Mark Webber: Depth in Formula 1 drivers has 'never been weaker'

By Ben CroucherBBC Sport
Mark Webber
Mark Webber drove in Formula 1 from 2002-13, winning nine races

Ex-Formula 1 driver Mark Webber says the strength in depth on the current grid is the lowest it has ever been.

The Australian, who retired in 2013, feels the number of 'pay drivers', such as Sauber's Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson, is not good for the sport.

"These guys are on a phenomenal level but the depth has never been weaker," Webber told BBC Radio 5 live.

"We need to get the calibre that we have at the front of the grid. We need more depth and the cars to be faster."

Pay drivers bring sponsorship to secure a seat in order to help their team reach its annual budget.

Webber added: "If you go from the top 10 back, there are a lot of pay drivers. This is not good.

"The physical components are the lowest it's ever been. It's like a rugby tackle but 30% softer."

'Like a fighter pilot flying British Airways'

When Webber entered F1 in 2002, the cars were near their fastest and physically demanding to handle with V10 engines and refuelling allowed.

A series of changes in recent years has taken the sport down a slower, environmentally-friendly path with a raft of drivers aids to make overtaking easier.

"The drivers want cars that are more demanding," says Webber.

"It's a bit like being an F-18 fighter pilot but flying for British Airways. They're within their comfort zone, pacing races. It's frustrating.

"F1 should be the pinnacle. It should be by far the fastest through the corners, physical on the drivers and things where the drivers are the gladiators again.

"The car still needs to be something the fans have never seen anything like before. There's so many categories which are close to them now."

'Closed cockpits are inevitable'

Justin Wilson
The late Justin Wilson was Mark Webber's team-mate at Jaguar for the last five races of the 2003 F1 season

Following the death of British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson last month, calls for closed cockpits in single-seaters have increased.

Governing body the FIA has been looking into various methods to provide better protection for drivers' heads since Felipe Massa, then driving for Ferrari, was hit on the helmet by a bouncing spring during qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.

Cockpits enclosed by a fighter jet-style canopy had been considered, but were dismissed because of concerns about the strength of the cover.

F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July nine months after suffering serious head injuries in a collision with a recovery vehicle in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.

The deaths of the Frenchman and Wilson, who competed in F1 for Minardi and Jaguar in 2003, have brought the issue of open cockpits into question once again.

Webber has joined a number of current drivers who feel it is time to offer greater protection to drivers' heads.

"I am a purist but I'd like to see them closed. They're delaying the inevitable now. It's going to come," he said.

"In 10 years it probably will be there so let's just bring it forward and find a way that is elegant and safe for extraction.

"There's enough experts to make that happen."

Hamilton is 'a bit box office'

Hamilton cruises to Italian GP win

Lewis Hamilton's victory in Sunday's Italian Grand Prix extended his lead at the top of the drivers' standings to 53 points over Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.

Despite his dominance, the two-time world champion has been criticised for attending celebrity events such as the MTV video awards in Los Angeles.

Is Hamilton being too flamboyant for his own good or is his character just what the sport needs?

"You can be cool," says Webber. "David Beckham, Usain Bolt, Valentino Rossi - they're all different characters. Lewis is different in his own way.

"Lewis sees himself as a brand. He wants to be marketable and he's a little bit box office.

"Don't underestimate his penetration in the American market too."

Rosberg cannot 'hug his teddy'

Nico Rosberg
Nico Rosberg retired from Sunday's Italian Grand Prix three laps from the finish

Two fast drivers in the quickest car. One has a slight edge over the other. Both are fighting it out for the world championship until the season finale in Abu Dhabi.

For Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in 2014, read Sebastian Vettel and Webber in 2010. Germany's Vettel pipped his Red Bull team-mate to the drivers' championship and proceeded to enjoy a dominant run of four consecutive world titles.

With Rosberg off the pace of Hamilton this season, just as Webber was compared to Vettel in 2011, the Australian feels the off-season this winter will be crucial for Rosberg to regroup.

"That's why the first world championship is very important," says Webber. "My weakest year was the year after and Nico is going through that now.

"I led the championship for a huge part of 2010 before Seb got on a roll at the back end.

"Nico can come through this period but now there's no time to take a break. The races are every fortnight - bang, bang, bang.

"It's not like tennis or golf where you can miss a tournament and go hug your teddy. You've got to keep pressing on.

"This winter will be big for Nico."

Button should try something different

Jenson Button
Jenson Button has scored just six points since McLaren switched to Honda engines in 2015

For the second season in a row, Jenson Button's future in the sport remains uncertain.

The 2009 world champion has a contract with McLaren for 2016 - but the team have the choice whether to exercise this option.

Button, 35, wants his future to be finalised in the next few weeks, but with the McLaren struggling at the back of the field, Webber feels a change of scenery could do the Briton good.

"To know he's going into a race and has no chance is mentally very difficult," said Webber.

"I'd love to see him try something different, try sportscars.

"I get frustrated watching his situation. I want to see him in a competitive car but is that going to happen next year? Unlikely.

"JB, the type of guy he is, gutsy and a dark horse, he would love the environment where it's a little less tense."