Mark Webber is in great company; he is one of only four Australians to win a Grand Prix in motorsport’s elite category of Formula 1, and the only one with two trophies in the cabinet from the sport’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’, the illustrious Monaco Grand Prix. In total the boy from Queanbeyan achieved nine wins, 42 podiums, 13 pole positions and 19 fastest laps during a remarkable 12 year career before returning to sports car racing with Porsche in 2013.
In his new book Aussie Grit, the much anticipated tell-all, Webber recounts his story in his own words and as you’d expect from the candid racer, he doesn’t hold back; delivering an honest and insightful account of his life in the fast lane. You can read our review of Aussie Grit by clicking here.
The six-foot tall Australian has never looked more relaxed than he does back on home soil when we meet at his hotel towards the end of his ten-day promotional tour. I am lucky enough to also meet his partner and manager Ann Neal, credited as the ‘driving force’ behind his spectacular career. I mention I have recently read lots of nice things about her and she smiles as she warmly puts her arm around my shoulder. They say that behind every great man is a great woman, and this pair make a formidable duo.
Webber is very pleased with the book but admits he was not initially excited about writing it.
“It’s hard to get excited about your own journey because I don’t need to explain it to myself because I’ve done it,” he says.
Working with his ghost-writer Stuart Sykes, he found it “quite interesting” once they got the pace going and built up some momentum, but it was not until the final product was complete that he was satisfied.
“Even in script and A4 form, you’re like ‘Yeah okay it’s still not doing it for me’, and then when you see it finally done, I was very happy with it and very proud.
“There’s not much else we could probably get in there, it was just a real honest account of how I got through and the journey, and then how I went through my racing.”
We start by dealing with the elephant in the room because you cannot speak to Mark Webber and not discuss the infamous ‘Multi 21’ incident. At the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix tension between Red Bull’s ‘number two’ driver and teammate Sebastian Vettel reached boiling point after the team delivered a coded message for the drivers to hold station, a message which Vettel ignored as he forced his way past Webber for victory.
It features as the first chapter in his book and it is a good place for us to start. I have watched the footage countless times and I always wondered why he never turned his engine back up and fought back when challenged, and he writes that it “never occurred” to him to do so. Was it shock or anger that stopped him from reacting on instinct to race?
“Early in the race because I got in the lead through a good tyre call going from wet tyres to dry tyres, and then the subsequent pit stops from there basically we were doing everything we [the team] could to get Sebastian away from the Mercedes cars. I was leading and I was in a pretty good position controlling the race, and I could react and lift the pace if I needed to,” he recalls.
“So when the pit stops came up it was like ‘Okay we’re not going to give you the best pit stop lap but we need to give it to Seb’, to sort of undercut and get away from the Mercedes’. And obviously it turned out at the last stop that [it] even then became clear that it was going to be a very tight race between ourselves. But knowing that the race was going to be called off, it wasn’t a bad thing that I knew ‘Okay they’re giving him priority at the stops’, so they’re giving him the fastest race time if you like, but now the stops were done. Knowing that at the end, the race will probably be shut down and then we can have a bit of a formation fly into the end. That was how it was probably supposed to turn out.
“Even though we did turn everything down, that’s probably my only regret; I should’ve turned the engine and a few things back up, but I didn’t.”
“So I was then in a position where I knew he had fresher tyres in the last stint, [knowing] also deep down it’s going to be quite hard to react now to his pace. Even though we did turn everything down, that’s probably my only regret; I should’ve turned the engine and a few things back up, but I didn’t. I couldn’t have really fought him that much harder.
“When I was letting him through it was a pretty hard battle actually; still we only touched once in our whole career [at Turkey in 2009], and if we touched again there I still think it was something which as a racing driver ultimately you don’t like, even given what was going on. To touch each other and crash, then obviously to give the team zero, to give them nothing and give Mercedes everything would have been pretty hard for us. So I couldn’t have raced him much harder; and I think the only thing I probably could have done was turn the engine back up. But I think, as you say, mentally I was so ‘how are we in this situation, what are we doing?’ Yeah, it wasn’t great.”
