Mark Webber: 'I love taking myself to the edge. But now I must deliver'

A legacy of Aussie glory in F1 is driving the new Williams man. Nick Townsend meets a talent bearing the burden of 'the next Schumacher' tag
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The Independent Online

So lean a master butcher would have trouble detecting an ounce of fat, Mark Webber exemplifies all that makes the British male envious of his Australian counterpart as he strides through his solid, square, red-brick pile in a village outside Aylesbury.

So lean a master butcher would have trouble detecting an ounce of fat, Mark Webber exemplifies all that makes the British male envious of his Australian counterpart as he strides through his solid, square, red-brick pile in a village outside Aylesbury.

You wouldn't want to find yourself competing with this ultra-fit 28-year-old at a speed-dating event. The suspicion is that the élite of Formula One won't relish taking him on at their own speed game, either. Not now that the driver, who carries the epithet of "the next Michael Schumacher" as an inspiration rather than a burden to bear, at last has the No 1 seat in a car - a BMW-Williams - that appears likely to match his abilities.

It is not so much what Webber has achieved so far in an F1 career which began 50 races and three years ago with a fifth position in the Australian Grand Prix - still his best placing - that encourages that belief. It is more what he has promised in races when many experienced judges noted that he had taken his Jaguar to finishing positions which, in technical terms, it simply did not merit.

His new team chief, Frank Williams, talks of Webber's "tenacity, determination and motivation" as well as his talent as the explanation for the outlay of the reported £36m it required to inveigle the driver from Jaguar. If that sounds like major money, it's not in F1. Times are hard, or relatively so, for Williams, who has sold his private jet and whose team could not continue to afford Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya - at least according to Patrick Head, the team's co-owner and technical director.

Some sceptics will regard Webber and his German team-mate, Nick Heidfeld, as simply the cheap option. Williams would prefer to regard Webber's signing as the tapping of a well which may just prove to be a gusher in years to come. Either way, the Aussie appreciates that he has progressed to a point where, from next Sunday's season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, anything much less than a podium finish will be perceived as failure.

"I'm at the base camp of Everest and I've got a long way to climb," Webber concurs. "I've got a lot to prove, not least to myself, and I can't bloody wait to get out there and put my neck on the line. I feel I've got a good six- or seven-year career, hopefully, ahead of me and, if I'm good enough, I'd like to, one day, be world champion - but that's a long way away yet."

He adds: "I put a massive amount of pressure on myself. I know I need to keep driving and delivering as I have done in the last few seasons, even though, in the bigger picture, the results weren't that spectacular. But I believe that, with what I had, I did a pretty reasonable job. Now, with Williams, podiums are what we have to be aiming for, week in, week out.

"I've had a few years in F1 and still haven't achieved anything. Now I've secured a Williams drive, which is amazing considering their history in the sport. Some of their drivers are real heroes of mine: Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, guys like that. It's incredible. But it's nothing until you go there and deliver. Now the stakes are much higher and there's plenty of people ready to shoot you down."

Geography has historically limited Australian domination, of this one sphere of sporting endeavour at least. The last Aussie to secure a world championship was Alan Jones in 1980. Before that it was the three-times winner Jack Brabham. "You can have the odd victory here and there," Webber says, "but you're just another name, aren't you? Forty or 50 people have done that. But I'd love to be able to achieve what Alan and Jack did. If you really do achieve that, it's something that's meaningful."

The English formality of Old Buckinghamshire, accentuated by the mournful calls of the peacocks he owns, is a far cry, so to speak, from the New South Wales bush town of Queanbeyan, where the F1 driver was raised with the scent of engine fuel permanently teasing his nostrils. His father, Alan, ran a motorcycle dealership for 20 years. His parents still run the local petrol station started by his grandfather.

Fitness is a religion to him: cycling, running, swimming, gym work, anything to release those endorphins. "I love it. I train every day, and I get frustrated if I don't. Ann [his long-time partner] will tell you that there are times I'll bite her head off. When I do, she'll say, 'Go and have a bloody workout'. When I come back, I'm a different person."

To the public gaze, however, he is rarely anything less than articulate, personable and well-rounded - characteristics not always associated with élite sportsmen - and a man, you sense, who could have enjoyed an enriching career, even if F1 hadn't provided the magnetic force it has. "There's a lot of things about F1 I don't enjoy, in terms of the groupies and the people you get around you because it represents fame and fortune," he says. "I suppose women are attracted by the danger side of the sport. Ann and I have a bit of a laugh about it. I know how shallow it is. But I don't need a stunning young lady to tell me how awesome I am. That kind of stuff does my head in. What I get off on is driving the fastest cars in the world. I love taking myself to the edge."

