It was a fit, relaxed-looking and clearly very relieved Mark Webber who made a press call yesterday afternoon at the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit while launching a new program for teenagers.
Having called time on a twelve-year Formula 1 career to headline Porsche’s return to the World Endurance Championship, the Australian made a return home to launch Champion Edge, a program which aims to motivate young Australians to find their own formula for success in life by engaging in health and fitness. Yesterday’s activity involved he and 200 high school students running a lap of the Formula 1 circuit layout which the 22-car Grand Prix line-up will tackle over Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“Champion Edge is a program where we’re trying to target the 13-16 year olds and give them a bit more of a chance to lift the bar – in terms of physical health, self-esteem and mental health,” he told the assembled reporters at the start line.
“It’s a very challenging time for them; a lot of things come on the radar. Speaking of which, we were meant to have more kids along, but some of the teachers decided not to bring them because of the impending rain, and that’s exactly why you need programs like this to give kids the drive and motivation to succeed.”
Joined by Olympic athletes Steve Hooker, Lydia Lassila, Zoe Buckman and several of this year’s V8 Supercars Championship drivers, Webber looked tanned and clearly comfortable with his decision to quit F1, particularly after a 2013 season that was soured by a disintegrating relationship with his Red Bull Racing teammate, Sebastian Vettel.
“There’s no real difference [from this year to last],” he said, when asked about how he feels not racing here. “I might feel a little different when the lights go out on Sunday. It’s always nice to come back here to Australia for a bit of a break, and it’s one of the best sporting events Down Under. It’s a sensational event for Australia, and to have the best guys down here racing is great, and now it’s my turn to sit on the chair and watch it.
“I’m very happy with my decision [to retire].”
Webber’s seat at the championship-winning squad has been taken over by fellow Australian, Daniel Ricciardo, and – no doubt mindful of the psychological warfare that played out between Vettel and Webber – the local press seemed keen to see whether a needle still existed.
Ever honest, Webber’s patience seemed to wear thin quite quickly as questions persisted along this line, with his answers becoming increasingly clipped.
On advice for his replacement? “I have no advice for Daniel. He’s a big boy and has his head screwed on. He has a great team around him in terms of experience, and he’ll do well. This is one race of a long season, and he needs patience and you [the media] will need patience to help him get through some challenging times. He has the ability to go all the way to the top, but right now [given the team’s pre-season troubles] he will need plenty of patience.”
When pressed again on the same topic: “Nah, no advice.”
How will Daniel cope alongside a four-time World Champion teammate? “He’ll be fine. He’s 24 and if he’s not ready now, he never will be.”
On Red Bull Racing’s pre-season troubles: “Never underestimate Red Bull, mate.”
One area where he was particularly keen to talk – and to which the rest of the media should have taken our lead – was to concentrate on Webber’s future plans, which involve a move to front Porsche’s LMP1-class return to the FIA World Endurance Championship.
“I’ve really enjoyed the switch across to Porsche,” he told us.
“The eight races make it something of a diluted program, but they’re all at least six hours long and all really important. The Le Mans 24 Hours is the blue-ribbon event for us and I’m looking forward to it and being part of the program.
“It’s a great way to satisfy that racing urge and compete, not at level of Formula 1 but it’s the next best thing in terms of pace, professionalism and the quality of the drivers. It’s a great tonic for me to race at this old age!”
And with that, he and his assembled throng of school kids were off for their run, although unfortunately a brief downpour did put a dampener on the lap.
Image via Sydney Morning Herald