Much media attention has been given to sensational comments in the book where the straight-shooting Australian says his former teammate behaved like a “spoilt brat” and how “he would throw his toys out of the pram from time to time when he didn’t get his own way”.
However justice has not been given to how respectful and fair Webber was; he even went as far as to write that the young German was “a better all-round F1 driver” than he ever was.
But after more than a decade in the sport he has been around long enough to know how it all works, noting the media are “not going to grab the positive stories”.
He continues: “That’s what I spoke to Sebastian about when I went to see him in Monaco [in May] and he knows that as well; he knows how the media works.
“I did feel he didn’t handle certain things that well because, as I explained in the book, he was young and on this rocket ship of a success and trying to handle that wasn’t easy. He said certainly there are things he could have done differently as well. He was young and I was at the end of my career; he was at the start and it was very different how we saw things so I think I had absolutely wanted it to be how I felt towards Sebastian at the time, and also how I feel towards him now which is obviously very different.”
Rivalries between teammates are nothing new in Formula 1; the sport has delivered some intense battles: Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at McLaren, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet at Williams, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, more recently Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg at Mercedes – and of course Vettel and Webber. But can drivers in the sport be anything other than rivals? Formula 1 really is not a team sport in the true sense.
“No, it’s not [a team sport]. I think you can when you’re like Jenson [Button] and Fernando [Alonso] at the moment [at McLaren], when you’re trying to help a team come to reach its fruition and get the results and mature into a position of success, that you’re absolutely helping each other; pretty much like Seb and I did in 2009 and the start of ’10.
“Then all of a sudden it was like ‘Shit!’, we’re out the front together and things change because now we’re winning and obviously there can be only one winner. The dynamics change very quickly when the results go to that last point of actually getting to the podium or getting wins. When you’re trying to develop and work together and get the team together the difference between 12th and 8th or 9th, the relationship between teammates is actually a lot calmer. But when you go for the bigger prizes later on, all those cases you just mentioned, they were all fighting for World Championships and that’s where tension starts.”
Behind all the glitz and glamour of Formula 1, Webber writes of discovering a “darker side” to the sport and seeing first-hand how intensely political it is, something he was unaware of when racing for the lower-ranked teams.
“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors [in Formula 1]. There’s the commercial side of it and you just think ‘wow’ it’s not as I probably expected it to be in some cases.”
But in general, Webber says, the positives far outweighed the negatives.
“That’s why I competed so long. I loved working with people like Adrian Newey [former Red Bull Technical Director] and some of the engineers and mechanics, I mean that was sensational. I enjoyed that; and driving on the hardest tracks in the world in the quickest cars still outweighed me doing the job.
“But there’s things like you say, the media side, the politics: ‘Oh, we need you to say this because of this’ and ‘This is going to help us down the line’’, and ‘With the FIA we need you to do this.’ And it’s just like ‘Wow!’. The drivers are a big beacon; obviously we’re a big media outlet [and] the driver has to be told what to say in some cases.”
All that aside, he says it is what he expected and he understood it would be a very different environment from what he was previously used to.
“The discipline you’ve got to show and all those type of things [are what] I want with a category like Formula 1. It should be the pinnacle; it has to be that you’ve got to be tested very, very hard. You’re working with the best and you want to be one of the best, if not the best driver, so you’re going to be tested in all areas. It’s not a 5K fun run around the block; it’s going to be very, very intense. So it is what I expected in a lot of areas.”
After saying goodbye to Formula 1 in 2013, Webber returned to sports car racing last year to compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche.
“At this age it’s what I want to do,” he continues. “I think if I was 25 and doing this category I’d still be a bit disappointed I didn’t race in F1; so F1 was very, very good and perfect for what I wanted to do for a huge majority of my career. So I think this is now perfect because of this stage in my career.”
Webber admits there is “a bit less scrutiny” in this class of motorsport and it is definitely less political, but he is careful not to draw comparisons with Formula 1.
“It’s not perfect because it’s better than F1, when most of my career I wanted to race in F1 and that’s what I aspired to and that’s what I got out of bed every day for. Now I’m in a position where it’s a bit less intense, which is good because that’s what I want and that’s what I’m happy to sign up for.