On the day we speak, he has just flown in from Munich. "I read on the way over that Mourinho's been mouthing off again," says Webber of the Chelsea manager's latest sermon to his disciples. No myopic Aussie then? "I'm a massive sports fan," he says. "Recently, I went cycling with Lance Armstrong. To hang out in Texas with him for a few days and to get to know him, albeit briefly, as an individual was a great experience. Cancer's been pretty tough on my family - my grandparents suffered from it - so it was good for me to see what Lance has come through."

It was cancer, particularly in children, that stimulated him to inaugurate the Mark Webber Challenge, a 10-day ironman sponsored event back home in Australia. "I decided to try to give something back to the Australian community; especially to the kids suffering from cancer. It was an absolute grueller. I had a lot of sportsmen and women join me, including Cathy Freeman and Steve Waugh."

Apprenticeship to that kind of celebrity has been a daunting journey, from inauspicious beginnings in Australian junior karting, through Formula Ford, to being named the official works Mercedes junior driver, progressing to the Formula 3000 series, before becoming Benetton's F1 test and reserve driver in 2001. The following year, he made his grand prix debut with Minardi, and then joined Jaguar. "It was a slow road at the start," he says. "Mercedes gave me a huge leg-up, but in '99 it looked like my F1 career was going nowhere. I looked like being becalmed, but just managed to get some wind up under the sails."

It was that year, while competing in the Le Mans 24-hour race, that he had "a monster shunt". His Mercedes became airborne and Webber admits: "I really thought I was looking down both barrels." He emerged unscathed, as he did from a smash in the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2003. "When you come through it, in an unhealthy way you get even more confidence. When you get strapped into the car and put your helmet on and your blood's surging through your veins, you can feel invincible, and that can be dangerous in our sport."

The other danger in grand prix racing, in a different sense, is what effect the continued domination of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher will have on the sport. "As a massive F1 fan, I wish it wasn't like that," says Webber. "I wish there were four or five guys out there competing for the championship, not one. All I hope is when it goes through another uncompetitive phase, it's me who's boring everyone.

"If Schumacher drove a Minardi he wouldn't win. He wouldn't get on the podium. He might get a bit more out of it, and be more consistent, because he is an absolute legend in the sport. It'll change, and in 20, 30 years, we'll look back and say, 'That bloody Schumacher bloke, he won five championships in a row. That must have been a joke. Who else was there?' As we know, he went through some tough championships as well as some easy ones."

And this season's championship, mindful that Williams last won one in 1997 and last season won only one grand prix? Surely Schumacher's pre-eminence will continue while there is such an emphasis on the machine? "It's one of the things that does frustrate me about our sport," Webber agrees. "As my dad says, 'You can't ride a donkey in the Melbourne Cup. You need a bloody good racehorse.' In F1 you need a car that's going to deliver for you. It's 80 per cent car, 20 per cent driver. What you can say is that the best drivers find the best seats. A crap driver would never drive for Ferrari, or Williams..."

He adds: "I've been very lucky. Now it would be a shocking waste not to deliver. It's going to be a great journey. I plan to enjoy it and give absolutely everything. Play hard. Play fair. And look back with no regrets." Last week, in Valencia, he completed a 154-lap practice session. In doing so, he produced some of the best lap times.

Maybe, just maybe, we are witnessing yet another wizard of Oz, this one capable of usurping Schumacher's territory. Next Sunday will provide the first vital clues.


Mark Webber

Born: 27 August 1976, Queanbeyan, NSW.

Formula One career: debut for Minardi in Melbourne, 2002. Joined Jaguar in 2003. Signed by BMW-Williams for 2005. Finished 31 races of the 50 he has started. Has total of 26 points (no podiums as yet). Best season, 2003: 17 points (9th overall).

Career progression: won New South Wales karting title in 1993. Won the 1996 Formula Ford Festival. Entered British F3 series but struggled for funding. Joined Mercedes-Benz sportscar team in 1998, and survived two spectacular crashes at Le Mans in 1999. Third in Formula 3000 championship in 2000, and tested with Benetton F1 team. Second in Formula 3000 in 2001. Signed by Minardi in 2002.