x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Red Bull's Mark Webber to put Formula One in his rear-view mirrors

Australian will join Porsche to compete in 24 Hours of Le Mans while speculation now is on who will take his ride at Red Bull Racing, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Mark Webber has enjoyed a 12-year career in Formula One. Philippe Lopez / AFP
Mark Webber has enjoyed a 12-year career in Formula One. Philippe Lopez / AFP

SILVERSTONE, ENGLAND // As one door closes, another opens. Red Bull Racing's Mark Webber on Thursday announced he will quit Formula One at the end of the season in favour of a career with Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.

In doing so, the 36-year-old Australian leaves vacant arguably the most coveted seat in motorsport.

Webber's announcement that he will campaign with Porsche, including at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, came as no surprise, given his one-year rolling contract and a turbulent relationship with his Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel.

Rumours of the switch have swirled around the F1 paddock since late March.

While the decision was no revelation, the means and manner in which Webber chose to announce it appeared to catch many of Red Bull's 250-plus-member team unaware.

A statement was published on Webber's official website just hours before he was due at Silverstone Circuit for this weekend's British Grand Prix and he followed it up by tweeting a link accompanied by the words: "Happy boy!"

The Milton Keynes-based team released what appeared to be a hastily produced statement some hours later.

When Webber appeared for a pre-race news conference, suggestions were made to him that he had deliberately kept his team in the dark as retribution for some of the internal issues he has faced in recent years. It was a claim Webber denied.

He said he had informed Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, before the announcement, "which contractually I should do", said Webber, who lives near the Red Bull factory.

"Obviously, I will talk to the factory at some stage – they have been superb for me – but Porsche were very keen to make the announcement.

"I think I've helped the team: now they know they have got to make some decisions in the future."

Who will replace Webber is sure to generate much interest, given Red Bull's team's recent results. Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, is the early favourite. The Finn's contract with Lotus expires at the end of the year and he enjoys a blossoming friendship with Vettel.

Yet in a sport where money is so important, the Red Bull owner, Dietrich Mateschitz, can be sure to have plenty of offers from drivers keen to fill Webber's seat.

Since 2010, success has stuck to Red Bull as if the team were soaked in the sugary energy drink that provides the marque its name.

They have won the past three constructors' championships, Vettel has claimed the previous three drivers' titles and they are the employers of Adrian Newey, the man widely regarded as F1's most accomplished aerodynamicist.

Vettel, who conceded he learned of Webber's departure only Thursday morning, said he needed time to digest the news and added he does not expect to be involved in the decision regarding a new teammate.

"I'm not somebody who decides quickly; I can be a bit of a nightmare," Vettel said. "I don't want to be involved in every step because it's not my business, but it would be nice to be a part of the process."

He added that while his relationship with Raikkonen might work in the team's favour, that can change when friends become teammates. Plus, good relations mean little when drivers are on the track.

"It's always difficult to know how it will be," Vettel said.

"When you want to win, you have to beat the rest and it doesn't matter whether they are in another team or your own team."

Horner, who revealed Webber called him at 9am to break the news, said the factory-based staff were "disappointed that they had to read it on the internet", but added he felt his driver's retirement was fitting considering next year's extensive regulation changes.

He remained coy on future candidates for the seat, but accepted the team is in a fortunate position.

"We want a fast driver," Horner said. "We want to field the best two cars that we can next year.

"We are in a fortunate position that there are quite a few drivers who would like to drive a Red Bull car and we also have two talented young drivers that we have been developing at Toro Rosso," he added, referring to Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne.

"We don't have to rush into a decision and we will take our time to do so."

Raikkonen refused to rule out a move, adding that while things have gone "perfect" for him since his return the fact his deal with Lotus expires at the end of the season means his options are open.

"I have not made any decision for next year," the 33-year-old driver said. "I can do whatever I want because I don't have a contract."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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