It being his first Formula 1 Grand Prix since his retirement from the series, Mark Webber was always going to be a man in hot demand at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix.
Of course, his farewell season is probably best (or worst) remembered for the breakdown in the relationship with Sebastian Vettel, who now finds himself paired alongside another Aussie in the form of Daniel Ricciardo.
And while Webber was keen to pay the Australian Grand Prix Corporation back for the support it had given him over the years, the nine-time Grand Prix winner is also taking on another challenge: headlining Porsche’s return to the LMP1 class in the World Endurance Championship.
While he may have been an elder statesman in Formula 1, Webber – despite having competed in sports cars in the late 1990s – is still very green when it comes to the intricacies of endurance racing.
But the opportunity to tie himself to one of the most successful motorsport brands in the world was simply too good to refuse, as he told RichardsF1.com in this exclusive interview…
You formally joined Porsche straight after last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix. How have you settled into the new environment and what have been the early experiences for you in its brand new LMP1 design?
My switch to Porsche has been very enjoyable, and I’ve been welcomed into the family. [Being] endurance racing, they’re like Formula 1 cars with roofs and the next-quickest category to Formula 1. So that was very appealing to me. We’ve been doing a lot of testing in the Middle East and Portugal before the first race at Silverstone in April, followed by the Spa-Francorchamps round in May, and then the big one at Le Mans.
We’re learning as well. It’s a pretty aggressive learning curve for us and I’m really enjoying driving the car. It’s absolutely perfect adrenaline for me after Formula 1, and this is the next best category for me at a World Championship standard level.
Will you receive commercial support from Red Bull, given the team’s association with (Red Bull partner drivers) Neel Jani and Brendon Hartley?
Red Bull will be a personal sponsor for me, and that’s as far as I think it will go at this stage.
What is your sense of Porsche’s preparation to take it to Audi and Toyota in the LMP1 championship?
They haven’t been back for sixteen years, and bizarrely [as it may sound], we’re rookies because it’s such a brand new operation, new regulations and the like. Just because we have Porsche jackets on, it doesn’t mean we can roll up and deliver killer blows to everyone.
The respect for the race is huge; we know it’s a big undertaking to be competitive at Le Mans. You can be competitive for six hours, but come a few hours later, you might not be there and it’s game over. It’s a very hard race series to be competitive in and be there at the end.
Patience will be required for 2014, and if you look at the Le Mans race, it’s also about credibility – we will show that you can’t just rock up and win when you feel like it. It gives the event credibility, and gives the likes of Audi credibility as well.
We have a lot of work to do; inside the team, everyone is so hungry and they’ve been working very hard. There’s a respect and spirit in the racing deep within Porsche. That badge is so important to them, and with Le Mans being like a second home, they’re determined to do it.
Your early history with Le Mans is rather infamously tied to your backflips along the Mulsanne Straight with Mercedes, where the team was forced to withdraw from the event. In my ways, is your move back to the WEC taking your career full circle?
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.
I have always enjoyed driving there on the La Sarthe circuit. I liked the pit stops and the comaraderie with the drivers, driving at night – those were always enjoyable to me before I got into Formula 1. But my eye was on how to get into Formula 1; that was my dream.
To be able to wean off the adrenaline a little bit but still race in the LMP1 championship as Porsche comes back, it’s all perfect timing. I’m low on experience at Le Mans, and I’ll be learning at lot about that race. I’m genuinely looking forward to the experience and seeing how everything unfolds.