Heading into the season’s last race in 2010 at Abu Dhabi, Fernando Alonso was on the verge of his third world championship (in his first season with Ferrari). On the other hand, seasoned pro Mark Webber had driven more consistently and successfully than his brash young teammate rookie Sebastian Vettel– who was a surprise runner up in the 2009 season. Webber was on the verge of his first World Championship, and only Alonso stood in his way.
Vettel, meanwhile, was a longshot- entering the race in 3rd position. Though he was the in-form driver, he had demonstrated over two years with Red Bull by now that he was far from the finished product that his idol Schumacher was. Maybe, in a year, he’d be ready to challenge more consistently, and even become World Champion. He was only 23 after all.
In a matter of one race, the careers of Alonso and Webber were stalled indefinitely.
Vettel pulled off a Houdini, much like Raikkonen had done back in 2007 over a bewildered Hamilton. The young German was the youngest ever World Champion, and was crowned at Abu Dhabi amidst mad celebrations in 2010. Alonso couldn’t believe his luck.
Webber, the guy who had called Vettel a suicidal hothead only two seasons ago, was now a has-been. He knew, more than anybody else, that it was to be his final chance. His first and last shot at a title.
Much like Felipe Massa in 2008, who thought he had sensationally won it in Brazil before a slowing Piquet let Hamilton through to get that point. It was heartbreaking to see Massa not win the title, and even more heartbreaking to see that he never recovered from that shock. He was never the same driver again.
No. 2 drivers rarely enjoy a dominating season, and only stand a chance to challenge once their ‘favored’ partners are indisposed or fired or both. Massa challenged admirably in 2008 after Raikkonen left for greener (brown) pastures, and even Eddie Irvine had challenged briefly for Ferrari back in 1999- heading into the season’s final race at Japan leading by 4 points over Hakkinen.
After these opportunities, the no. 2s are never the same again. Barrichello managed the odd runner-up spot behind Schumacher in the Championships too, but was never a real contender.Mark Webber, now in his final season in F1, is now one of the most successful no. 2s of all time. Like Barrichello, he has been a part of a triple-World Champion team, aiding the best driver of an era (German, too).
In the same period as Vettel (33 wins, 41 poles and 56 podiums), Webber has been a rock for Red Bull- and has won 9 GPs, managed 11 poles and 36 (the important number) podium finishes. 36 podium finishes is admirable, for any driver in any era.
Webber has been a very good driver, by all standards. He has only been shown to be ordinary by a superhuman partner, and must consider himself fortunate to be a valuable part of historic Ferrari-style team dominance. Deep within, of course, like any competitor, Webber must have wished he was the no. 1 driver for his team- but by the time he had joined Red Bull, he was already in his 30s, without many wins to speak of. He had always been the ideal journeyman, reliable and efficient. He had been a great heir no. 2 to legendary no.2s Barrichello and Coulthard.
The cars do make their drivers look greater than they are, but the same could be argued for Schumacher in ’02 and ’04, Senna for ’88 and ’89. They came through to drive the cars they eventually did, because they had shown their mettle in lesser teams- much like Alonso had for Minardi and Vettel for Toro Rosso before joining the giants. The same applies to the no.2s. Irvine would have never stood a chance in 1999 if not for the invincible Ferraris and Schumacher’s broken leg, Barrichello wouldn’t have had so many wins or podiums either.