talk to the staff and boost morale.
But the bottom line is that if Jaguar doesn't make a turn for the better, Webber may not be around with the team next year.
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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