“I’m doing eight races, I’m working with a sensational manufacturer; they go about racing in a way which is very much connected to race track to street cars, it’s all very clear. There’s a very, very basic and clear agenda to why they go racing.”
This new chapter in his career offers a different team dynamic to what he is used to in Formula 1.
“F1 is very much an individual sport which again I enjoyed that, I wanted that individual side. I thrived off that, I loved that individual component.”
“Do I want to race sports cars for my whole career? No I don’t. Do I want to do it now? Yes I do.”
“And having that team component and actually me being able to contribute in a way where I can use my experience to help now the boot’s on the other foot, I’m trying to help some of these younger guys coming through which I really enjoy doing.”
When asked if we can expect a Michael Schumacher-esque return to Formula 1 for Mark Webber he answers without hesitation: “No. Definitely not. 100% not.”
Last year Porsche’s new recruit returned to Le Mans for the first time since two terrifying accidents with Mercedes in 1999 which saw his car become airborne twice. Was the return unnerving for Webber, or did he feel he had some unfinished business?
“Overall I still [don’t have] the most positive memories of that track obviously, because they were very nasty accidents. And then last year going back there to compete, thankfully it was almost like a different lifetime so that was good. I could go back in a different environment [with] much more composure, obviously a very, very experienced driver. I was very good at parking some of the mental demons; parking those and going out and just focusing on the job. When you’re 23/22 it’s probably harder to do that; as an experienced hand it was much easier to do that.”
Last year was also the first time Porsche competed in the legendary race since 1998 and it has been an eventful and successful two years for the team.
“Last year we nearly won the race; we retired in the lead with 22 hours on the clock and didn’t get to the end, which was tough on the team. And this year was the first time I felt great about getting a good result there; the team had a one-two, the sister car won the race [and] we finished second.
“It would have been the cherry on the cake of course to win the race with our car, but [teammates] Timo [Bernhard] and Brendan [Hartley] were probably cut up a sniff more because they don’t have the Monaco podiums or the wins.
“I still want to win with Porsche at Le Mans; that would be a great, great thing to achieve but also I’m very proud of the trophy cabinet that I already have and the results I have in F1. It was a great result this year. We never dreamt of really getting a one-two with Porsche and we’re well ahead of the curve there. I really enjoy helping the team contribute to those results.”
In 2003 the Mark Webber Challenge, inspired by his love of fitness and the great outdoors, was launched. Raising money for the Mark Webber Foundation which supports numerous Australian charities, it is a multi-disciplined event formerly held in Tasmania and designed to push competitors outside their comfort zone.
Webber says, “I love seeing people test themselves, also not exactly knowing what they’re in for is quite a reward to see how they go through that.”
The event was last held in 2013 and he is keen to relaunch it: “I’ll probably look at this again in some way; where I have it I’m not sure, which part of the country or even if it is in Australia, I could have it in Europe as well. But it will be along the Aussie Grit lines. We might have an Aussie Grit series or some Aussie Grit type events. That’s something that I am keeping an eye on; and of course I love my mountain bike and I love the outdoors, I love running and the wilderness. I still enjoy doing that myself so I think it’s not over and it’s something I got a lot out of in the past.”
Looking back on his valiant 12 year career in Formula 1 and all his achievements, the ever humble Australian admits there are “lots of things” he would do differently if he had his time over.
“I think it’s natural that you look back at a long career and say did you get everything right and perfect? Of course not.”
“I think I would loved to have finished a lot more races, some were in my hands, and some were out of my hands with technical problems. Should I have gone to Renault instead of Williams? Yeah, maybe I would have won earlier.
“But look this is part of the journey; it’s part of the test, it’s part of you making decisions on the fly. Often happened in the cockpit too, there were sometimes some really inspired decisions, and great composure gave you good results on the day. [And] sometimes you got that wrong.”
Ultimately he is comfortable with his legacy; his tenacious single-mindedness to dare to dream and strive to reach the absolute pinnacle of motorsport paid off.
“In the end the best decision I did was to have the dream and the ambition to leave Australia and go and take it all on. The regrets are incredibly minimal, that’s for sure.”
Images via Reddit, Red Bull Content Pool